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Avoiding the looming Kyle Lewis regression

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Kyle Lewis is hurtling along a tight-rope of success.

MLB: JUL 25 Mariners at Astros Photo by Juan DeLeon/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After a delectable 18-game debut in 2019, Kyle Lewis put himself on the map as a potential power-hitting staple for the Mariners rebuilding lineup. There were questions about the hit tool, but the package was exciting nonetheless. Fast-forward ten months and Lewis seems to have taken another step forward in his development. The swing-and-miss is still there, but tangible growth is evident.

The path back to prominence — even significance, for that matter — has been laborious. But here we are, out the other side, a potential star is born. His first round talent never wavered.

Lewis’s approach at the plate is all about comfort. The free-flinging arms and hip thrusts are less about mechanics and more about feeling his body and how it moves. His goal, ironically, is to get into a place of calm so he can handle whatever pitch comes his way. He’s shown the ability to handle just about anything thrown in 2020.

I spoke with him last year about his erratic, unsettled demeanor at the plate, and what purpose it serves.

“It’s all about feel, man,” Lewis said. “Ultimately, the goal is to get into a place where I can relax and focus. It all helps me get into position. I want to feel myself. That authority, confidence and owning the moment.”

Those quirks, Lewis said, put him in position to do damage. His eccentric manner at the plate may be what we see, but under the hood, Lewis has proven mature beyond his years in his approach. It’s Lewis’s adjustments at the plate that have led to the majority of his successes. Considered a dead-red pull hitter throughout his minor league career, 2020 has seen the second-year rookie adjust to a healthier barrage of breaking balls. After absolutely pummeling an opening day fastball from Justin Verlander 440 feet, pitchers are respecting the power, daring him to do damage against the softer stuff.

Breaking balls are up this season for Lewis from 33.8 percent in 2019 to 41.8 percent in 2020.

Breaking ball distribution from 2019 to 2020

Lewis has responded.

After hitting .354 on the 64 sliders he saw in 2019, Lewis has seen 57 of them this season, batting .538 thus far. He’s being far more selective too. Through ten games, the Mariners centerfielder has seen the fourth most pitches in all of baseball. Last season, Lewis swung at 36.6 percent of sliders outside of the strike zone. In 2020, that figure is a healthier 28.6 percent. Moreover, the sliders he’s hacking at inside the zone are finding the bat 76.6 percent of the time, besting his 72 percent from 2019.

Swing rate on pitch type from 2019-2020

Now, it should be noted Lewis is currently running a BABIP of .737. That’s due for massive regression, but given his performance thus far, it’s important to examine what’s real and what’s not, and what’s to be expected moving forward.

Taking breaking balls the other way has clearly been an emphasis early this season for Lewis. He’s refusing to sell out to get to his power, and it’s resulting in more balls in play. He’s hitting a lot of line drives (34.8 percent), and the ground balls he’s put in play have been stung.

His Pull% in 2019 at Arkansas was over 41 percent. His brief stay in Seattle last summer resulted in a Pull% of 30.2 percent. This season that measure is all the way down to 19 percent.

Kyle Lewis has the fifth lowest pull percentage in all of baseball this season.

His all-fields approach is impressive, no doubt, and it will be important should he hope to sustain his success moving forward.

Baseball is cyclical. It’s a series of adjustments and re-adjustments — a proverbial chess match of give and take. Lewis is still whiffing on breaking balls, but the eye test doesn’t lie. When he falls behind, he sits breaking ball. Numbers entirely aside, if a pitcher knows he’s sitting breaking ball, it wouldn’t be insane to throw one anyways. Pitchers will adapt to his approach and will soon likely tempt him with more elevated fastballs, especially deep in counts. It’ll be interesting to see if Lewis swivels back to hunting fastballs at that point. He’s struggled with pitches at the top of the zone this year, though it wasn’t as glaring a hole in his swing in 2019.

2019 Numbers
2020 numbers

Making contact in general for Lewis has always been a struggle. He struggled to punish pitches in the zone at Arkansas, and he’s struggled to do so in Seattle as well. He’d often swing under high heaters at AA, or over-correct and pound them into the dirt for ground balls. His 35-percent Whiff% ranks among the 5th percentile in MLB this season. Lewis ran a K-rate north of 29 percent in 2019 at Arkansas, so swing-and-miss isn’t unfamiliar territory.

Where Lewis has improved this season so far is laying off the junk. His O-Swing% (swings at pitches outside of the zone) on all pitches is down from 36 percent in 2019 to 24.5 percent in 2020. That is a very significant drop. He’s being more patient and selective, and it’s leading to better pitches to hit.

That being said, what is his philosophy right now? His Whiff% and K-percentages on pitches at the bottom of the zone are much lower. He’s clearly covering those zones in ways a typical power hitter would not. And that’s a good thing! But if it sacrifices the ability to turn and burn on a high heater or hanging breaking ball, is it worth it?

The fact of the matter is, Lewis’s value will likely never come in the form of dumping breaking balls over the second baseman’s head for singles; at least not for prolonged stretches. It’s okay to protect in two-strike counts, and he’s done so admirably, especially considering his strikeout totals. But Lewis has plus raw power in his bat, maybe more, and he’s shown the ability to get to it in-game. Ever since leaving the dinger vacuum that is Dickey-Stephens Park, everything he puts in the air goes into blastoff mode.

These charts don’t even include 2020, and if they had, those purple lines would actually be creeping higher.

In his MLB career, Lewis has hit 20 fly balls. 9 of those have left the ballpark. It’s a 45 percent HR/FB%. For perspective, if he were to retire today, Lewis would own the highest HR/FB% in the history of baseball for any and all players with at least 100 plate appearances. If it wasn’t obvious already, Lewis needs to focus on getting the ball in the air, so covering fastballs at the top of the zone will be paramount.

At the end of the day, what we’re seeing from Lewis is nothing short of extraordinary. The approach has clearly improved by just about any measure, regardless of the ever-present swing-and-miss in his game. He’s a legitimate power hitter in Major League Baseball. A year ago I might have guffawed at the idea of Lewis being a full-time regular in a championship team’s outfield. Today, that is not the case.

The gap between the floor and ceiling for Lewis is still pretty vast. At his worst, the Mariners may have themselves a Teoscar Hernandez type of player. A .240 hitter with good power and high strikeout totals that never quite puts it all together — a good bench bat for a championship team. At his best, Kyle Lewis may end up being a Preston Wilson kind of guy. Wilson was a career .265 hitter who pummeled a few 30 home run campaigns whilst still striking out 25 percent of the time. At his peak from 1999-2003, Wilson was a .269 hitter who averaged 28 home runs per year. If Lewis can find a way to consistently punish fastballs and continue his trend of spitting on big league breaking balls, the Mariners might just have that type of middle-of-the-order bat for the foreseeable future.