Kyle Lewis, Home Run Machine

Every season, there are a couple of hitters who go bonkers over a small sample size over the second half of the season. Because the season ended, there was no opportunity for the hitter to experience any sort of regression, and so we’re left with their bonkers performance to think about all off-season long. What could a full season the following year bring?! While there have been several players who fit this mold this season, Kyle Lewis is the most recent example.

The 11th overall pick of the 2016 draft was ranked as the ninth best Mariners prospect heading into the season. But there was a virtual asterisk here because of an ACL tear he suffered just a month after his pro debut. While I don’t normally copy and paste a prospect’s entire blurb, nearly all of it is important to remind ourselves of when reviewing his weak minor league offensive output:

We still know less about Lewis than is typical of a 23-year-old prospect, largely due to the significant time he missed because of a 2016 ACL tear suffered just a month after his pro debut. The injury washed away the rest of 2016 and essentially all of 2017, as a visibly hobbled Lewis stopped and started baseball activity several times due to ongoing issues with the knee. He even began 2018 with a month-long stay on the injured list because he wasn’t a full go when spring training began. He was healthy for the rest of 2018 but his performance was mixed, and his tools beneath where they were in college. He was clearly less explosive than most of his peers at the Futures Game were, but of course at that point he had only been playing healthy, regular baseball for about two months.

This spring, the physical ability that had scouts calling Lewis the most talented prospect on Cape Cod — and that drove him to near the top of 2016 draft boards — has returned. That injured right knee looks healthy as it twists and bends through contact.

The key takeaway here is that Lewis’s results have clearly been impacted by that knee injury, so it would be wrong to look at his mid-.100 ISO marks and string of 11.1% HR/FB rates in the minors and ignore him. It would certainly be understandable if he needed time to get back to the hitter he was in college, and perhaps his outburst with the Mariners is confirmation that the time has come.

Aside from simply getting healthy, we recently learned from Jake Mailhot’s post that Lewis has also made adjustments to his swing to allow him to better access his power. I love when there is actually a story behind the breakout, as it makes it easier to believe the change in performance is real.

As a reminder, heading into Sunday’s game, Lewis has blasted six homers over just 45 at-bats. He had only hit ten fly balls, so 60% of those have jumped over the wall! Though the sample size is minuscule, let’s take a look at his relevant Statcast metrics just for fun:

Statcast Metrics
Name FB EV (MPH) Barrels/FB* Avg FB Distance (ft)
Kyle Lewis 105.7 100.0% 411
League Avg 92.0 22.5% 324
*Statcast classifies 4 of his balls as line drives that out FG page classifies as fly balls (FG fly balls = 10, Statcast fly balls = 6)

Holy guacamole. It’s not like Lewis is just barely scraping the wall with those dingers. He’s absolutely destroying those flies. Note that since Statcast has only classified six of his batted balls as flies, he sports a 100% barrel rate and a 100% HR/FB rate (versus just 60% on our page). Obviously, this is the tiniest of sample size, so it would be silly to extrapolate these numbers and automatically expect a monstrous performance in 2020. However, you can’t fake this kind of exit velocity and batted ball distance. You don’t see Dee Gordon or Billy Hamilton enjoying 45-at-bat stretches like this!

So the power, while obviously not sustainable at this specific level (no one is a true talent .467 ISO or 60%/100% HR/FB rate guy, of course), given the background info we have here on Lewis, it’s quite possible that he’s significantly better than his minor league numbers. Maybe he’s now a true talent 20%-25% HR/FB rate guy. That makes him playable in even shallow mixed leagues and a nice get in keeper leagues.

With great power comes a great flaw, however, and that’s his contact skills. While he never struck out or posted a SwStk% in the minors at alarming rates, he did just post a strikeout rate just below 30% at Double-A, somewhat supported by a 14.8% SwStk%. Again, it’s only been 45 at-bats, but a 34.7% strikeout rate and 17.4% is enough to worry that he’s kinda just swinging as hard as he can with his eyes closed. The low walk rate helps support that theory, except that his Swing% is fairly average. So he’s not just swinging hard at everything and hoping good things happen.

Not to be glossed over is that he skipped Triple-A. While I’m fine betting on a pitcher who skipped Triple-A, I’m far more skeptical of a hitter performing at a high level who never recorded a plate appearance at the highest level in the minors. Despite the power show, I think the small sample walk and strikeout numbers help validate that maybe he’s not quite ready to produce at a high level in the Majors. He has shown the ability to draw walks in the minors, so this could be just the excitement of wanting to hit in his first taste of the big leagues.

Looking toward next year, his potential and upside looks a lot higher than it was thought to be heading into the season. He’ll be a fascinating guy to follow during spring training and it’ll be difficult to both project him and value him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he began the season at Triple-A or won a starting job in the outfield. Whenever he earns that starting job, is he just another Randal Grichuk, or something more?

Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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“Every season, there are a couple of hitters who go bonkers over a small sample size over the second half of the season.”

This comment reminds me of Teoscar Hernandez and Christian Villanueva in Aug/Sept 2017.