Writing about baseball right now is strange. We’re at the end of July, but have all the same small sample size qualifiers to offer that we would as if it were early April. The season’s going to be so short that it’s going to be hard to track trends at all. That goes for league-wide happenings and player-specific ones. It seems that the best plan is to step back and simply enjoy baseball as purely as one can, despite how it could be a fraught experience through every moment.
With that, I offer you the chance to enjoy the six games Kyle Lewis has played so far. If you’re not familiar, Lewis is a former 11th-overall pick by the Mariners who has fought his way back from a shredded knee that resulted from a home plate collision just a few games into his pro career. He was promoted to the majors last year from AA, skipping AAA entirely, and saw action in 18 games at the highest level last year, where he registered a 127 wRC+ with six homers. Lewis also registered only three walks to 29 strikeouts in 75 plate appearances. In all, he essentially performed as advertised: big power, few walks, big and breezy whiffs.
So far in 2020, Lewis has two bombs, three walks, and 10 strikeouts through 27 plate appearances. The plate discipline is what’s intriguing here.
Let’s be upfront before we dig in, though. Plate discipline is one of the hitting stats that stabilizes fastest… but it still takes at least a good month of plate appearances to really buy. Kyle Lewis’ MLB career to this point provides us about three-fourths of that, total, interrupted by an extended off-season. We shouldn’t be saying he’s one thing or another just yet, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider what he has offered us to this point, either. That said, it seems he’s already practicing a more discerning eye at the plate. He’s offering at fewer pitches early on this season. Swinging less is just generally good for almost every hitter. It’s one of those counterintuitive truths: swing less, hit more. By being more selective, you’re basically offering yourself more chances to hit the pitches you can get to.
The other really interesting thing here is that his chase rate, or O-swing percentage, is down a ton. The league average usually comes in at around 30%. So not only is Lewis swinging less in general, but he’s also swinging less at the least hittable pitches. If you’re shouting “But only six games!” and shaking your head, I hear you. Believe me, I hear you. Let’s peep this way-too-early heat map of his swings:
The bluer a spot is, the less Lewis is swinging at that part of the zone or outside it. He’s effectively shrugging at pitches down and away early in 2020 much more than he was in 2019. It’s a big reason he’s seeing 4.66 pitches per plate appearance early this year instead of just 4.06 like last year. Of note is how he’s performing in the shadow zone, the area right on the black or just off it that pitchers live for. Spinning it there makes it extremely difficult for a hitter to catch on plane and drive. It’s doubtful that Lewis’ heat map is so concentrated by the end of the year because few players’ are, but it’s hard to look at it for 2020 and not regard his approach as conscious. That’s especially true considering what the org’s Director of Player Development, Andy McKay, recently told David Laurila at FanGraphs.
|Season||Pitches seen||In shadow zone||Shadow zone swings|
He’s seeing about the same rate of pitches near the edges of the zone, and whiffing at them at the same frequency, but so far in 2020 he’s swinging at about eight percent less of those offerings. With sample sizes so small, it’s easy to think that’s not such a big deal. Plus, things happen fast in this game. Lewis’ results could look drastically different a week from now — a bad couple of games would put that shadow zone swing percentage right back at 2019’s level. So why harp on it?
Part of a hitter swinging less to give themselves a chance at hitting more means their strikeout rate can look inflated. As of publishing, Lewis’ stands at 37%, just about even with his 2019 debut. As the season goes on we could very reasonably see that sink down to much more palatable levels, though, as he catches up to pitches in the zone. We can just about bank on it, as maintaining his current strikeout rate would mean he’s one of the most whiff-prone hitters in the whole league. Add in what we know about aging curves — that hitters often come in at peak, and that plate discipline is one of the only things that can improve with age — and it’s a solid combo to project on. And “project” is the keyword here. We’re not extrapolating, because that’s a fool’s errand. But if we’re only given 60 games, and we’re already through 10% of them, a profile like this can bring appeal.
We’ve spent a lot of time talking about how Lewis hasn’t been swinging, but not so much on what can happen when he does. Let’s go back to his first game of the season against Justin Verlander and the Astros.
That’s a towering shot he ripped into the night at 110.9 mph off a fastball that came in humming at 95. It currently stands as the 13th-hardest hit ball in the majors this season. And Lewis also demonstrates a less thunderous moment there against Verlander, too. Compared to last year, he’s more relaxed and upright before coiling into his pitch. If you click through his Baseball Savant page, you’ll see that he’s even taken to offering a little pelvic wiggle instead of immediately being rigid. It might not be a big deal, but we know being relaxed before firing off the muscles used in your swing helps optimize their efficiency. The subtle contrast could further speak to a player who took a small chance last year and made it count for as much seasoning as possible.
If you’re wondering what Lewis could look like offensively moving forward, Baseball Savant pegs some of the players he’s most similar to as Russell Martin, Dexter Fowler, and Andrew McCutchen — all guys who have offered contributions ranging from above average to excellent through the bulk of their careers. The start of his career has been sharp.
I’m not advocating that you go buy all the Kyle Lewis stock and merchandise you can. I’m just encouraging you to have as much fun as possible watching baseball this year, and saying he could be a help. Take it while it lasts.
Photo by Juan DeLeon/Icon Sportswire