PEORIA, Arizona — Last year at this time, Kyle Lewis was feeling his way through his first spring training, as much a mystery to the Mariners as the rhythms of a spring camp were to him.
It wasn’t Lewis’ first spring in major-league camp, mind you. It was his first as a pro of any sort, a major knee injury shortly after the draft in 2016 having wiped out subsequent opportunities for the next two years.
Now, for the first time, that injury is a complete afterthought, no longer a prominent part of the Lewis narrative, much to his immense satisfaction. And far from a mystery, Lewis arrives in camp this year as a huge part of the Mariners’ long-term master plan, as well as a cornerstone of their present.
That’s what happens when you break into the major leagues with the sort of eye-popping splash Lewis made in September. What happens, specifically, is you get penciled in for a starting job in the outfield, which is where Lewis stands.
You might recall that in his second major-league at-bat, Lewis homered off Cincinnati’s Trevor Bauer, the start of an amazing barrage in which he homered in each of his first three major-league games. Only Colorado’s Trevor Story had done that before. And no one in history had homered in six of his first 10 games until Lewis did it. That included a 457-foot blast off Lucas Sims of the Reds, the longest Mariners homer of the year.
In a season marked by losing and regression, Lewis’ emergence was the feel-good story of the year.
“You like those guys to show up and kind of excite your fan base right out of the chute, and I think he did that,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said.
So Lewis arrives in camp this year with an increased comfort level, but the mind-set that he still must earn the job.
“I’m able to kind of be in my element a little bit more,” he said. “But as far as on the field, definitely not. I’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
That process began almost immediately after the season, when Lewis began working out in Atlanta, near where he won the 2016 Golden Spikes Award at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, as the nation’s top college player. That made him the 11th overall pick in the draft by the Mariners, who were thrilled he was still on the board.
This winter’s emphasis, Lewis said, was on “agility, running, body-control things,” which is in keeping with his desired areas of improvement this year:
“Just being sharp, being clean. It’s a really clean game, and that’s the main thing, being clean with all my movements, being efficient in everything I do, whether it be swing-wise or running-wise. I feel that’s the next step in my progression as a player.”
Looking back on the home-run spree, which put him in the national consciousness, Lewis said the key was trusting what he had been working on all year in the minors. Finally healthy for a full season, Lewis put up solid but unspectacular numbers at Class AA Arkansas (. 263, 11 homers, 62 runs batted in). Elevated to the majors, he was a revelation from the start.
“It was cool, lots of fun, a lot of emotions,” Lewis said. “I was just trying to go out and play my game. It was good to be able to have success doing that, playing my game and being relaxed.
“Going into it you’re so nervous. You don’t know what to expect. You don’t know how it’s going to go. When are you going to get your first hit? I was able to get my first hit in my second at-bat.”
Through his first 11 games in the majors, in fact, Lewis hit .333 with an .800 slugging percentage. Over his final seven, he hit .154 with a .231 slugging percentage.
To Servais, that was the first notice sent to Lewis of the perpetual cat-and-mouse game in the majors, where pitchers adjust to new hitters, who then have to re-adjust right back. To Lewis, the lull at the end of the year was more about “trying to do too much” than anything else.
“I think the consistency is kind of the first thing” Servais said when asked what Lewis needs to do to take the next step in his development. “You have to get your feet wet. You see how they do. He obviously got off to a great start, and then they started attacking him a little differently in the strike zone.
“Kyle has all kinds of power. He does have some swing and miss in his game. It doesn’t mean he can’t be a really productive major-league player, but narrowing or shrinking those areas they can attack within the strike zone is important to him.”
And Lewis knows it. He struck out 152 times in 457 at-bats in Arkansas last year and 29 times in 71 at-bats with Seattle. That didn’t sit well, even though such numbers are not atypical for a power hitter.
“I just want to be a hitter,” he said. “I don’t like striking out and not helping the team when I go up to the plate. I try to be a hitter who can hit the ball hard just naturally with my size.”
Servais swears, in fact, that Lewis has grown taller since last year. The manager was mostly joking — Lewis remains 6 feet 4, with perhaps some muscle added to his 205-pound frame. One legitimate change: Lewis will wear No. 1 on his uniform in 2020 rather than the 30 he donned last season.
But at age 24, Lewis is fully distanced from the early adversity that postponed his advancement through the system and knocked him off the path of a designated phenom — at least temporarily.
Now he is back on the fast track, penciled into left field for the Mariners (though he could move around the outfield, Servais said). Last year gave a taste of Lewis’ vast potential. This year will start to show just how high, and how fast, he can rise.