SEATTLE — Marco Gonzales may have been the first player in Seattle’s clubhouse to put this idea into words back in July.
Returning from the long spring break caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Mariners were back at T-Mobile Park, preparing for a shortened 60-game season with a three-week long summer camp.
They were a few days into their intrasquad schedule when Gonzales, Seattle’s consistent and effective ace, stepped on the mound to make his first start. Kyle Lewis, the exciting rookie outfielder the Mariners got a glimpse of the previous September, was the third batter he faced. Gonzales worked ahead in the count, only to watch Lewis rope a fastball over the fence in straightaway center.
“Let’s just say I’m glad he’s on my team, man,” Gonzales said on a video call with reporters later. “This has been fun to watch. That kid is really something special.
“He’s got my early vote for Rookie of the Year.”
Maybe Gonzales was the first to cast his vote, but he certainly wasn’t the last. Lewis, the 25-year-old former first-round pick by Seattle who put together a stunning debut season both offensively and defensively in 2020, has been named the American League Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year.
Lewis was announced the winner of the annual award Monday on MLB Network by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, beating out White Sox outfielder Luis Robert and Astros pitcher Cristian Javier, who were the other finalists. He was a unanimous selection, receiving all 30 first-place votes. Robert finished second and Javier third. Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., the 1982 winner, announced the award.
Lewis is the fourth Mariners player to win the award, and first since right fielder Ichiro Suzuki won both the AL Rookie of the Year and AL MVP awards in 2001.
Former closer Kazuhiro Sasaki (2000) and first baseman Alvin Davis (1984) are the other two winners Seattle’s organization has produced since the club was founded in 1977.
“It’s enormous, man,” Lewis said on MLB Network following the announcement. “As far as I’ve come, I get emotional thinking about it. But, I just thank you guys, and I appreciate it. I appreciate it, really.”
Lewis’ rise as one of Seattle’s top up-and-comers started long before his rookie season. The Mariners drafted him at No. 11 overall in 2016 out of Mercer University in Georgia, and though his first three seasons in the minors were hampered by a gruesome knee injury, the potential was clear.
Then, during his September promotion last year, Lewis gave the Mariners a peek at what was to come.
He homered off Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer for his first big league hit, which Bauer recalled last month when Lewis was recognized as the AL Outstanding Rookie as part of the 2020 Players Choice Awards.
“I faced Kyle at the end of last year, where he hit a ball about 450 feet off me in Seattle, which is impressive in its own right, and not a whole lot of people have that kind of power,” Bauer said in a video announcement of the award.
Lewis finished with six home runs in 18 games played in the final month of the 2019 season, and became the first player in MLB history to pepper six homers across his first 10 career games.
The excitement about Lewis’ first month in the majors continued to swirl as the Mariners opened spring camp in February, and he belted three home runs and tallied seven RBI in the 11 games he appeared in before Cactus League play was shut down.
When the Mariners opened summer camp three months later, Mariners manager Scott Servais said Lewis was one of the players who stood out to him.
“I just thought he was moving so differently, watching him shagging fly balls in the outfield, and that’s a direct reflection of the work he put in while we were down at home,” Servais said in July. “He took it serious. I know he’s got a speed coach, a strength coach, a hitting coach. He dialed in with all of those people and he looks much different.
“Coming back from a very serious knee injury, it takes time, and he might be physically strong and everything checks out, but it’s always in the back of your head, and that’s what it looks like to me, is it’s kind of freed him up, the fact that he has worked so hard. He’s got 100 percent confidence in how his body is working and how it’s moving and how it’s going to bounce back after a couple days out on the field. It’s great to see. He looks really good.”
Servais said it was clear then the work was going to pay off for Lewis in the shortened season â” but perhaps no one realized just how much.
Lewis ended up leading the Mariners in hits during summer camp, finishing 10-for-23 with a double, four homers and eight RBI.
Two of those home runs came in the first intrasquad game â” the first against a good friend. Mariners starter Justin Dunn joked after the game wrapped up that Lewis wouldn’t be getting a ride home that afternoon.
But, on a more serious note, Dunn, who played alongside Lewis in Double-A Arkansas in 2019, knew as much as anyone what Lewis was capable of in the batter’s box.
“I’ve seen Kyle be Kyle,” Dunn said that day of what he had seen out of Lewis in camp. “That’s what he is. I call him Showtime. Superstar. He’s that type of player. He has that type of potential. Every time he’s on the field it’s going to be something special to watch.”
Former Mariners starter Taijuan Walker â” the first pitcher to retire Lewis in an intrasquad game â” said the rookie had been playing “lights out.”
“He’s only getting better â” which is really scary,” Walker said in July.
When the regular season finally opened, Lewis, who earned the job as Seattle’s Opening Day center fielder, didn’t slow down. In his first at-bat, he crushed a home run off Justin Verlander.
“He’s got a lot of ability,” Servais said postgame. “He’s got a great head on his shoulders. Great to see him hit the ball like he did.
“That was a bomb.”
The first of many. Lewis’ 11 home runs this season tied for the big league lead among rookies with Robert.
Lewis also led all AL rookies in WAR (1.7), total bases (90), times on base (88), runs scored (37), walks (34), on-base percentage (.364), slugging percentage (.437) and OPS (.801).
He led all rookies in many of those categories, as well as finishing tied for first with 58 games played, second in RBI (28) and at-bats (206), tied for second in hits (54) and multi-hit games (15), and third in batting average (.262).
Throughout the season, Servais often pointed to how Lewis’ work ethic contributed to the impressive production.
“I think the thing that sticks out for me more than anything with Kyle is he’s not satisfied,” Servais said in August. ” He comes in every day, he’s got a plan, he’s working on things. Even in batting practice â” some guys get caught up in what their BP looks like or how far they’re hitting it â” he is very, very structured every day when he comes out, very disciplined in what he’s trying to do, and doesn’t care about the result at all.
“He just wants to feel right. Make sure he’s attacking the ball the right way and if he does that, he knows good things are going to happen, so a really mature approach for a young player.”
Lewis hit .328/.418/.527 in 36 games in July and August, with 29 runs scored, two doubles, eight homers, 21 RBI and 21 walks, and ranked first among AL rookies in runs scored, hits, batting average, on-base percentage and OPS (.945) to that point.
How Lewis was able to shrink the strike zone and remain disciplined in his approach, even as opposing teams started to pitch him differently, was a consistent point of praise with the Mariners.
“I can feel that development happening,” Lewis said in August. “I’m hoping that continues, and I expect that to continue, just having professional at-bats. I want them to be able to count on me to have a professional at-bat when I go up there.”
Though Lewis had a slower September, he finished the season leading the Mariners in runs scored, home runs, walks and batting average.
Lewis also opened the season with a 10-game hitting streak, and had six multi-hits in that span. He had another 10-game hitting streak midway through August.
The only other player in the majors this season to record two 10-game hitting streaks was Atlanta’s Dansby Swanson.
But, as the Mariners often noted, there was much more to Lewis’ breakout rookie season than his bat.
“We all know what he’s done in the batter’s box, and the quality at-bats he’s brought,” Servais said in August. “Really in the outfield and center field, the ground he covers, the jumps he gets on balls, his routes are very consistent, and he works at it. He’s out there early every day. … He really wants to be good in center field, and takes a lot of pride in it, and it’s paying off for him.”
Lewis also made strides defensively as Seattle’s center fielder, including robbing three home runs at the wall over the course of the season.
Perhaps the most impressive was the leaping grab he made at T-Mobile Park in September, when he stretched to rob Oakland’s Ramon Laureano of a grand slam. The catch was so jaw-dropping it immediately drew comparisons to Hall of Fame center fielder Ken Griffey Jr.
“Humbling comparison, man,” Lewis said. “A center fielder being able to make plays I think is just, in and of itself, a great moment to be able to make plays, and something I take pride in, especially wearing that Seattle uniform because we know who the legend is out there.
“To be able to go out there and make some plays is big for me. Hopefully I can just continue to build on that defensively to be a solid, solid reliable defender, and then as well at the plate because you know that guy did it all.
“It’s cool to see those comparisons. I just take them in stride and keep it going so I can continue to write my story. Everybody’s got their own story to write and I’ve got mine.”
Lewis certainly wrote a riveting first chapter.
By season’s end, there was no question Lewis was a front runner to become the Mariners’ first Rookie of the Year in nearly two decades.
“He’s had a phenomenal season,” Servais said in September.” Love talking about what he’s done, how he’s gone about it and what it’s meant to us organizationally.”