What to do with Kyle Lewis

In one of my 4×4 leagues, I picked up Kyle Lewis last September, offering $6 and paying $4 with only one other team entering an offer. Lewis had bounced around that league for years – first added in June 2016 for $5, cut a month later, acquired five days after that (by me!) and cut again the next day (I have no idea what I was doing), and then picked up via waiver claim the next day. He was traded early in 2017 ($7 Danny Duffy and $4 Yandy Diaz for $13 Nomar Mazara and $4 Lewis in a deal that nobody won). And then he was cut and added multiple times. After sitting on him through a decidedly mediocre AA season, another manager cut him on August 31, 2019. He was called up 10 days later, and I reacquired him, for $4 on September 15. I cut him this off-season. And now, I can’t decide if I should be trying to acquire him…again.

When I nominated Lewis after his game on September 12, 2019, he was hitting .455/.455/1.364 in three games. By the time the season ended, he had flashed impressive power (six HR; a nearly 50 HR pace), but little patience (38.7% K rate, 4% walk rate) leading to a lopsided line with a .293 OBP and a .324 ISO.

I spent much of the off-season looking to trade Lewis. He seemed like a keeper to me – showing big power, young guy with a ton of potential, great prospect pedigree, garbage team that would give him plenty of opportunities – but not a fit for my team. I was keeping Juan Soto, Michael Conforto, David Peralta, Dominic Smith and made trades for Jesse Winker and Austin Meadows. I also planned to keep Nicholas Castellanos before a late trade.

In late January, I offered up Lewis and $25 Castellanos for $9 Mike Soroka and $6 Brandon Lowe or for $5 Cavan Biggio. I offered him for $7 Michael Chavis or $5 Lourdes Gurriel. I offered him, Castellanos, $5 Roberto Perez and $5 Adrian Morejon for $5 Brandon Nimmo and $4 Carter Kieboom. No one wanted Lewis.

Eventually, I decided that while he was a fine $6 keeper, if no one else wanted him, maybe I should let him go and try to reacquire him for less. So at the deadline, I cut him loose. He was never nominated at our auction, but I kept an eye on him. On July 13, he was nominated by another team and half the league entered a bid, three of us bidding $4. With no standings for 2020 yet, the tie was broken by coin flip, and I lost.

Now, the team with Lewis is in fourth and should be buying. I can’t decide if he is a buy high I should target or a guy I should walk away from, once and for all, despite the great start. When I last looked at Lewis, a few weeks back, he was still striking out a ton and the Statcast data wasn’t exciting. But that was early, and we have a lot more (and better) data now.

As of today, Lewis is hitting .360/.446/.568. The ISO (.308) is still good, but no where near as big as that OBP. The thing is, across 287 MiLB games, Lewis had 30 HR and he now has 13 over 48 MLB games, so I have some concerns about the power. And we still have to look at the plate discipline after the ugly 2019 showing.

Starting with the OBP, it’s very clear that it is not entirely for real. I don’t care how hard he is hitting the ball (more on this!), his .440 BABIP is due for regression, and big regression. His BABIP last year was .351 (now .411 for his career) but all of that is over samples way too small to draw conclusions and it seems more likely that he is a .320-ish BABIP talent (as projected by THE BAT and ATC) than the .351 he posted so far (or the .350 projected by ZiPS). Steamer projects .304, which seems low.

But even as that regresses, there is real reason for on-base-optimism: Lewis, who barely walked last year, has a 13.8% walk rate this year in 130 PA, which is enough that his BB-rate is starting to stabilize. Even better, his K-rate, after nearing 40% last year, is just 23.1% this year. Last year, 13 players posted a BB-rate between 10% and 15% and a K-rate between 20% and 25%. Their OBPs ranged from .328 (Marcell Ozuna, with a .257 BABIP) to .429 (Christian Yelich with a .355 BABIP).

Now, the power. Lewis posted an insane 40% HR/FB rate last year with a 34.9% FB rate. This year, the FB rate is down to 30.5% (he is hitting a TON of line drives) and the HR/FB rate is down to 28%. Last year, nine players posted a HR/FB rate between 25% and 30%, and they hit an average of 37 HR in mostly-full seasons. Only one of those players – Ryan McMahon, had a FB rate lower than 33% (27.9%) and he was the low man with 24 HR.

Of course, you need that HR/FB to be backed up by real power off the bat. Last year, those players had an average EV ranging from 89.3 to 92.9, a max EV ranging from 110.1 to 116.6, and a hard hit percent ranging from 40.1% to 50.5%. Lewis, across those three numbers this year – 87.3, 110.9, 38.4%. He barely sneaks in on Max EV, but on the others, he is below his HR/FB-rate peers. Looking at EV on just LD/FB (which tells you more about power than how hard a guy smokes grounders), those nine players posted a high average EV of 98.1 and a low of 93.2. Lewis is at 92.2. He is just not hitting the ball hard enough, often enough, to quite justify his HR numbers, particularly given his relatively low FB-rate.

His overall Statcast profile is…fine, if a bit confusing.

The xStats look great, but the raw data (EV, Hard Hit%, Whiff%, K%) don’t look awful, but they are not great either.

Looking at the big picture, the improved plate discipline is huge and sets a relatively high floor, particularly for a guy who seems likely to post above average BABIPs, given his high number of LD, and relatively few FB. Other players posting K and BB numbers like his are almost universally above average at getting on base, mostly well above average. The only risk is a down year due to low BABIP.

From a power perspective, things are less rosy. He just doesn’t hit the ball hard enough to justify his power. Maybe he is an anomaly. Maybe the HH%, and EV on LD and FB will look better later in the year. But after posting a nearly 50-HR pace last year, he is on a 32 HR pace this year. That seems more reasonable but feels more like ceiling than expectation, going forward, given the batted ball data.

I expect that over time, his FB rate will increase, his HR/FB rate will decrease, and his BABIP will drop quite a bit. Give a guy 600 PA with 138 K (23%), 75 walks (12.5%), he is left with 387 BIP + HR. If 33% of those are FB (128) and 20% of those are HR (26), he is left with 361 BIP. If he posts a .333 BABIP, that is another 120 hits on top of the 26 HR. Put that together and you have an OBP of .368 with 26 HR. Here are the players who hit 23-29 HR with an OBP .363-.373 last year in roughly 600 PA: Shin-Soo Choo, Yoan Moncada, DJ LeMahieu, Justin Turner, Rhys Hoskins.

That’s good, but not necessarily elite, company. Moncada was 24th in wOBA last year, leading that group. Hoskins was last at 63rd. This seems like a decent range for Lewis – at his absolute best, he is a top 30 hitter, making him a roughly $25 OF in 4×4 and Points leagues; near the bottom of that range he is more like a $15 OF.

If you have Lewis today, and think you can trade him to someone who values him like he is a $25 OF, like the player he is seemed so far, you should do it. If you are looking to acquire Lewis and think you can acquire him as if he were a $15 OF, you should do it. In between is probably where “fair value” lies.

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