As the 2020 Major League Baseball season reached its final days, and the competition grew one-sided in favor of Kyle Lewis, it became clear the Mariners’ young center fielder should win the 2020 Jackie Robinson American League Rookie of the Year award.
The only possible drama between the end of the season and the award announcement seemed to be the margin of his victory voting totals over the other two finalists — outfielder Luis Robert of the White Sox and Astros pitcher Cristian Javier.
The outcome was decisive.
In a televised ceremony on MLB Network, Lewis was officially announced as the American League rookie of the year Monday over his fellow finalists. He was a unanimous selection, earning all 30 first-place votes — two members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America from each American League city.
Watching the show with a large group of family and friends from his parents’ home in Georgia, Lewis burst into a wide smile when Cal Ripken Jr. called out his name as the winner while cheers erupted around him.
“It just means a lot,” Lewis said via video conference. “I think, you know, see my family and, you know, I guess the road, you know, of highs and lows in the minor leagues, the highs and lows of major leagues, success, struggle and injury and all that. When you get these milestone moments, I think it is because of the overwhelming rush of emotion sometimes. My family was around and seeing them so proud and you know so nervous watching the TV. A lot of those things piled up.”
Lewis becomes the fourth Mariners player to win earn rookie of the year honors. Alvin Davis was the first in 1984, while Kaz Sasaki (2000) and Ichiro (2001) took home the honors in back-to-back seasons after coming to the United States from Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball.
Robert came in second place, receiving 27 second place votes and Javier came in third place, receiving 11 third place votes.
Lewis is the 12th player to win the American League award by unanimous vote and the first for the Mariners. The other unanimous choices: Carlton Fisk, Mark McGwire, Sandy Alomar Jr., Tim Salmon, Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, Evan Longoria, Mike Trout, Jose Abreu, Aaron Judge and Yordan Alvarez. There have been 13 unanimous winners in the National League.
The National League winner is Brewers reliever Devin Williams, who won with 14 first-place votes.
Lewis finished the 2020 season with a .262 batting average, a .364 on-base percentage and a.437 slugging percentage with three doubles, 11 homers, 28 RBI, five stolen bases, 34 walks and 71 strikeouts in 58 games. He was named the Mariners’ most valuable player by the Seattle chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.
He led all rookies in Major League Baseball in runs scored (37), walks (34), total bases (90), times on base (88) and on-base percentage (.364), while also ranking among rookie leaders in games played (tied for first with 58), home runs (tied for first with 11), RBI (second with 28), slugging percentage (second at .437), on-base plus slugging percentage (second at .801), at-bats (second at 206), hits (tied for second with 54), multi-hit games (tied for second with 15) and batting average (third at .262).
Lewis has racked up postseasons honors from various outlets following his strong season. He was recently named the American League’s most outstanding rookie by the Major League Baseball Players Association in their 2020 Players Choice awards. He was also named the AL Rookie of the Year by The Sporting News and Baseball Digest.
But this season’s success and the resulting accolades, including the highest honor for a rookie, are the culmination of hours upon hours of work to overcome the adversity of a gruesome injury and all the precious time lost because of it.
The Mariners’ first-round pick (No. overall 11) in 2016 out of Mercer University, Lewis was off to a strong start to his first professional season with the short-season Everett Aqua Sox. He had slash line of .299/.385/.538 with eight doubles, five triples, three homers and 26 RBI in his first 30 games. After a slow start, he was hitting .364 with a 1.114 OPS over the final 20 games.
But his season and his development came painful halt on July 19.
In the seventh inning of a game vs. the Tri-City Dust Devils at Everett Memorial Stadium, Lewis was trying to score from second on a single. As he neared home, the catcher came up the line to field a throw home. Trying avoid a major collision, Lewis took an awkward step while trying to slow down. His right knee buckled and he felt a pop and then seething pain while ending up on the ground. He’d suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament, torn medial and lateral meniscus.
“You can feel the pop and the not normal feeling you would get from a tweak or sprain,” Lewis said in December of 2016. “It was a definitely a different kind of feeling, a different kind of pain.”
After moving near the Mariners’ spring training complex in Arizona and religiously rehabbing the knee to full strength, Lewis returned to the field on June 11, 2017. In his first official game of his return with Class A Modesto, Lewis slammed the surgically repaired knee into the outfield wall while trying to make a catch. He suffered a bruised knee that would lead to further complications down the road. Complications from the surgery and the bruised knee hampered Lewis throughout the remainder of the 2017 season. He played in a total of 49 games, hitting. 257 with a .740 on-base plus slugging percentage, six doubles, a triple, seven homers and 31 RBI.
The Mariners planned to have Lewis make up for the missed time in the Arizona Fall League in 2017. But recurring discomfort with the knee limited him to just two games. The Mariners decided to shut him down from games and allow him to rest and later prepare for spring training. They decided not to give him an invite to MLB spring training in 2018, wanting him to focus on being ready for his minor league season. However, the knee pain returned as Lewis ramped up his workouts in preparation for spring training. He eventually opted for another surgery — an arthroscopic clean-up of the knee. The procedure provided relief and he was able to return to the field on May 12 of that season.
Lewis split the season between High-A Modesto and Arkansas. He didn’t start his season until May 12, playing in 49 games for the Nuts. He posted a .260/.303/.429 slash line (batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage) with 18 doubles, five homers and 32 RBI. He was promoted to Arkansas on July 21 and played in 37 games, slashing .220/.309/.371 with eight doubles, four homers and 20 RBI.
But 2019 provided his first uninterrupted season. He was invited to MLB spring training — his first of any sort as a player — and then put together a solid season with Double A Arkansas, posting a .263/.342/.398 slash line with 25 doubles, two triples, 11 homers and 62 RBIs. He was called up in September and hit homers in each of his first three games and six total homers in his first 10 games.
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