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The Ballad of Fred Lewis

Fred Lewis was drafted in 1974, and he'd been a San Francisco Giants prospect for 33 years prior to this season. At least, that’s what it felt like. His tools were top-notch, but his performances were just average enough to justify moving him up the organizational chain one...level…at…a…time. When he finally won a starting job (thanks, Dave Roberts’s knee!), Lewis was 27. And, as usual, he was an average left fielder. Among major league left fielders, he’s 15th in VORP this year. If he were 16th, he would have been below-average. That’s not how Lewis rolls, though. Whenever he starts a new league, he switches into "expected production"-mode, whatever that might mean, and he performs close to the median. The guy has a history of average performances.

What happens when he gets to repeat a level? No one knows. He’s never had two full seasons at the same level. Lewis had 171 at-bats of above-average goodness in AAA before he was called up for his first extended big league appearance. Next season will be Fred Lewis’s first proper sequel. Will it be The Godfather II, or will it be Caddyshack II? I’m cautiously optimistic. Put me down for a Patriot Games. Wait, no, that wasn’t quite as good as the first one. Put me down for an The Empire Strikes Back. Wait, no, that one’s such a downer at the end. Give me either of the Bourne sequels, then, with a steadier camera.

Lewis struck out 124 times in 468 at-bats, which isn’t especially egregious, but 40% of those strikeouts were looking. I don't have a way to sort players by caught-looking strikeouts, so the only thing I could think of was to look at a handful of low-strikeout players and high-strikeout players, and see if any of them took called third strikes at a similar rate.

Mark Reynolds – 183 strikeouts, 19% called
Dan Uggla – 152 strikeouts, 26% called
Ryan Howard – 189 strikeouts, 19% called

Albert Pujols – 49 strikeouts, 20% called
Jimmy Rollins – 48 strikeouts, 42% called
Bengie Molina – 34 strikeouts, 9% called

Ah-ha!, I thought when I got to Rollins, but 48 strikeouts isn’t much of a sample, and it’s much higher than his career rate of 26%. At least we know that Lewis isn’t a complete freak. After getting the above names, I kept cycling through Baseball Reference, looking at strikeout splits for dozens and dozens of players. It doesn’t really matter what style of hitter a guy is – hacker, slappy annoying type, walking machine, etc… – no one takes as many third strikes as Fred Lewis.

Two possible interpretations:

  1. It’s a fluke, and if Lewis’s batting average on balls in play is even somewhat sustainable, Lewis will improve when he makes more contact.

  3. Lewis is just getting used to major league pitching, but he’s also getting used to major league umpires. With experience, he’ll be able to define the strike zone better. Right now, he’s taking as many pitches as almost anyone in the league, but that isn’t the best stat in the world if it correlates to a disproportionate amount of called third strikes.

Of course, there are other interpretations out there. For example, it’s possible that Lewis’s BABIP is completely unsustainable, and he’s doomed to a career of .260 averages and modest power. Maybe he’ll never get a grasp of the strike zone, and he’ll forever believe that umpires are picking on him.

But I’m choosing to be optimistic because of something else. The last time the Giants farm system drafted and signed a better outfielder than Fred Lewis, Bing Crosby might have been listening to a Clash 8-track on his way to see Star Wars in the theater. At least, that’s how I’ve always pictured the world back then. It’s been a while, San Francisco. We deserve a good, homegrown outfielder.

When asked how success would be defined for the 2008 Giants, a lot of people mentioned that they were hoping for one – just one – of the semi-prospects to emerge as a legitimate major leaguer. Lewis did that this year, and I’m looking forward to watching him next year. Open Lewis Appreciation Thread.

One last thing: When it was used to describe Mark McGwire, bunionesque used to be a positive adjective. I’m sick of structural bone deformities co-opting our language, dammit!