Mercer’s Kyle Lewis left basketball behind for baseball

Mercer University sophomore center fielder Kyle Lewis, in his first season as a starter, nearly won the triple crown in the Southern Conference, leading the conference with 17 home runs and a .367 batting average and finishing fifth with 56 RBI, ten behind the leader. For his efforts, the former high school basketball player earned second-team All-American status and is a finalist for the Gregg Olson Award, presented to a player who earns All-American status after not making any preseason lists.

For Lewis, his breakout sophomore season was just another step in his progression. For most of his life, the focus for the 6’4″ Lewis was on basketball.

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Kyle Lewis (Credit: mercerbears.com)

“I’ve played baseball for a while,” he says, “but never on any serious level. I just played rec ball, never on any travel teams. I’d play baseball in the spring, but after that it was just basketball in the summers and falls.”

Late in his high school career, he started to realize that baseball might be his future.

“In about the fall of eleventh grade,” Lewis recalls, “I started to realize that I could be good at baseball if I applied myself, so I got on a travel team for the first time. Going into my senior year I really started to focus on it.”

“I still played basketball my senior year,” he says. “We were one of the top teams in the state, so I didn’t want to miss out on that. Plus, I was getting small-school interest for basketball, too, and I didn’t want to close my options off. But after the season, I told my coach to cancel the recruiting stuff because I was going to just focus on baseball.”

Despite having outstanding speed — he runs the 60-yard dash in 6.5 seconds — Lewis stole only three bases this season and was caught stealing five times. He will be spending the offseason working on the footwork and first-step explosiveness necessary to become a good base stealer.

“In the outfield I’m fast,” he explains, “but I have long legs, so it takes a couple steps to get going, so as far as stolen bases I’m not there yet. From first to third, I’m fast; from second to home, I’m fast. I just need to get that first step going better. Next year I’m looking for 15-20 stolen bases, so I am working on some footwork and agility this offseason. Hopefully next year, my speed will be able to show up in my complete game.”

Like a lot of great athletes who come late to baseball — Lorenzo Cain of the Kansas City Royals comes to mind — Lewis was able to succeed quickly based purely on athletic ability, but he has found over time that he has to work hard on the things that don’t come naturally to him. For Lewis, most of those things seem to revolve around footwork. In addition to the first-step speed he is trying to work on for stolen bases, his footwork in the outfield is an area he has targeted for improvement.

“My two things I want to work on are stolen bases and arm strtength,” he says. “I mean, I have the arm strength, but I need to work on getting my feet in the right position, because sometimes my feet get out of whack on throws. So once I really tighten up the footwork, I think the arm strength will show.”

After playing against Florida State last month, Lewis drew a pretty daunting comparison from FSU coaches Mike Martin and Mike Bell:

Lewis does not take lightly the praise of being compared to Aaron, especially considering the source. “That’s huge, coming from someone of his caliber,” he says. “That was a big boost for my confidence. A lot of people, me being from a small school, they doubt whether I can compete on a large scale. So when I was able to go out there and hit two to center field, I feel like I showed everyone that it’s not just a fluke, I’m really a good player. So for him to say something like that, it gives me a lot of confidence going forward.”

After next season, Lewis will be eligible for the MLB draft, and he has lofty goals for the future.

“I’d like to go pretty high in the draft,” he says, “but I’m not really worried about that. I’m just looking to make it to the Major Leagues in three or four years. I just need to keep progressing and soaking in the things I’m learning.”

Lewis understands the importance to his career of being a high draft pick. “We’re really going to weigh our options,” he says, “so if it’s not an ideal situation, I’m not just going to jump at anything. In my family, we like to stay calculated in any decision, not jump into things. If you’re drafted in the 20th round, then you’re in an organization that doesn’t pay any attention to you. So we’re going to make sure it’s the right situation for me. I have no problem going back for my senior year and getting my degree.”

Lewis seems to be a very grounded young man, a trait he says he learned from his parents, who come to every home game from their home in Snellville, Georgia, about thirty minutes from Mercer’s campus in Atlanta.

“Everything is always a calculated decision,” he says. “We don’t make any rash decisions off emotion. Even playing travel ball and AAU basketball, we always weighed the pros and cons. I think it was naturally just put into me to take decisions seriously, the way I was raised and seeing how my parents did things.”

Lewis is playing this summer in the Cape Cod League, and the wood bats do not appear to have slowed him down. In eight games, he has matched his college batting average of .367 (11-for-30) with two doubles and three home runs.

“I don’t think I struggled as much as I thought I would [adjusting to the bats],” Lewis said after hitting his first home run last week. “I thought I would take a few weeks to get used to it, but it’s been going well, so hopefully I can keep it going.”

The winner of the Gregg Olson Award will be announced in the next few days. The odds are against Lewis winning the award — one of the finalists is Andrew Benintendi, the seventh overall pick in this year’s draft who has already won multiple Player of the Year awards — but regardless, the future looks bright for Kyle Lewis.

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