FORT MYERS, Fla. — Take strike one. Foul off strike two. Chase a pitch off the plate for strike three and walk back to the dugout.
Royce Lewis was in one of those ruts during the 2019 season, one that slowed his ascent through the Twins farm system. For the first overall pick in the 2017 draft, it was his first real bout with adversity.
The first time experiencing how the mind can make a slump worse.
The first time dealing with advice coming from every direction — and discovering the dangers of listening to everyone.
“I literally didn’t think I was going to make it for a while there,” said the 20-year-old shortstop.
Once he erased those doubts, Lewis got over the hump at Class A Fort Myers and was promoted to Class AA Pensacola in July. And he finished 2019 with a flourish, batting .353 in the Arizona Fall League and being named its Most Valuable Player.
Now in major league camp for the second consecutive spring, Lewis likely will begin the season in Pensacola with a better understanding of how slumps mess with a player’s mind. He batted a combined .236 at Fort Myers and Pensacola with only 38 walks and 123 strikeouts in 127 games. His mechanics at the plate — he has a high leg kick that concerns some analysts — have been a talking point for scouts. But he remains one of the better prospects in baseball, ranked ninth overall by mlb.com and 26th by Baseball America.
He could use a big year to remind observers of the athleticism, skills and potential that made him a top pick. Fortunately for him, the Twins can wait, as All-Star shortstop Jorge Polanco is under contract through 2023 with options for 2024 and 2025.
But the Twins are eager to see how Lewis responds in 2020 after learning, for one of the first times in his life, what’s it’s like to not be a very good baseball player.
“I genuinely believe that the best thing for our players in this room is to go through some struggle at the minor league level before they get to the big league level,” said Derek Falvey, the Twins’ president of baseball operations. “I don’t want to go as far as to say fail at the minor level, but fail some to learn what it’s like to be not as successful as you want to be on a daily basis. And then find a way back out of it.”
While sometimes flailing away at the plate early last season as a teenager, Lewis reminded himself that he could still impact the game with speed and defense, and he didn’t let his hitting affect the other areas of his game. There’s nothing wrong with finding a way to contribute, but he also knew it wasn’t enough.
“Awhile there I think I was just getting away with my athleticism and letting that take the game away,” Lewis said. “I’m athletic enough to get me to this far, but to get out of Double-A, Triple-A possibly to the big leagues now, it is all up here” — as he pointed to his head — “and that is what separates us.”
Lewis was getting advice from too many sources, he said, and that added to his anguish.
Toby Gardenhire, his manager at Fort Myers last season, tried to keep him thinking positively.
“The big thing for him is to continue to get at-bats and stay confident,” said Gardenhire, who will manage Class AAA Rochester this season. “When you are young, it seems like every at-bat means a ton and when you struggle a little bit, you can get down on yourself.”
Eventually, Lewis learned to filter the streams of advice he was getting. He hit .304 through 17 games in July, earning a promotion to Pensacola. His numbers with the Blue Wahoos — . 231 with two home runs and 14 RBI in 33 games — were not gaudy prospect-level production, but the Twins ruled the season as a success because he made some progress.
Lewis then was a standout among the other prospects at the AFL while playing short, third and the outfield. He moved around out of necessity, and Falvey said Tuesday that Lewis will remain at shortstop for the foreseeable future.
Speaking of moving around, Lewis has relocated from California to the Dallas suburb of Frisco. He’s close to Prosper, Texas, where Twins Hall of Famer Torii Hunter lives; he had Lewis over for five days after the 2018 season to work out and talk about baseball and life.
And Texas has no state income tax.
“I didn’t really know about taxes,” said Lewis, whose signing bonus was $6.725 million. “Then my W-2 came in from the contract I signed, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I need to go.’?”
Working during the offseason with Hunter, big leaguer Matt Kemp and Angels minor leaguer Torii Hunter Jr., Lewis also consumed as many calories as he could — he reported to camp weighing 25 pounds more than when he was drafted at 6-1 and 180.
“Everything is bigger in Texas,” Lewis said. “And I ended up getting bigger. I tell people that.”
Lewis is 0-for-4 in two major league spring training games. He was called out while attempting to steal third base Saturday against Pittsburgh on a call that replay would have overturned. On Monday, he made a twisting catch in short center while striding backward to catch a pop up.
He’s expected to get a couple more starts before it’s time to give Polanco some games to prepare for the season.
Lewis eventually will head to the minor league facility to prepare for his first full season at Pensacola, where he plans to apply the lessons he learned in a challenging 2019.
“I’m actually very excited that (last year) happened,” Lewis said, “because it can only get better from there.”
©2020 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)