Mariners center fielder Kyle Lewis and Brewers reliever Devin Williams were top picks by their teams in Drafts past. But neither took the easy route to the Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year honors that were presented on Monday night by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.
Lewis, the unanimous American League honoree, suffered a devastating right knee injury just 30 games into his professional career. Williams, the NL winner, had his path sidetracked by a major elbow injury and a switch from starting to relieving.
So when Hall of Famers Cal Ripken Jr. (AL) and Johnny Bench (NL) called their respective names on the MLB Network awards presentation, the surge of sentiment that ran through Lewis and Williams was palpable, even via a remote video call.
• Every MLB Rookie of the Year
“Man, it’s enormous, it’s enormous, as far as I’ve come,” a choked-up Lewis said. “I get emotional thinking about it.”
A shortened regular season left precious little time for first impressions, but Lewis and Williams seized the moment. And in a season in which the Black Lives Matter movement and the cause of racial justice took on prominence in the sport, it was notable that Black players swept the award for the first time since 1984 (Dwight Gooden and Alvin Davis), three years before it was named for the barrier-breaking Robinson.
• 2020 Rookie of the Year vote totals
“Representation is always important,” Williams said. “You need someone that looks like you to show you it’s possible. Growing up, I had guys like Derek Jeter and other biracial or Black players. It kind of opened the door to that possibility for me. When you don’t see anyone who looks like you, it doesn’t feel like it’s attainable, in a way.”
The votes, which were compiled at the end of the regular season, were not particularly close. Lewis -- the 12th unanimous selection in AL Rookie of the Year history and 25th overall -- received all 30 first-place votes in the AL for 150 points, with White Sox center fielder Luis Robert (83 points) finishing second and Astros right-hander Cristian Javier (11) third.
• 2020 MLB Awards coverage
The right-handed Williams, who had already been named the Trevor Hoffman NL Reliever of the Year, was difficult to hit and easy to pick as the rare reliever to win this honor. With 14 first-place votes and 95 total vote points, he beat out Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm (nine first-place votes) and Padres infielder Jake Cronenworth (six first-place votes), who tied for second place with 74 points apiece.
So this was a time to celebrate changeups -- the unhittable “Airbender” that Williams brandished on batters, and the kind of changeup Lewis provided in a year in which fellow center fielder Robert had been the consensus preseason pick to take home the prize.
“I’m still learning, I’m still working every day, trying to write my story,” Lewis said. “That’s just what I say to the young guys, and anything can happen.”
The 25-year-old Lewis played in 58 games for the Mariners and became just the second rookie since 1969 -- joining the A’s Mark McGwire in 1987 -- to lead his team in batting average (.262), home runs (11), runs (37) and walks (34). His FanGraphs WAR (1.7), runs, walks and total bases (90) led all AL rookies, and he finished second in hits (54) and RBIs (28) and fourth in stolen bases (five).
With his dynamic play, including some highlight-reel homer robberies at the wall, Lewis gave Seattle a spark and became the first Mariners player to win the Rookie of the Year honor since Ichiro Suzuki in 2001.
He also put an exclamation mark on his return from chronic knee issues in the first three years of his pro career.
Lewis tore his right ACL, as well as his medial and lateral meniscus, in a collision at home plate a little more than a month after the M’s took him with the 11th overall pick out of Mercer University in 2016. He reinjured the knee in ’17 and had lingering issues with it in ’18.
“I give a lot of credit to the organization, the staff with the Seattle Mariners helping me mentally, and my family as well,” Lewis said. “When I was young, coming back from injury, I was trying to get everything back in one day and kind of rushing, pressing, working a little bit, speeding myself up. So I just give a lot of credit to the staff over with the Seattle Mariners for helping me out with that.”
The 26-year-old Williams became the first reliever to win Rookie of the Year in either league since the Braves’ Craig Kimbrel in 2011 and the first non-closer to win it since the Reds’ Scott Williamson in 1999.
In fact, Williams became the first pitcher without a start or a save to be named Rookie of the Year.
The Brewers already had a bona fide beast in their bullpen in the form of Josh Hader, and Williams, who had gotten his feet wet near the end of the 2019 season, quickly evolved to make their back-end arrangement all the more menacing. Williams struck out a record 53 percent of the 100 batters he faced. He had a microscopic 0.33 ERA and .090 (8-for-89) opponent average in 27 innings across 22 appearances. The only earned run he allowed all season came on July 27, in his second appearance.
Taken at No. 54 overall in the 2013 Draft, Williams began a slow ascent to the bigs that was stalled by Tommy John surgery in 2017. He didn’t convert to full-time relief work until 2019. But the key to his emergence was the command of what is described as a changeup but is really a pitch all its own -- an 84.1-mph offering that the 6-foot-2 Williams manipulated with wrist pronation, causing left-to-right, devastating downward movement. Baffled batters went just 2-for-62 with 41 strikeouts in at-bats that ended with that mesmerizing pitch.
“Lots of practice,” Williams said of perfecting his signature offering. “It was kind of something I just played with as a kid to mess around with my friends when we were playing in the neighborhood. … I just got on the mound and threw it one day, and it worked.”
It worked well enough for Williams to become just the third Brewer to win the Rookie of the Year award, joining Pat Listach in 1992 (when the Brewers were in the AL) and Ryan Braun in 2007.
“Honestly, I never thought I’d be in this position,” Williams said. “It’s just a culmination of all my hard work, you know? It’s nice to get recognized.”
As always, the BBWAA vote took place at the conclusion of the regular season, which explains why October hero Randy Arozarena of the Rays was not an AL finalist. Arozarena had just 76 plate appearances in the regular season and will be eligible for the award in 2021.
Kyle Lewis (SEA): 30 (1st place) – 150 points
Luis Robert (CWS): 27 (2nd), 2 (3rd) – 83 points
Cristian Javier (HOU): 11 (3rd) – 11 points
Sean Murphy (OAK): 1 (2nd), 4 (3rd) – 7 points
Willi Castro (DET): 1 (2nd), 4 (3rd) – 7 points
James Karinchak (CLE): 5 (3rd) – 5 points
Jared Walsh (LAA): 1 (2nd), 1 (3rd) – 4 points
Ryan Mountcastle (BAL): 1 (3rd) – 1 point
Brady Singer (KC): 1 (3rd) – 1 point
Jesús Luzardo (OAK): 1 (3rd) – 1 point
Devin Williams (MIL): 14 (1st place), 6 (2nd), 7 (3rd) – 95 points
Alec Bohm (PHI): 9 (1st), 8 (2nd), 5 (3rd) – 74 points
Jake Cronenworth (SD): 6 (1st), 12 (2nd), 8 (3rd) – 74 points
Tony Gonsolin (LAD): 1 (1st), 1 (2nd), 3 (3rd) – 11 points
Dustin May (LAD): 2 (2nd), 2 (3rd) – 8 points
Ke’Bryan Hayes (PIT): 1 (2nd), 2 (3rd) – 5 points
Andrés Giménez (NYM): 1 (3rd) – 1 point
Sixto Sánchez (MIA): 1 (3rd) – 1 point
Ian Anderson (ATL): 1 (3rd) – 1 point
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.