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JSerra prepped Royce Lewis for his journey

Former No. 1 overall pick learned valuable lessons in high school
February 28, 2024

On March 9, 2017, Royce Lewis arrived at the ballpark with added pep in his step. With a plethora of talent evaluators in the stands, Lewis, then a high school senior mere months away from becoming the first overall pick in the MLB Draft, was a powder keg of energy

On March 9, 2017, Royce Lewis arrived at the ballpark with added pep in his step. With a plethora of talent evaluators in the stands, Lewis, then a high school senior mere months away from becoming the first overall pick in the MLB Draft, was a powder keg of energy and laser-focused ... on meeting his new godson.

Four dozen scouts were on hand that day to see Lewis, then a phenom at JSerra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., as fervor percolated around where he might land in that summer’s Draft. But it was the star shortstop's head coach, Brett Kay, who was a bundle of nerves just hours before meeting his second son, Kaden.

“I was a zombie that day,” Kay said. “I was a total mess. But [Royce] was like, ‘I can’t wait to meet him.’”

“I think that's just kind of how I live my life, man,” Lewis said. “I know that there's more to life than just the game of baseball. Although I do put baseball on such a high pedestal because I love it so much, I do realize that there's other things that are a lot more important and especially the birth of – in his case – his son, and for me, a godson. So I was just excited to see a new life.”

The idea of becoming Kaden’s godfather clicked for Royce once he learned former JSerra catcher (and current big leaguer) Austin Hedges served as the godfather for Kay’s first son, Brody.

“My senior year, [Coach Kay] had asked me early on in the car when we were at the game and we talked about it and I was like, ‘Yeah, I would love it,'” Lewis recalled. “That means a lot and I really appreciate it. I take it seriously.”

Lewis also took baseball seriously. Preternaturally gifted, it didn’t long for his name to emerge on the uber-competitive Southern California scene. Kay recalled a travel ball coach calling him when Lewis was still in middle school, marveling about his "freakish" potential.

It didn’t take Kay long to get an up-close look at that athletic prowess.

“I remember Royce played [against] our little feeder team here and Royce was trying to switch-hit,” he said. “I remember watching him as a seventh-, eighth grader. I'm like, ‘This kid's going to be good. I don't know how good, but he's going to be good.’ We called him Bambi – we just didn't know [how he’d project].”

Projection of young ballplayers can be a notoriously finicky proposition. Seeing how a given player performs on the diamond at 13-14 years old is often wildly different from how they look at 17-18 in their upperclassman years. But landing Lewis undoubtedly changed the landscape for JSerra, which secured three consecutive Trinity League championships from 2014-16 under Kay’s guidance.

“My biggest takeaway is how much I grew,” Lewis said about his time on campus. “Not only in the game of baseball but just as a person, from the entirety of the school. I learned so much just on how to mature properly and be the person I am today. And from the people I've met, from the friends I've made and from the coaches that were able to coach me and still to this day are part of my life. … it's truly special. And so I think, honestly, that's what helped shape me was being there every day and having someone like Coach Kay seriously be making you work for it and not ever having you take a day off.”


There is the usual buzz of anticipation that builds around all No. 1 overall picks when they make their professional debuts. For Lewis, it was all of 14 days from selection to donning a uniform for the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Twins. For a player who has shown a flair for the highest stage in his brief big league tenure, Lewis’ first pro at-bat served as something of a prelude: slugging a center-cut fastball over the wall in left-center field.

“That definitely was excitement at its finest,” Lewis said. “I was shocked, ‘I was the first overall pick!’ … I felt like I had another great support system in the Minnesota Twins that could help me become and evolve into a great player in this game. And I felt comfortable right away.

“I just got a fastball right down the middle where I was looking, so you gotta swing as hard as you can. And then luckily enough, it went over the fence.”

While Lewis’ start sounds like it came out of a storybook, his trajectory toward the Majors was anything but linear.

After a solid first full season in 2018, Lewis had a roller-coaster ride in ‘19. He earned a SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game invitation and went on to win the Arizona Fall League’s MVP Award, but largely had a rough go across two levels during his age-20 campaign – a .661 OPS, 3.24:1 K/BB ratio and 20 errors at shortstop. Then the pandemic shut down Minor League Baseball in 2020.

After that time away, Lewis was raring to go, ready to make a lasting impression at Twins camp in 2021. But before Grapefruit League games got underway, he sustained his first torn right ACL, ending his year before it ever began.

“He never wavered. You never saw him go, ‘Poor me,’” said Kay. “I think that’s the mark of a lot of professional players, big leaguers, that know that shortcomings are a part of the game.”

Ask Lewis what he remembers from that whirlwind period in which seemingly nothing was going as planned and he has only positives to draw from the time away.

“I learned that baseball is not the only thing,” he said. “And if I take my mind off this and appreciate it when I do get the chance to have it, I think it'll be better for me. And that just truly showed when I got back. I used that mentality through my rehab and obviously just worked hard and accomplished my goal, which was becoming a Major League player. ... It felt like it was getting closer and closer each day that went by during my rehab process. I think that's what made me better and made me honestly excited for every moment. I had to be a part of the game.”

Despite going 31 months between playing in Minor League contests, when Lewis did lace up his spikes again, he looked every bit like the talent that the Twins selected first overall nearly half a decade prior. After walloping Triple-A pitching over the course of 34 games, his first call to The Show arrived.

But just 12 games into his Twins tenure, a second right ACL tear put him back to square one.

“It really helped calm me down from just focusing 2,000 percent on only baseball,” Lewis said of the injuries. “I know that once I got that excitement and I realized I was the No. 1 pick, I knew there were expectations. But I also put way more and higher expectations on myself to accomplish this goal of becoming a Major League baseball player.”

On May 27, 2023, Lewis hit second in the order for Triple-A St. Paul. He had already collected multihit showings in four of his nine rehab appearances. That day marked another, culminating with a two-run homer in his final at-bat in the Minors before his first full-fledged stint in the Majors.

Two days later – one year to the day of his second ACL tear – he manned the hot corner for Minnesota.

“It feels so surreal, right?” Lewis said before the game. "I think something special is going to happen tonight. I couldn’t tell you what, but it just feels like it’s kind of that time.”

He homered in his second at-bat.

From being “freakish good” as a teen to delivering playoff heroics that will live in Minnesota lore for decades to come, Lewis’ big league story is still in the early chapters. He has ascended from precocious young talent to legitimate force in the heart of a big league lineup, but he has grinded his way there, one rung at a time – and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I realized how hard it is because not only is there so many levels, but there's so many other great players all up and down the Minor Leagues that you're playing with and you're really fighting against. ... Each team, there's seven shortstops, there's seven third basemen and potentially more coming every year – there's always someone coming up to get your spot,” Lewis said. “And so you're really always just fighting to make it.”


Walk into Kay’s office inside the athletic department building at JSerra and there's a wall covered with mementos of Lewis during his Lions playing days along with a quote from former U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt's “Citizenship in a Republic” speech.

“The credit belongs to the man in the arena,” it reads. “... who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming.”

When Lewis entered JSerra as a 14-year-old, no player had ever been selected with the first overall pick straight out of an Orange County high school. He credits the "immensely talented coaching staff" for preparing him for the mental and physical toughness needed in the game ahead – both in high school and at the professional level.

Now Lewis’ number is emblazoned on the school's outfield wall.

“He's the quintessential JSerra Lion,” Kay said. “He's who you want your daughter to marry. He is as worthy as a person as there is in this world. When he walks the halls, it's not about him. It's ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ And it’s as authentic as possible.”

That sociability and the way he interacted with teachers and teammates – as much as his talent on the diamond – made Lewis a “no-doubt” choice to have his number retired when the time came, according to Kay.

“It means a lot because obviously all that hard work paid off,” Lewis said. “And for Coach [Kay] to think of me so highly after the way I thought of him and put him up there on a pedestal of being one of the best coaches, for sure, that I've had in my career, it’s just a blessing to have him think of me like that.

“I couldn't be more honored and just excited to see my number on the wall there now when I couldn't hit the ball over the fence at the time.

“But now I could.”

Jesse Borek is a reporter/coordinator of prospect content at MLB Pipeline and MiLB. Follow him on Twitter @JesseABorek.