Lexington Legends

Legends’ home run leader could have been a pitcher. Here’s how he chose.

Lexington Legends outfielder Khalil Lee leads the team in home runs this season with 12.
Lexington Legends outfielder Khalil Lee leads the team in home runs this season with 12. aslitz@herald-leader.com

Baseball fans in Kentucky have become familiar with the two-way player.

Two of the top four picks in the 2017 Major League Baseball Draft — Louisville national player of the year Brendan McKay and Cincinnati Reds selection Hunter Greene — excel at both hitting and pitching. In 2014, AJ Reed was national player of the year as a two-way star at the University of Kentucky.

Khalil Lee, an outfielder for the Lexington Legends, was once a top two-way player in high school. In his senior year at Flint High School in Oakton, Va., Lee averaged .471 in the batter’s box while hitting six home runs. On the mound, Lee was nearly flawless, going 7-0 while maintaining a 0.33 ERA.

After a dominant senior season capped by winning the Virginia Gatorade Player of the Year award, Lee had a tough decision to make regarding his baseball future. He loved pitching and hitting, but Lee knew one had to go.

“I knew that I really love pitching and I really love hitting as well, my entire life I’ve always done both so I couldn’t really say I liked one more than the other,” Lee said.

Lee ended up choosing the batter’s box over the mound, and one particular reason helped make the decision easier.

“If you’re a pitcher, you play once every five days if you’re a starter, if you’re in the bullpen you could come back two, three times in a week,” Lee said. “I really like being on the field every day and I like to get into that routine of being on the field everyday and playing everyday, so that’s the one thing that stood out to me that helped me make that decision.”

Lee was picked as an outfielder in the third round of the 2016 MLB Draft by the Kansas City Royals. He went on to spend one year in the Arizona Rookie League, where he led the circuit in total bases, runs and triples.

Lee was also second in the league in walks and on-base percentage.

Now, Lee plays for the Legends and ranks near the top of some major hitting categories in the South Atlantic League. Lee had the fourth most home runs (12), fifth most runs scored (42) and fourth most walks (35) out of all players in the SAL entering play Thursday night.

“He’s got a tremendous talent. One thing that I give him credit for is that he comes here everyday, works hard and tries to get better,” Legends hitting coach Jesus Azuaje said. “He’s always listening, he’s always asking questions, after every at-bat he always talks to me about his approach.”

However, that does not mean that Lee is ready for the big leagues yet. Lee was second in the league in strikeouts (98) and ranked 68th in batting average (.240).

“He needs to work on his routine, at the plate he needs to work on his pitch selection and be aggressive on the strike zone, on the pitch he’s looking for,” Azuaje said. “This is a hard thing to do, to be aggressive, but also be disciplined at the plate, it’s a hard thing to do, not only for a young player but big league players.”

Lee is just beginning his pro career and has lots of time to improve. He just turned 19 on June 26 and is ranked as the Royals’ 12th best prospect by MLB.com.

“He’s up and down, he’s only 19 years old, but he’s got so much better and he’s going to be — for me, in the future — he’s going to be a major league player,” Azuaje said.

Chris Leach: 859-231-1326, @chrisleach250

Next game

Lexington at Greenville

7:05 p.m. Friday (WLXG-AM 1300)