From the moment he first stepped on the field on Opening Day at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, the moment was never too big for him.
Steven Kwan came out of the gate in 2022 as one of the hottest hitters in the game, immediately winning himself Rookie of the Month in April. His hot start cemented himself from the get-go as a cult hero in Cleveland baseball. Interestingly, Kwan isn’t the prototypical slugger that baseball fans will think of in 2022. Sure, he has a great and discerning eye at the plate, willing to work a walk even if it means taking strikes along the way. However, Kwan is able to take those pitches for strikes for reasons that are completely atypical for modern baseball stars. Namely, he has the god-given ability to get bat to baseball better than anyone in the game. He utilizes that skill in a way that is completely unorthodox to 2022’s baseball conventions. Despite bucking the trend, his methods have been completely successful.
As a rookie, Kwan has a batting average of .298 and an On-Base Percentage of .369 through July 29th. Both are tops for any Guardian with at least 100 Plate Appearances, and that includes the great Jose Ramirez. What’s most impressive though is Kwan’s K-Rate of a mere 8.3% for the season. No player that has enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title has a better K-Rate. Additionally, no player since 2015 has finished the season with a K-Rate below 9% and an OBP above .350 (both Buster Posey and Michael Brantley, also excluding the shortened 2020 season when Tommy LaStella did it in 55 games). Barring a major slump in the final two months, Kwan looks well on pace. And again, he is doing this all as a rookie.
After that award-winning April, May saw slippage. It was the worst month of his short Major League career as he hit only .173. Doubters were able to suggest that April had been either the beginners’ luck of a ballplayer finding holes in defenses or the success of a hitter without a scouting report for pitchers to attack. Kwan dashed those suggestions as he began to spray the ball all over the field again in June.
His approach has been if not infectious, then part of a greater plan. Steven Kwan is the blueprint for how this new era of up-and-coming Guardians teams wants to play ball. They are willing to eschew power with two strikes in order to put the ball in play. Not only does Kwan strike out at the lowest rate in the game, but the Guardians as a team strike out at the lowest rate in all of baseball. The four Guardians with the most Plate Appearances on the season (Kwan, Ramirez, Myles Straw and Amed Rosario) are all in the top 30 best among qualified hitters in K-Rate. All four are also smart base-runners with great speed, a common theme for all of the best ball clubs Cleveland has put together under the tutelage of Terry Francona. The Guardians are 6th in baseball in BaseRuns, a Fangraphs statistic that tries to aggregate the quality of a team or player’s base-running. Kwan is the only one of those same four ballplayers in the single digits in stolen bases (eight).
And now, Kwan doesn’t just lead the charge strategically, but also literally. On June 22nd on the road in Minnesota, he was placed into the lead-off spot in the batting order. He has hit from that spot in all but three games since. From that date on, Kwan has a slash line of .319/.377/.411 and a wRC+ of 128 (comparable to Vladimir Guerrero Jr. over the same period of time). He has also led the team in steals and walks over the same time span while the Guardians offense has scored the 10th most runs. They were 19th in runs scored from Opening Day until June 21st.
All of this perhaps amounts to the Guardians having found their lead-off hitter for the next five years. The offensive engine that is Ramirez as well as (hopefully) Josh Naylor, Andres Gimenez and Nolan Jones (among others) will be fueled by the speedy five-foot-nine best contact hitter in the world. There may not be a better combination of batting eye, speed and contact that culminates as the perfect way to fluster an opposing starting pitcher from the moment the words “Play Ball!” are uttered.
Last week, I perhaps foolishly tried to trade him for Juan Soto. While that offer is still worth snapping up if it were on the table, I would be far from disappointed to see Kwan wreaking havoc as a Guardian for the length of his team control if not even longer. I feel that there is even possibly a greater theme between Kwan and the Guardians organization.
Throughout the Dolan era, certain players have been the embodiment of Cleveland baseball. They may not have been the best player on the team and they might have not stayed for their entire careers, but they were the quintessential players of their time in Cleveland. Their style of play and talents exemplified the team and they came up from within the organization. Victor Martinez and Jason Kipnis immediately come to mind as examples of this phenomenon. Steven Kwan has the potential to be next up. As we move deeper into this new era of baseball in Cleveland he has the potential to not just be one of the best Cleveland Guardians, he has the potential to be the consummate Cleveland Guardian.
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