He’s been a nice surprise, and is settling in to being solid. What can we expect?
With each passing game, the reality of Steven Kwan is being thrown into starker relief. When he showed up in spring training and took the league by storm in April, it seemed like it was a curious flash in the pan, but surely this guy who can’t quite hit the ball past the outfielder had a place in the majors.
Here we are though, more than halfway through a big league season, and at this point, Kwan has forged himself a comfortable spot at the top of the lineup and in left field. The power, or lack thereof, is a bit of a bummer, but everything else about the guy is continually intriguing and, again, proving to be a real, tangible thing that leads to real, tangible, positive results. At this point, he’s one of the Guardians’ best players, and probably a figure to get used to for quite a while. One has to ask though, what can we expect out of this marvelous surprise?
As of this writing, Kwan is hitting .290/.367/.377, working out to a 116 OPS+ in this offensively suppressed 2022 and placing him fourth on the Guards in that stat. His on-base percentage leads the team by a few points over José Ramírez, and incredibly his slugging percentage is still fifth on the team among qualified hitters. Obviously, he shouldn’t be out slugging Franmil Reyes, and guys like Nolan Jones or Oscar Gonzalez outpace him there, but they’ve barely had a cup of coffee.
Kwan is performing though, and his preternatural sense of his own zone and what pitchers are trying to do to him seems to be a great base for him to build off. Still, that make up — no power, lots of slap hits everywhere, and good on-base ability — is a weird mix that really shouldn’t lend itself to a long career. Thing of it is, it’s incredibly rare company he finds himself in as he logs that stat line. In fact, there are only six other players who, in their rookie year, logged an on-base rate over .360 and slugged under .400 who got any real playing time. Take a look:
It’s really quite a wild little list. Perhaps the most wild, there’s literally another player this year doing almost exactly what Kwan is doing!
I admit to not paying a ton of attention to the Cardinals this year, much to my father-in-law’s chagrin, but Brendan Donovan is having a wild year. He’s played a bit less than Kwan, and unlike Kwan’s more comfortable .315 BABIP, Donovan is logging a .347 rate there so there’s space for regression. Still, it’s kind of neat to have this happening twice in the same year, especially in this era.
More generally, that list does run the gamut. You have a Hall of Famer in Richie Ashburn, a former MVP in Christian Yelich, a dude in Mike Aldrete who barely cracks the “Remember a Guy” pantheon, and a handful of players that sort of do. Most of them even hit the ten-year mark, which means free MLB games for life and a nice little pension. To a man, they were solid, if unspectacular, and that’s a recipe for a nice career. Where might Kwan fall on this scale?
The biggest worry with Kwan, he’s already 24 so it’s hard to hope for a ton of growth. The oldest guy on the list, Aldrete, is the one with the least spectacular career even if he did put together a decade of non-successive baseball and rated out to a 104 OPS+ over those 10 years. His big problem might have been his platoon splits, with a 100-point difference in facing lefties vs. righties. That’s hard to overcome when all your value comes from on-base percentage and you can’t even do that. Plus that was an era in the late ’80s and early 90’s that saw batting average first and extra-base hits second, and he only hit over .300 once, and aside from that never over .268 in a season.
For Kwan at least, he does continue to get on base regardless of the pitcher. While he too has a 120-point difference between lefties and righties (.647 vs. .766) it again comes from all the slugging. He still gets on base at a .349 clip against lefties and is hitting .298, he just hasn’t hit a single non-single so his slugging percentage and batting average are identical. It’s not ideal, but it proves that he’s not getting baffled by left-handed pitching too much, and leaves room for growth.
So yes, I think he’ll surpass the Aldrete Line. Beyond that though, who knows? Will he develop a bit of power as he fills out more? Will the Guardians get him on a milk-steak diet and lock him in the weight room all winter, with breaks only for batting cage work? And would that drive him insane? It’s impossible to tell.
Even getting to the Gene Richards level with his 18.7 WAR over eight seasons is an incredible feat. Do you know how many position players in a Cleveland uniform have earned at least 18 WAR since 1947? Eighteen according to Baseball Reference, that’s it. Obviously part of that is just that they move guys a lot that are that valuable, and Kwan would need to average three WAR a year for the entirety of club control to get there, which if he did that for four and a half seasons they’d trade him if he doesn’t sign an extension. And three WAR a year is feasible, though again since integration only eighty-four Cleveland players have done that at least once (Jim Thome had eight seasons above that mark to lead the franchise). Since they opened Progressive Field in 1994, it’s rarer, only 35 player seasons in Cleveland have crossed that mark.
All this to say, the way Steven Kwan plays baseball is its’ own kind of impactful. He’s a relatively interesting player, if not unique, and is going to be influenced by luck quite a bit since he sprays the ball around so much and outfielders seem to just not want to play in on him. Maybe they’re scared of those two homers he hit. He’s in an interesting position since there’s all that much more heralded talent on the farm that you’d think would overtake him, so do you just keep riding him, or what? More than anything, I can’t help but think about Michael Brantley when I watch Kwan, though with a dusting of Carlos Santana with his ability to just not swing at balls. Brantley wasn’t a powerful guy early in his career, usually around .400 slugging, but then matured, filled out, and ended up third in MVP voting. He wasn’t a 40-dinger threat, but 20 homers and another 45 doubles was a lot of fun. That would be the dream with Kwan.
If it’s less than that, so be it, but I can’t be the only one who sees it.