November 27, 2022

Steven Kwan: Also the Best Left-Fielder in Baseball

Amazingly, when I gushed about Steven Kwan about a month ago I was completely remiss. Don’t worry, I’m not taking back anything that I said at the time. He is all the things that I said he was. As a rookie, he is arguably the best contact hitter in all of baseball. He is a spark plug at the top of the Guardians order, hitting .310 since being put in the lead-off spot on June 22nd. He has the potential to be the personification of Cleveland Guardians Baseball in the upcoming new era.

What he also is, and what I completely neglected to mention last month, is possibly the best left-fielder in baseball.

Yes, he misplayed a ball in the sun on Sunday that led to a double by Mariners second baseman Adam Frazier. Let’s get that nugget out of the way immediately. You are going to find mistakes and miscues with literally every ballplayer at some point. Let’s not forget that at one point (I believe it was in 1999) the Indians clubhouse had a ceremony trying to exorcise the errors out of Omar Vizquel‘s glove after an uncharacteristically poor start to the season. That happens when you’re the career leader in games played at a position (in Omar’s case, shortstop). You’re going to encounter a few weird plays that you aren’t able to handle.

Sunday’s misplay was weird for Kwan, but it came in the wake of arguably the play of the year for anyone at any position. On Friday night, Mariners catcher Cal Raleigh sliced a foul ball down the left-field line that was headed towards the seats. Kwan, in his usual “full-go all the time” style didn’t give up on the play. As he got to the stands he left his feet, making contact with T-Mobile Park’s short left-field side wall below his knees. The contact made him topple face-first into the second row of the stands. In a play reminiscent of Derek Jeter going face first into the seats of Yankee Stadium (I’ve been watching The Captain), Kwan secured the catch, brought both himself and the ball back into play and even fired the ball into to cutoff man Amed Rosario before crumpling to the ground in order to catch his wind. Kwan literally created an out from thin air.

He isn’t just a one-hit wonder patrolling left-field though. Two weeks earlier Kwan started the bottom of the first inning in Toronto by snaring Lourdes Gurriel’s line drive. The ball was surely shot straight over his head and waiting to bounce off the outfield wall for a double. Kwan left his feet, leaping and snaring the ball over his head by reaching over himself and falling to the ground. He came down with the ball like a corner-back that had outplayed a wide receiver on a fade route. Interception Guardians.

And on June 15th Kwan realistically saved the game when he robbed Rockies shortstop Jose Iglesias with a diving catch to his right on the warning track at Coors Field. The ball, poised for extra bases, came with men on the corners in the 7th inning and two outs with the Guards holding a one-run lead. Kwan’s catch was the difference in the contest. Let alone that, I can’t recall the last time I had seen any outfielder make a diving catch on a deep outfield warning track. The chances of Kwan catching that ball? 35 percent per Statcast.

Yes, Kwan is already beginning to accumulate a highlight reel not even one season into his Major League career. He isn’t all just flash and no substance though. Instead, he is also statistically one of the best left-fielders in all of baseball. Kwan’s eight Outs Above Average are tied for the lead for a left-fielder along with former Angel and current Phillie Brandon Marsh.

No left-fielder is better than Kwan at making plays to his left, nor is any left-fielder better at playing left-handed hitters. Kwan has collected five Outs Above Average against left-handed hitters alone, two more than Marsh or anyone else playing left-field (the level of depth Statcast brings is just fascinating).

But OAA isn’t the only metric to suggest that Kwan handles himself well. Kwan is first in Fangraphs’ Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 Games among left-fielders with at least 500 innings played. They calculate him as the rangiest left-fielder in all of baseball, worth 7.0 Range Runs, which is 1.3 more than the runner-up (Andrew Benintendi). He is also second in Defensive Runs Above Average, only trailing Marsh.

Getting consensus from both Statcast and Fangraphs is not always a given. The two stat systems can often contradict each other when it comes to fielding because we still have a very incomplete idea of how to calculate the worth of a fielder. For Kwan to ping at a high competency using both services really says a lot about his ability in the field. We can be confident not just with our eyes but with empirical evidence that he is one of the top left-fielders in the game.

Given not only the memorable, flashy plays that Kwan has collected in the outfield but also his statistical achievements and the fact that his main rival in Marsh was traded to the National League mid-season, there is a very strong argument to be had that Kwan should receive a Gold Glove this winter. Before we can get to that point though, he will continue to couple with outfield-mate Myles Straw in center-field as they make arguably the best tandem to cover two-thirds of any outfield in baseball. Straw himself is also worth eight Outs Above Average in center. Having these two ballplayers covering as much ground as they do has allowed Cleveland to experiment with a number of offense-first options in right-field, whether those options be former Guardian Franmil Reyes (RIP), current RF Oscar Gonzalez, or a relative newbie to the position Nolan Jones.

Cleveland also finds itself in the heat of the playoff race. They are two games up in the American League Central Division over the Minnesota Twins going into their final 36 games of the season. Both Kwan’s bat at the top of the lineup and glove in left-field are going to be pivotal to the Guardians’ ability to stave off the Twins or sneak into one of the three American League Wildcard positions.

Just like the Guardians’ chances for October, it would be foolish to ignore Kwan on either side of the ball. He may just steal away an opposing run as fast as he can create one himself.

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