If you looked closely out to the west this afternoon, you may have seen a small ball of fire off in the distance. It wasn’t the sun setting, for it was far too early in the day for that. It wasn’t an explosion or unidentified flying object either. No. That ball of fire off in the distance was coming from a single source in Kansas City, Missouri. It was Guardians outfielder Steven Kwan‘s bat.
You may not have noticed, but baseball’s most pleasant surprise after one weekend of play is the 5 foot 9, left-handed, rookie outfielder that made Cleveland’s squad out of Spring Training. And don’t get it confused, despite Cleveland’s lack of action in adding outfield talent from external sources this off-season, Kwan absolutely earned his spot on this roster. He hit .469 in Goodyear with a 1.031 OPS, securing his spot on the 26-man roster that opened play at Kauffman Stadium on April 7th. But even with the success, he achieved in the Cactus League, it was a surprise to some that he got the nod in the outfield on Opening Day over longer-tenured outfielders Oscar Mercado and Bradley Zimmer.
Yet for some others, this wasn’t a surprise. I remember looking at Fangraphs’ Roster Resource page (a great tool, it projects every team’s most likely day-to-day depth chart based on the current roster, updated daily year-round) throughout this winter and seeing that the site had Kwan slated as the team’s everyday left-fielder. I was personally incredulous. Kwan?! He’s not even one of the Guardians’ top ten prospects! He’s not only going to make the team but be the everyday left-fielder?! Cleveland would surely bring in outside talent to play the outfield and if not, even with their faults, Zimmer or Mercado will surely play instead of this relative unknown.
Instead, Fangraphs was right and that relative unknown has put up a competitive plate appearance every single time he has strode to the plate this past weekend. It started right on Opening Day when Kwan showed a calm demeanor and strong approach even in his first at-bat in the show. He later admitted to having a racing heart in the moment, but showed great patience in the entire ballgame, working two walks and getting his first Major League hit. That demeanor and approach, something that makes Kwan seem comfortable in a way that one mostly sees only from veterans, is possible because of his great eye at the plate and supreme bat-to-ball skills. Kwan had more walks than strikeouts between AA and AAA in 2021 and so far has proven that his talents are translatable to baseball’s grandest level.
Those talents emboldened the Guardians’ front office to trade Zimmer to Toronto for relief pitcher Anthony Castro, his redundancy not needed with Kwan’s potential success. Manager Terry Francona has been quick to entrust the youngster (something that doesn’t always happen with the Guardians’ skipper and young players) and after a positive showing on Opening Day rewarded Kwan by putting him in the two-spot in the order. There, Kwan joins three others in the top five spots in the Guardians order that are players with strong contact skills and great speed (Myles Straw, Jose Ramirez and Amed Rosario being the others). Those characteristics are beginning to feel like a trend. They are beginning to feel like an identity. While all of baseball is zigging toward high-power, long-ball-centric offenses, perhaps the Guardians are zagging. And while Kwan has hit the ball solid- including two hits with over 100 mph exit velocities on Sunday – he is also putting the ball in play and causing chaos with his speed. A double in the 7th inning of Saturday’s game gave the Guardians their best chance to win after it put Kwan in scoring position with one out in a tie ballgame and Ramirez and Franmil Reyes coming up. That double was pure hustle as he outpaced Royals outfielder Michael Taylor‘s recovery to the ball in the left-center field gap as well as his throw, sneaking in before the tag. Sunday’s performance included an infield single as well that required speed, all a part of what amounted to a 5-hit day for Kwan and a 17-3 drubbing of the Royals.
In achieving that five-hit day in merely his third game as a Major Leaguer, Kwan joined only four other players since World War II to have five hits in one of their first five games. Obviously, it is way early, far too early to be making any distinctions, but the Guardians very well may have resolved one of their biggest issues in one of their corner outfield spots from within.
Steven Kwan has great physical talents. He puts the bat on the ball at an incredible rate that allows him to work counts and hit with two strikes. He has great speed that makes him a terror on the bases and aids him in patrolling all three outfield positions (all of which he has played in this young season already). And he has a discerning eye at the plate that has kept him from looking over-matched in his earliest rookie days.
And yes, we are literally only 2% into the 2022 season. It is absurdly early to be talking about Kwan’s success as an absolute. He hasn’t even faced a second team’s pitching staff yet with potentially a different strategy to get him out, let alone getting enough time in the Majors for the league to really begin to build a scouting report on him. But whether Kwan’s sensational success lasts a series, summer or seventeen seasons it’s important to take notice. Something special is happening in a Guardians uniform.