Where We Were a Year Ago & Why Steven Kwan Will Avoid the Sophomore Slump

I need to get something off my chest.

Remember this time last year? Remember how anxious we felt as Cleveland Baseball fans about the makeup and contents of the Guardians’ roster? I do. I distinctly remember thinking that there was no way that the organization could consider not adding free agent talent to the roster while planning on competing for the playoffs. No free agents effectively meant they weren’t serious about competing in 2022.

I also distinctly remember racking my brain trying to figure out who would possibly start in the Guardians outfield among the players that were on the roster at that time. Myles Straw was a shoe-in. But the other outfield positions? Bradley Zimmer? Oscar Mercado? Franmil Reyes? Josh Naylor once he is healthy (so that Bobby Bradley can keep playing first base, of course)? At the time, I remember talking myself into the benefits of an outfield covered defensively by Straw and Zimmer and how they would make up for a potential lack of offensive production with their defensive skill sets. The team could hide Naylor or Reyes in the other outfield spot because those two guys would cover so much ground, so I thought.

Curiosity got the best of me though as I was looking for either more inspiration or convincing. It must have been around this time last year when I first decided to check out the Roster Resource page of Fangraphs and see who they projected to be in the Guardians lineup based on the available players. Some things on there were as expected. Myles Straw was there, for instance. But then I saw who they had listed as the Opening Day left-fielder.

Steven Kwan?! Former 5th round pick, middle of the road prospect Steven Kwan? I admit that I only had a surface level knowledge of the young man at the time and in seeing his name penciled in by a respected resource as part of the Guardians Opening Day lineup, I found myself more resolute than ever.

The Guardians had to sign a free agent outfielder. Jorge Soler, Avisail Garcia, Tommy Pham. Somebody. Anybody but Joc Pederson (got that wrong). We can’t go into the season with the outfield cupboard so bare that we are reliant on Steven Kwan. And I continued to stew as the season got closer and closer and no changes were made. The Roster Resource page remained unchanged.

I needed to get this all off my chest because I can look back now and find my feelings at the time as hilarious. Obviously, I was wrong and I am absolutely ecstatic that I was.

The pivot for me was nearly instantaneous. From that first April weekend in Kansas City, Steven Kwan became one of my favorite Guardians to watch. You may know this by now. My love affair with his style of play is already well documented in this space.

Looking back, it was hasty to hand-wave away Kwan last winter. He had always profiled as a supreme contact hitter with discerning batting eye in the minors. He even started to pick up a little more pop in his bat as he progressed through his days in the farm system, hitting 12 dingers between AA and AAA in 2021.

The Guardians lefty went on to have a resounding success of a rookie season. He played in 147 games hitting .298, stealing 19 bases, spending most of the season in the Guardians lead-off spot and playing left-field well enough to earn himself a Gold Glove. He struck out at the second lowest rate of any Major League player in baseball and reached base via walk more often than he punched out, a rare feat for any hitter of this era, let alone a 24-year old rookie.

If his regular season production and off-season accolades aren’t enough to move the needle for some, Kwan upped the ante by hitting .300 in the playoffs. He smashed a memorable Yankee Stadium home run during the American League Division Series off of Yankees ace Gerrit Cole to boot.

All told, his level of his success is striking. As the 2023 season approaches it is now easy to view him as one of the key pieces of the Guardians’ future, even prominent enough to be promoted in the company of league stars like Mookie Betts, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and some dude named Frank Lindor. Kwan has made waves not only at home but within the greater baseball sphere and for that reason, 2023 could present an all new challenge.

Is Kwan equipped for that challenge? Well, let’s start with the basics. With a successful season under his belt, he can, rest assured, that he has firmly planted himself in the big leagues. He endured the marathon season and was a valued and productive member of the ball-club from pole to pole. At the same time, a full season of play means a full season of video and analytics data that teams now have on Kwan. Players, scouts and analytics teams around the league will now have the time and opportunity to put a plan of attack together to render his strong but unorthodox offensive skills less potent.

Baseball is a game of adjustments. Game-to-game. Month-to-month. Season-to-season. The data suggests that the league has already tried at least once to adjust to Kwan in his most early days on the scene. Since I started by talking about memories, you may remember how Kwan started the season. He established himself on the scene by reaching base 13 times in his first four games. That was tied for the most times ever with two other players (Kaz Matsui and former Indian Jay Bruce). Kwan was able to be so prolific in getting on in no small part because of his impeccable sense of the strike-zone.

Major League teams didn’t realize this trait before his debut. In April, 46%– less than half- of the pitches that Kwan saw were within the confines of the strike-zone (I’m referring to the actual physical location of the pitch, not how it was called by the umpire). Now, I am not a player, scout or team-hired analyst. I’m just a guy that loves the sport and has access to Statcast. My oversimplifications could be wildly false. However, my guess is that Kwan got pigeonholed in those first couple of weeks. My guess is that his early scouting report was something like:

“He’s young. He’s never had a Major League at-bat before. Pitch him outside the zone. Make him prove he is disciplined. Chances are he will probably chase. Let’s welcome him to the show.”

Wrong! Kwan would go on to his aforementioned amazing start, walking eight times in his first six games. I will give opposing teams credit though because they didn’t take long to make the first adjustment. From April 15th to the end of the month the strike rate that Kwan saw picked up to 50%. It would ultimately get up to 52% in May followed by a peak of 53% in June. By the end of the season, Kwan saw the 19th highest percentage of pitches in the zone (among 223 hitters that saw at least 1500 pitches).

And perhaps this first adjustment by opposing pitchers even proved smart initially. After being named AL Rookie of the Month in April, Kwan actually struggled in May. He hit only .173 for the month and while his walk rate remained strong, he only had three extra base hits.

But here’s the thing, after that initial adjustment period, Kwan made an adjustment of his own. As opposing pitchers continued to pepper the strike-zone in June at an increased rate, Kwan turned his numbers back around. He hit .341 with an OBP of .412 for the month.

And this is where I think the game within the game gets even more interesting because it seems like the scouting reports on Kwan went from the “he’s a rookie, he will chase” stereotype to another stereotype, which was:

“There’s no authority in Kwan’s bat. He’s a little guy that doesn’t hit the ball over the fence. You can knock the bat out of his hands by pounding him with high fastballs in the zone.”

But here’s the thing this time, the pitch that Kwan had the most success against in 2022, was the high fastball. He hit .302 against it. His expected wOBA against high fastballs was .360- that’s nearly 50 points better than the median of .313. But teams were so sure of themselves in this strategy that when all was said and done, no one saw more high fastballs in 2022 in all of Major League Baseball than Steven Kwan.

And the post-season didn’t cause a change in strategy either. The Rays and Yankees, two well respected organizations that aren’t considered bad at scouting and analytics at all, doubled down on this strategy. 62 percent of the pitches that Kwan saw in the regular season were fastballs. He saw 73 percent fastballs during the post-season. The rate at which he saw high pitches also went up, although at a smaller clip. When the stakes were greatest opposing pitchers were still trying to beat him with the high fastball. Its no wonder he hit .300 in the playoffs.

Truthfully, if the Statcast data is to be believed, Kwan does have a hole in his swing. Off-speed pitches down and in seem to trouble him. He had an xwOBA of just .225 on splitters and changeups down and in and an actual batting average of .225 against breaking pitches in the same location. The natural problem with putting Kwan away seems to be that you can’t just throw him only off-speed down and in all the time. At some point he’d eventually figure that out and sit on it. You have to set him up with something else, and the natural setup to slow pitches down would be fast pitches up- but Kwan murders those. Even beyond the specifics of Kwan’s swing, pitchers have been trained in the launch angle era to attack hitters with breaking pitches down and fastballs high. At this point, those high fastballs are a big part of what teams are constantly preaching to their pitching staffs. They are innate to the repertoire of many Major League hurlers.

Ultimately, this has been a long diatribe that illustrates how even if Kwan has a hole in his skill set at the plate, good luck keeping him down by using just a single strategy. His qualities of great bat on ball skills, discerning batting eye and staggering foot speed are exactly the type of things that should keep him out of long slumps and should keep him from seeing a setback from his successful rookie campaign.

There’s more to consider than the numbers though. Kwan already seems to also possess a professional mindset and a maturity beyond his years. Manager Terry Francona has spoken on multiple occasions about Kwan’s demeanor and about how even though Kwan was a rookie by definition in 2022 it wasn’t long before he was carrying himself like a veteran. This poise shines through in how he was able to adjust in return to the adjustments pitchers made to him during the season.

Kwan’s maturity shows in other ways as well. It shows in how he sought the advice of teammates like Shane Bieber. Kwan wanted tips from someone who had been through a full 162 game season before about how he should be preparing his body for the dog days of August and September. Bieber was happy to provide council and Kwan was actually a better offensive player across the board in the second half of the season compared to the first half.

Of course, he is also a leader on the field. Kwan is a spark plug. He dives into the stands to make defensive plays, runs out every ball and sets the tone at the top of the Guardians order. I’ve argued before that he is the poster child for what this iteration of Guardians baseball truly is.

Beyond the respect he should have with his teammates, the Guardians outfielder should reap the benefits of his growing respect within one other key group of individuals on the field: umpires. No player in the American League had more strikes called against him that were actually located outside of the zone in 2022 than Steven Kwan. While that sounds disappointing at face value, it really means that there is even more room for Kwan’s eye at the plate to grow. It seems that not only did opposing pitchers underestimate him in 2022, but so did umpires. And as a rookie turns into a veteran it would only make sense that some of those poor strike calls turn into correct ball calls.

I’m reminded of another former Cleveland ballplayer that had a great batting eye in Carlos Santana. After his first stints in the Majors, Santana quickly gained a reputation for having some of the best plate discipline in the game. I remember sitting and watching his at bats at times and thinking to myself on borderline pitches “Well, he didn’t swing. It must not be a strike.” More often that not, the umpires agreed, possibly in part due to Santana’s reputation. The former Indian has led all of baseball in walks twice in his career and finished in the top five in ten of his thirteen seasons.

As Kwan builds a similar reputation he should also see his success at the plate improve. Surely if nothing else, the law of averages would dictate that he won’t lead the American League in most times screwed by the umpires again in 2023. I think it’s likely that he will fair better and better on borderline calls as his career unfolds.

And if all of this is still not enough, it is important to remember that Kwan does it with more than his bat. Again, he was a Gold Glove Award winner in just his rookie season. He stole 19 bases and was the 15th best base-runner in the game based on Fangraphs BaseRuns statistic. Even if there is some backsliding with his offensive performance, Kwan has plenty to still hang his hat on as an everyday player.

I just don’t think that will need to be the case though. I’ve already made the mistake of woefully underestimating Steven Kwan once. So did most fans. So did most pitchers. So did most umpires.

I’m not going to make that mistake again.

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