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The story of Steven Kwan is just beginning

Kwan’s 2022 was amazing, but the future is even more exciting

ALDS Game 3 - New York Yankees v Cleveland Guardians Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

I feel a bit bad for Steven Kwan.

He finished second in strikeout rate, 12th in average,13th in OBP, 26th in outs above average, and 29th in fWAR (these are among ALL players, by the way), helped his team get within one game of the ALCA, and was the only unanimous choice among Fielding Bible award winners. That’s a hell of a year.

But still, he’s a longshot to win Rookie of the Year. I don’t think Kwan is shedding any tears about it, though.

The Kwan we saw take the baseball world by storm in the opening week of the season was the same guy we saw all season. Though many national writers and non-Cleveland folks were surprised by the diminutive outfielder, those of us who had been paying attention to talented prospect evaluators focused on the Guardians knew there was serious talent lurking.

In a way, Kwan’s story is a microcosm of the Guardians’ 2022. Young, underhyped, and lacking a track record of hitting for power, Kwan (and the Guardians as a whole) tore up the script and turned in a remarkable performance.

Success in 2022 hinged upon patience and contact, with one flowing into the other and vice versa. Kwan displayed other-worldly plate discipline from his first exposure to MLB pitching through the end of the season. This was not unexpected, as Guardians Baseball Insider noted in their scouting report prior to the season. For Kwan to finish the year with the second-best swinging strike rate in all of baseball (3.1%), however, was not wholly expected. This was all crucial to his success, though, because not only was he excellent at identifying strikes (23.3% O-Swing%, 9th in MLB), but he also had an outstanding contact rate (91.9%, second in MLB). Kwan did not swing the bat at balls; he only swung when he felt confident he could make contact.

For Kwan, any contact worked. With hard hit and barrel rates in the first percentile and an average exit velocity in the third percentile, Kwan had to make the most of the contact he could make. In this regard, his ability to hit the ball to all fields was a huge asset because it would not allow opposing defenses to shift. He literally hit the ball all over, with a beautiful spray chart and rates of 30.8%, 35.4%, and 33.8% to the pull, center, and opposite fields, respectively, creating space for him to bloop a base hit or beat out a ground ball with his impressive speed.

Steven Kwan’s spray chart, with hits to all fields fairly equally.
Kwan’s spray chart is perfection.

Speed was a big part of what made Kwan such a threat on offense and defense. His sprint speed was above average, not elite (28.4 mph, 78th percentile, 127th in MLB,eighth on the Guardians), but paired with great instincts. By FanGraphs’ baserunning metric, Kwan’s 4.9 was 15th among all MLB players because of his intellect on the bases. I don’t know of any TOOTBLAN leaderboards, but I believe Kwan would rank low in any such list; on the contrary, Statcast does quantify how Kwan’s speed is an asset on defense and put him in the 91st percentile for outfield jump, which helped him win that Fielding Bible award.

Perhaps the best part of Kwan’s 2022, and what makes him so exciting moving forward, is that he was so consistent throughout the season. Only during one stretch did Kwan seem to experience growing pains, roughly 25 games into the season; the stretch was brief, however, as Kwan figured out how to handle the increased diet of fastballs pitchers were throwing at him.

A graph showing Steven Kwan’s wOBA and fastball percentage, which have an inverse relationship during Kwan’s struggle early in the season.
Pitchers adjusted to Kwan and he adjusted back.

In some ways, Kwan even improved as the season went on. Though he could hardly hope to improve his discipline, he did seem to get better at identifying pitches he could do damage on. In the first half, he had just one home run, but in the second he hit five. This was a product of hitting more line drives and fewer ground balls (17.9 vs. 27.3% and 47.6 vs. 37.2%, respectively) in the first versus second halves.

The Kwan that showed up in 2022 may not have been AL Rookie of the Year, but he was everything Cleveland needed in an outfielder. If he can repeat this performance, the team will be quite happy. But he’s shown an ability to improve himself at many levels, including the big league level, and the thought of Kwan getting even better is not a fantasy — and that’s the most exciting thing of all with Kwan.

Steven Kwan’s 2022 Stats

PA HR SB BB% K% Slash wRC+ WAR
PA HR SB BB% K% Slash wRC+ WAR
638 6 19 9.7% 9.4% .298/.373/.400 124 4.4

Total MVP points: 50
1st place votes: 0
2nd place votes: 0
3rd place votes: 1

We’re reviewing (almost) all the Guardians players from 2022 now through November, starting with the top-10 MVPs as voted on by eight Covering the Corner staff members. Players were awarded points based on their one through 10 individual rankings and were ranked as such. You can find all the Year in Review posts here.