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What’s going on with Steven Kwan?

Investigating potential reasons for Kwan’s offensive decline

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Cleveland Guardians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The Guardians’ 2022 rookie-of-the-year candidate is going through a bit of a sophomore slump. Can Steven Kwan do anything to regain his previous form that helped lead the team to a division title?

In 2022, Kwan put up a 124 wRC+ with a .323 BABIP, a 9.7 BB%, and 9.4 K%. In 2023, entering Tuesday night’s game, he had a 92 wRC+ with a .292 BABIP, a 10 BB%, and 12.3 K%. As has been well-chronicled, the Guardians are not an offensive juggernaut and can ill-afford a 30% decline in offensive production from one of their key hitters from 2022.

On a surface level, we can quickly observe that Kwan is chasing slightly more in 2023, having fallen from the 96th to 88th percentile in chase rate between last season to the current one. His contact rate outside the zone has fallen by 7%.

Kwan did not — and does not — hit the ball particularly hard. This is probably why his xwOBA has remained constant at .312 in 2022 and 2023. His .304 wOBA in 2023 is far closer to that mark than his .341 wOBA in 2022. In 2022, it seemed like he had a preternatural ability to put the ball where fielders aren’t that Baseball Savant and projections systems were not yet calibrated to capture or accept as repeatable. In 2023, so far, it seems like the robots have won.

Is the issue for Kwan how pitchers are approaching him? Well ... maybe a little? Pitchers are throwing him more pitches inside, as he has seen a 3% increase in pitches on the inner third of the strike zone and 1% more pitches down and inside. He’s faired notably worse on inside pitches in 2023 as seen in the below graphics displaying his 2022 wOBA

and 2023 wOBA, respectively

So, Kwan is seeing more pitches on the inside part of the plate in 2023 and doing significantly less damage when he sees them. That’s definitely a recipe for a sophomore slump. But, why is this happening when his exit velocities are similar (i.e. poor) in both seasons and his walk rate is similar?

Maybe the answer to Kwan’s struggles can be found in FanGraph’s recent article by Davy Andrews looking at outfield positioning, which found that outfields play Kwan (and other Guardians) shallower than any other batters in MLB. For comparisons, outfields in 2022 played him an average of 280 feet in left, 313 in center, and 292 in left. In 2023, he has been played at 276 feet in left, 310 feet in center, and 292 feet in right. The impact of these adjustments might be seen most prominently in centerfield, where he has seen a 6% increase in his percentage of balls he has hit land in 2023. Opposing fielders playing those three feet closer in average outfield depth can certainly eliminate some of the bloop hits and shallower line drives he delivered there in 2022.

I was somewhat surprised to see that teams haven’t crept in on Kwan in right field. It seems they are assuming that if he is able to pull a ball, it will likely travel a little further, but if he serves one to center or pokes one into the opposite field, the lack of exit velocity is going to make playing further in a good gamble.

So, is it brilliant defensive alignment that has solved the conundrum of keeping Kwan from reaching base? The answer is somewhat murky.

In 2022, Kwan had a 112 wRC+ when he hit to the opposite field, that number is 141 in 2023, despite opposing outfielders playing 4 feet closer on average. In 2022, he managed an 85 wRC+ when going to center field, and in 2023 that number is 48 (despite decreasing his soft-contact rate to center by 10.1%). In 2022, he hit for a 167 wRC+ when he pulled the ball, and in 2023 that number is 97 (with his hard-hit rate to right field declining 9%). So, I don’t know that the defensive adjustments can be seen as the main culprit for his decline. At most, the centerfielders playing further in may be cutting off some line drives from falling in but it doesn’t explain his steep decline in pull-rate damage.

In looking at Kwan’s batted ball and swing data, the only other significant change is that he has seen a huge decline in his performance on fastballs and cutters. The Guardians left-fielder has gone from 7.8 runs above average on fastballs and 0.7 runs above average on cutters in 2022 to -6.4 and -0.7 in 2023. Kwan has seen roughly the same rate of fastballs and a 3% increase in cutters. The distribution of the pitches in location is fairly similar between his two seasons, with only 2-3% increases in fastballs and cutters both down inside and inside-down out of the zone in 2023 from 2022.

The result of this analysis with Kwan is a double-edged sword. I don’t see any huge changes he should be making to improve his results, so there is a reasonable chance that there will be some natural regression in which he will see some more batted balls fall for hits. The other side of that sword is that there not being a particular area in obvious need of a change in approach or strategy will make achieving dramatic improvement difficult.

Ultimately, Kwan, like all the Guardians, needs to focus on doing damage on pitches he can hit hard. He needs to expect that teams are going to continue to challenge him inside while tempting him to poke balls on the outside part of the plate into the waiting arms of drawn-in outfielders. My guess is that the need to pull more pitches is going to require increased patience on pitches on the outside of the plate and an increase in aggression on inside pitches, perhaps as seen in his double from the recent series with the Athletics:

This pitch wasn’t a strike, but Kwan anticipated what the pitcher was going to try to do and smacked an inside pitch into right field, where you can clearly see the outfielder was not expecting him to pull the ball.

I want to believe that Kwan has great bat-to-ball skills and possesses the ability to put the ball in places where he wants to as well as any professional hitter can. Forcing teams to respect his ability to pull the ball and to lash mistakes into the right-field corner seems to be the only way to force teams to adjust their defensive strategies and allow for a greater chance for more balls hit to center to fall in for hits. In pursuit of this goal, I am fine with him chasing and striking out a little bit more (as he is doing) in an effort to swing harder and make better contact, while also not ignoring the skillset of taking walks that buoys his offensive value.

Kwan has seen what adjustments the league is making to try to suppress him to the value of a typical center-field hitter (95-100 wRC) versus the value of a decent left-field hitter (120-125 wRC+). Now, it’s up to one of baseball’s best contact hitters and a renowned student of the game to see if he can adjust back.

Otherwise, we will be left with the conclusion that 2022 should be seen as more of an outlier and Kwan is likely a player closer to what his xwOBA says he is.