Making sense of the legend of Steven Kwan
One of the wonderful things about baseball is the unpredictable storylines. We knew Vladimir Guerrero Jr. would wow us this year, but could anyone have guessed that Steven Kwan’s plate appearances would become appointment viewing, too?
The 24-year-old was a fifth-round pick by Cleveland in 2018 out of Oregon State. His calling card: contact and hitting, hitting, hitting. That translated at High-A in 2019, and again in Double-A and Triple-A in ‘21. He made the Guardians out of Spring Training this year, and the baseball world might not have been ready.
Kwan got off to a stellar start, making contact and getting on base at a rate that was impossible not to notice.
“I bet you there’s a lot of player development people that have their chest out right now, as they should,” manager Terry Francona said after the team’s fourth game. “I know we’re four games in, but every single one of them kept saying, ‘Hey, he’s gonna be OK, man.’ So I know they’re proud.”
Here’s a look at the historical precedent for Kwan’s legendary start and what could be on the horizon.
Whiff-less for a long while
Kwan really started to turn heads when he got through his first career MLB game without swinging and missing once. And then his second game … and third, fourth and fifth, too. It took until his sixth game, on the second pitch he saw, for Kwan to finally register a whiff – a swing and miss, this time in the form of a foul tip.
He saw 116 pitches before his first swing and miss, the most of any player to start a career since at least 2000, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, surpassing a record set by David Fletcher in 2018. Think about how impressive that is, to be facing big league pitching in games that count for the first time and be simply unflappable.
His 116 pitches seen before that first swing and miss were the eighth most for any player to start a season in the last 20 seasons, according to Elias.
Most pitches seen before 1st swing & miss in season, past 20 seasons:
2003 Luis Castillo: 268
2010 David Eckstein: 214
2008 Jamey Carroll: 211
2004 Frank Thomas: 146
2017 Eric Sogard: 140
2003 Brett Abernathy: 134
2009 Roy Oswalt: 128
2022 Steven Kwan: 116
“It’s pretty incredible,” Guardians pitcher Aaron Civale said as the streak was still ongoing. “I don’t think many of us could come up with any words to describe what’s going on. I think all of us are just enjoying watching him do it.”
Speaking for all baseball fans: us too, Aaron. Us too.
As noted above, this wasn’t new for Kwan, as a concept. In the Minors in 2021, he swung and missed at just 2.6% of pitches he saw, by far the lowest in the Minors (min. 300 plate appearances). The next batter on the list, Michael Stefanic of the Angels’ organization, was at 5%. For comparison, the lowest such rate in the Majors belonged to Fletcher, at 4%. It makes sense that Fletcher would reappear here, as he’s likely a good comp to keep in mind moving forward for Kwan.
Getting on base
It isn’t just that Kwan evaded the swing and miss for so long. It’s also what he did with his plate appearances, namely, making them count. Kwan has reached base 19 times in his first six career games, the second most of any player in his first six games since at least 1901. Only 2008 Jay Bruce reached more, doing so 20 times.
Those 19 times reaching base in the Guardians' first six games are also tied for the fourth most by any player in his team's first six games of a season since 1901, trailing only 1997 Brady Anderson, 1989 Von Hayes and 1945 Mel Ott, with 20 each. And again, these are the first six games of Kwan’s entire career.
Something else that happens when you combine a proclivity for contact and getting on base? Strikeouts are a rarity. Kwan struck out in the first inning on Wednesday – looking, of course. It was his first MLB strikeout, but there’s more. It was his first strikeout since Sept. 26, 2021, with Triple-A Columbus … including Spring Training. Kwan’s 3.4% strikeout rate leads all qualified hitters.
“You know, I had never seen him play before, but since Day 1 that I saw him in Spring Training, hustling every day, playing hard, I knew from the first moment that he had a chance of making it,” Guardians slugger Franmil Reyes said. “And just seeing the way he plays the game, it’s like Josey's [José Ramírez] energy but [on] the field,” referring to the energy Ramírez brings to the clubhouse.
We’re six games in and Kwan has his own career to craft, but some contact rate leaders to keep in mind include Fletcher and Michael Brantley. Teammate Myles Straw also made prolific contact last year, Ramírez rarely strikes out, and fellow Guardians Amed Rosario and Owen Miller are making a lot of contact early in 2022. Keep an eye on Cleveland's plate discipline, especially the legendary Steven Kwan.