For the first two weeks of the 2022 MLB season, Steven Kwan was the talk of Major League Baseball -- and for good reason.
Two months after introducing himself to the baseball world, Kwan started batting leadoff for the Guardians, where he's provided the team with some much-needed offensive consistency at the top of the lineup while also learning about Major League pitching on the fly.
Sound familiar? It should.
With a profile built around contact and speed, Kwan’s electric debut was eerily similar to the debut of another former Cleveland outfield prospect: Michael Brantley.
Don’t believe it?
Here are Brantley’s stats through the first 100 games of his career:
.264/.313/.333, 108 hits, 3 HR, 33 RBIs, 13 2B, 3 3B, 14 SB, 80 OPS+, 78 WRC+, 12.8 strikeout rate
And here are Kwan's stats through his first 100 games, a plateau he crossed last weekend in Toronto:
.296/.373/.391, 109 hits, 3 HR, 29 RBIs, 18 2B, 4 3B, 11 SB, 121 OPS+, 122 WRC+, 8.8 strikeout rate
That’s right: through the first 100 games of his career, Kwan’s off to a better start than someone who's become one of the best pure hitters in baseball.
It doesn't stop there either, as Kwan also bears some strong similarities to the current version of Brantley.
Here are Brantley's 2022 Statcast percentiles:
And here are Kwan's:
While Brantley has more power and hits the ball harder (we'll get to that later), they both boast elite plate and swing discipline. The only difference is that one player is a 35-year-old with 11 years of Major League service time under his belt, and the other is a 24-year-old rookie who wasn't a top prospect coming into the season.
Even Kwan couldn't believe the similarities.
The day before Kwan and his Guardians teammates departed for the All-Star break , Cleveland’s rookie outfielder was presented with data showing how his statistics compared with Brantley’s at the same juncture.
At that time, Kwan was through 78 games, batting .279 with 77 hits, 23 RBIs and a miniscule strikeout rate of 8.5. In that same career-starting time frame, Brantley batted .255 with 80 hits, 30 RBIs and a strikeout rate of 13.6.
“Oh man, I didn’t know that,” Kwan said when presented with the stats. “That’s super humbling. That’s really cool to see that I’m on the right track so far.”
When Kwan was drafted by Cleveland in the summer of 2018, Brantley was already one of the players Kwan admired at the Major League Level. At the time of Kwan's drafting, Brantley was in the midst of an All-Star season and finished the year batting .309 with 17 home runs and 76 RBIs in his final year in Cleveland.
“I don't know if I looked up to him any more because he was in the organization, it was more just because he was a really good player,” Kwan said. “It was really cool watching him, especially since he was a contact guy who developed some power later.”
The start of Brantley and Kwan’s Major League careers were also similar in that no one really knew what to expect from them at the time of their promotion. When Brantley was first called up in September 2009, it was so he could get a Major League audition on a Cleveland team that was going nowhere.
After a 32 game Major League stint in 2009, Brantley spent most of the first three months of 2010 in Triple-A before being called up in July, where he quickly settled in as Cleveland’s leadoff hitter.
“For me personally it was all about getting comfortable and understanding that I belonged in the big leagues,” Brantley said of the start of his career. “Once you get a little more confident and understand what’s going on you’re able to let your game develop and let your game grow.”
This year, Kwan broke camp with the Guardians, a decision that came in large part due to Cleveland trying to work through evaluating its glut of Major League-ready prospects. And while Kwan hasn't been demoted this year, he struggled in May before rebounding in June and becoming the Guardians' full-time leadoff hitter.
“I didn’t expect to be batting at the top of the lineup -- or even being with the team at the halfway point,” Kwan said earlier this year. “It’s been a whole whirlwind.”
One area where Kwan has a clear advantage over rookie Brantley is defense. Kwan's primarily played left field this year, where he's been worth eight outs above average, which is tied for the Major League lead. And while Brantley has turned into a solid left fielder (ask any Astros fan about his incredible double play in the 2019 ALCS), he was worth -1.5 dWAR over his first 100 games while mostly playing center field.
Defense isn't the only part of Brantley's game that's developed as he's aged. Despite only hitting three home runs through his first 100 games (and only totaling 16 homers through his first four seasons in the Major Leagues), Brantley added some thunder to hit bat in 2014, mashing 20 home runs and 45 doubles en route to a career-high .506 slugging percentage. In the eight seasons since then, Brantley has slugged 81 home runs and tallied a .463 slugging percentage, a far cry from when he needed 42 games to hit his first Major League home run.
On July 8, 2010, Brantley crushed a 92 mph inside fastball into the right-field seats at Tropicana Field for his first long ball. While the home run went a considerable distance (399 feet), that was more due to Brantley’s timing and the pitch location than his power
Nearly 12 years after Brantley's first trip around the bases, Kwan recorded his first home run in a game against the Blue Jays in May. The pitch he sent out? A 95 mph fastball from Jose Berrios that was up and in -- a near replica of the pitch that Brantley hit out.
According to Brantley, his gradual uptick in power has been part of a plan he developed with his dad.
“My dad (former MLB player and hitting coach Mickey Brantley) always preached to me that first you need to learn how to hit, then you can learn how to hit for power. I bought into that at a young age and learned how to hit the ball up the middle. Even when I was 19 or 20 years old, I had never really worked on pulling the ball in the batting cage or during batting practice, everything was up the middle.
"Then one offseason, he asked if I was ready to start learning how to pull, and that’s when everything changed for me. That helped me become the player I am today."
Even if Kwan doesn’t take a Brantley-sized leap in the power department, he still has the elite bat-to-ball skills that should make him a mainstay in the Guardians’ lineup. That said, two of Kwan’s three home runs have come against breaking balls, which means he still has enough pop in his bat to make pitchers pay for mistakes.
“In the Minors, they told us that power is something you can teach as opposed to hand-eye and contact rate, so hopefully things keep progressing,” Kwan said.
After admiring Kwan from afar for almost all of the season, Brantley got a closer look at Kwan’s game in the beginning of August when the Astros traveled to Progressive Field for a four-game series against the Guardians.
Houston's visit to Cleveland couldn’t have come at a better time either, as Kwan entered the series three games away from tying the 19-game hitting streak Brantley had as a rookie. Brantley's streak remained intact, however, as Kwan went 0-for-2 in the second game of the series before leaving with a foot contusion.
“It's still a great accomplishment,” said Brantley, who has been out since June with a shoulder injury that will keep him out for the rest of 2022. “That’s a lot of hits and it’s not easy to do; that’s a testament to how he prepares and the swing that he has. … Cleveland is like home for me so I always pay attention to them, and I saw he’s having a great start to his career for them.”
Now, Kwan’s part of a Cleveland youth movement that’s threatening to take the American League by storm, much like Brantley and his teammates did in the middle of the 2010's.
“I'm in a place where I can be who I want to be and I don’t have to change my game to fit a certain playstyle," Kwan said. "I can kind of showcase what I have.”