GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- We’re always told to remember that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger or to learn from our mistakes. These things are said so often that they’re easily dismissed. But for Guardians outfielder Steven Kwan, these sayings define his difficult baseball journey.
Clearly, Kwan was a solid high school outfielder, considering he landed a spot on Oregon State’s baseball team. And now that he’s officially made the Guardians’ 2022 Opening Day roster, we’ve seen what kind of player he’s grown into. But what about everything that happened in between? It wasn’t so simple.
“My freshman year at Oregon State I was terrible,” Kwan said. “Probably the worst ballplayer on the field at that point. Not good mentally, not good physically.”
Kwan was ready for his first collegiate game against Ball State in a tournament that took place in Surprise, Ariz., in 2016. And when he looked at the opposing pitcher, the name read “Zach Plesac.”
“Obviously I know his uncle and all that and he's got Major League ties,” Kwan said.
Kwan knew his work was going to be cut out for him, but he didn’t know just how disastrous the game would be. Kwan struck out twice, missed a sign, failed to get a bunt down and missed a ball in the outfield.
“I crumbled there,” Kwan said. “Just was not ready. I knew right there that something had to change, what I was doing at that time wasn't going to cut it.”
Kwan said he sat out for a two-month span and wasn’t a starter for a while. Left with just his own thoughts, he knew it was time to pick a path: Overcome this difficult hurdle or let it beat him. He chose to overcome it, no matter what it took.
“That was a time when I had to dig deep and really figure out what's going to work, what's not,” Kwan said. “Put away the ego, put away the pride and start back from square one.”
Something that’s slowly becoming more commonplace is athletes prioritizing their mental health, but it’s not always the easiest thing to do. As a college student, Kwan was mature enough to know that he needed help with self-confidence in order to be successful on the baseball field. So, he got in contact with a sports psychologist.
“I just did not believe in myself,” Kwan said. “I was unbelievably insecure, I had huge impostor syndrome, I just didn't think I belonged there at all. We had all these high recruits and I didn't feel like I belonged. It was talking to a sports psychologist, diving into the mental game of meditation, visualization, affirmations, all those kind of things. Taking little bits from it and being able to apply it to my game.”
Mixing that with a complete overhaul of his swing mechanics, Kwan’s success rate skyrocketed. During his difficult freshman year, he posted a .215 average and a .569 OPS in 35 games. As a sophomore, he hit .331 with an .840 OPS before logging a .356 average and a .920 OPS in his junior season. After that year, he was selected in the fifth round of the 2018 MLB Draft by Cleveland. And while he’s flown a little more under the radar than some of the team’s other prospects, he’s continued to flourish since he reached pro ball, hitting a combined .328 with a .934 OPS between Double-A and Triple-A in ’21.
Kwan brings a skillset that’s become rare in today’s game. He has exceptional bat-to-ball skills and rarely strikes out (he’s the only player on the 28-man roster to not have a strikeout yet in Cactus League play). And even though he had to battle through some nerves this spring, he became impossible to ignore.
“Steve’s been special,” Guardians hitting coach Chris Valaika said. “I love the contact-first approach. I do think that he has some more in the tank that he hasn’t shown yet, but I think a guy like him to break up some swing-and-miss in the lineup, I think he’s really going to help us.”
Eight years ago, Kwan couldn’t imagine even surviving his first collegiate season. Now, he’s eagerly waiting to be in a big league uniform on Thursday with his parents and siblings in the stands.
“It would have been really easy to just give up and be like 'Well, baseball's not for me, I'm not good enough, it's very clear,’” Kwan said. “I had so many guys [at school] that were like 'Hey Kwan, stick with it, man. You've got the talent, you've got the tools. We're going to build something great here. Do what you need to do, pick up the pieces, and once you're back, we're going to do something special."
“Those are brothers for a lifetime and I'm extremely grateful that they brought me up instead of tossing me off to the side.”