The Artistry of Steven Kwan

Nobody is doing contact better this year.

Typically, when I’m evaluating a topic about which to write this column, I look for the familiar. The San Diego Padres or Philadelphia Phillies. Either of the Central divisions. Teams or players that I follow for various personal or professional reasons. Other times, though, I write strictly in pursuit of drawing attention to a player worthy of praise. Someone who doesn’t have a ton of actual analysis needed, but rather an exploration, just an excuse to gush about what they’re doing. The latter is the case with Steven Kwan.

Nobody expected the Cleveland Guardians to be as good as they have been in 2024. While perhaps more watchable, the American League Central was expected to forge through another season of lackluster outcomes. On the contrary, the Guardians have turned in an exceptional season, and they’ve had to, in order to stave off the likes of Minnesota and upstart Kansas City. As of this writing, they have the AL’s second-most wins (56), sandwiched in between Baltimore and New York, each of which was expected to be largely as good as they are.

As is customary in Cleveland, the pitching has been quite good. The real surprise, though, lies in the offensive production. They’re ninth in the league in runs scored (fourth in the AL). They feature a top four K% (19.7) and a top 10 OBP (.320). There’s also a top seven ISO (.166) and some aggression on the bases (74 steals). There are elements on which they could improve, sure. Walk rate could tick up. They’re last in the league in quality of contact (35.2 HardHit%). Indeed, there’s some underlying stuff happening there.

Turns out, though, when you have a table-setter like Steven Kwan, your life at the plate does tend to get a bit easier.


Little Fanfare for the Contact-Oriented


Kwan was drafted in the fifth round back in 2018. He didn’t immediately appear on Cleveland’s list of top prospects. MLB Pipeline didn’t even have him surfacing until 2022. He was the Guards’ 15th-ranked prospect that season. Their summary read:

Kwan has elite contact skills, the product of a short left-handed swing, uncanny hand-eye coordination and a disciplined approach. He added a more pronounced leg kick in 2021 and began pulling more pitches and hitting them harder, and his 12 homers last year doubled his total from three years in college plus his first two in the Minors. He’s not very physical and scouts still question how much impact he’ll provide at the plate, with most believing he’ll top out at 12-15 homers per full season. 

Nothing surprising there. “Guy known for contact should be really good at contact upon reaching the Majors.” It’s also not super shocking that it took so long for him to gain some notoriety within the system. Consider that he was drafted in 2018. He turned in a really nice year in 2019, striking out at a 9.4 percent clip against a 9.8 walk rate. He hit .280, but didn’t showcase much of that 12-15 homer potential. His ISO was only .102 in High-A. Guys like that don’t typically jump off the sheet on the farm.

The 2020 minor league season was obviously wiped out. Kwan reemerged, however, with an even better 2021. The K/BB rates were nearly identical again in Double-A. He posted a mere 6.7 K% against an 11.7 BB% at Triple-A. There was an uptick in power at each level. He recorded a .202 ISO in the former and .194 mark at the latter. He didn’t showcase a ton of his baserunning ability — only six steals combined — but very much showed us the early iteration of the player he’d become at the top level.


Immediate Master of Contact


All of the above is why it’s probably not a surprise that Steven Kwan made the team out of camp ahead of 2022.

He bounced around the lineup a bit, but spent most of his time in the familiar leadoff spot. It was all there. Kwan went for a 9.4 K% vs. a 9.7 BB%. He hit .298, reached base at a .378 clip, and stole 19 bases. Only Luis Arráez held a lower K% and posted a higher contact rate than Kwan’s 91.9 Contact%. There was an intense patience there, on top of contact ability. Juan Soto was the only hitter that swung at fewer pitches than Kwan’s 37.7 percent swing rate. Only eight hitters chased at a lower rate, too.

Unfortunately for Steven Kwan, he came into the league at the same time as a pair of marquee rookies. Julio Rodríguez took home AL Rookie of the Year honors fairly easily. Adley Rutschman finished second. Kwan was a distant third. Bobby Witt Jr and George Kirby were also in the mix. To say nothing of Jeremy Peña. What an obscenely loaded rookie class. But I digress.

It seems rare that you get a player that breaks into the top level and immediately showcases their exact skill set. That’s what we got from Steven Kwan. Somehow, though, there was more.


The Power Adjustment


Kwan’s 2023 was nearly identical to his rookie campaign. He struck out at a slightly higher clip (10.4 percent) and didn’t have quite as much batted ball luck (.294 BABIP vs. .323 the year before). As such, the average (.268) and OBP (.340) each dipped. There was a slight uptick in his aggression (41.0 Swing%) that perhaps led to a decrease in his fortunes. That was still one of the lowest 15 rates in baseball, though.

Bigger picture, Kwan also posted the second-highest Contact% (90.4) and fourth-lowest K%. The things that made up Steven Kwan The Hitter were still very much alive. There were just a couple of things underneath the surface that caused the slightest of production declines. In less than two years, Kwan had established himself as an elite contact hitter. It was Arráez, Steven Kwan, and everyone else. That didn’t mean he was going to move forward without changes, however.

Kwan set his sights on another element of his game coming into 2024: power. The Cleveland lineup lacked it. They featured the league’s lowest ISO (.131) in 2023 by a wide margin. In 2022, it was tied for the second-lowest (.129). Outside of, like, José Ramírez and Josh Naylor, there wasn’t much to speak of. Kwan wanted to change that. He worked on his bat speed this past winter in hopes of bumping up the power numbers.

There’s an element of concern there, in a general sense. You worry about a guy who features low-K, high contact ability “selling out” for power. But the changes have been entirely measured.

Kwan’s ISO has leapt up to .174. He’s hit nine homers through early July after only 11 combined in his first two seasons. His HardHit% is at its height (22.9), along with an IPA% of 31.7 that represents a five percent jump. He’s putting the ball on the ground at his lowest frequency (36.4). That one is also a pretty wide margin. Kwan hasn’t been an elite power hitter, but he’s fully realized his intent to bump up the power production.

Most impressively, he hasn’t lost his touch in the contact game. Hilariously, he’s gotten better. His Contact% for 2024 is at 94.7. He’s whiffing at only 2.2 percent of pitches. In each respect, he’s surpassed Arráez. Overtaking the league’s best contact hitter while also improving the power output? The trajectory on his power is also pointing up. Since his return from the IL at the end of May, he has a .225 ISO. He’s made even more hard contact. He’s done exactly what he wanted to do.

To do all this without losing a semblance of quality as a pure hitter is obscene. And requires someone far more intelligent than I to explain. MLB.com’s Mike Petriello had a fantastic writeup on this at the end of June. Therein, he discusses Kwan’s power-hitting behaviors and the balance between contact and power. More than worth your time.


Appreciating Kwan. Avoiding The .400 Question.


My game here is a mere appreciation. Hitter adjustments fascinate me. A change in approach. Taking more pitches or honing in on a pitch type. Trying to elevate more. Any number of changes, really. Kwan is a level above that. To be elite at a thing is one thing. To decide you want to add an entirely new component — one which was never present in your skill set — and not lose even one iota of what you were doing before is wild. My feeble brain can’t even handle it.

I don’t know if Steven Kwan is going to hit .400. I don’t know if anyone will. The conclusion I’m reaching, though, is that Steven Kwan is the best hitter in Major League Baseball. That’s the only one that matters. He’s surpassed Luis Arráez. And adding that additional element of power cements such a statement. There’s a level of intention and self-awareness that we don’t always get. Kwan being so declarative in his craft only increases the appreciation.

Nobody’s doing it like him.

Randy Holt

Randy Holt is a staff writer for Pitcher List & a depth charts analyst for Baseball Prospectus. He's a self-identified Cubs fan who has become more agnostic, instead obsessing about quality defensive baseball wherever he can find it. Randy has a sport management degree from the University of Florida, as well as degrees from Embry-Riddle & Arizona State. When not wasting away on the husk of Twitter/X, Randy is a high school English teacher & a baseball and golf coach.

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