The 2021 Guardians team was significantly below average offensively despite another MVP caliber season from Jose Ramirez, a productive Franmil Reyes, and well, that was about it for above average offensive players. The team needs serious offensive improvement, and one of the individuals already in the organization most likely to move the needle is Steven Kwan.
Kwan entered 2021 as a fringe, show-me prospect whose age (23-24) demanded production to elevate expectations around him, and his production was immaculate. For introduction to a tools a evaluation here is the scouting report from Fangraphs on Steven Kwan entering 2021:
There’s no change to this report. Kwan was one of the older players invited to instructs. He had the third-lowest swinging strike rate among qualified minor league hitters in 2019. He’s not especially toolsy (other than the contact skills) and relies entirely on instincts in center field, where he’s actually pretty good. He doesn’t have the power to play every day, but he might find a niche bench role.Fangraphs
First, the positives of the report, elite contact skills and barrel control, as well as the defensive competence in center field, which forebodes likely success in a corner outfield spot. Second, the barrier in the report “he doesn’t have the power to play every day”. In another time, a scouting report with this sort of power critique felt impossible to overcome but in the age of launch angle, and contact point data, there is a real opportunity for players with barrel control, and physical limitations to add power, see Jose Ramirez. Now, lets use batted ball data to see if Kwan can overcome his contact based limitations.
If one is trying to extricate more power from their tools, contact profile changes should include (1) an increase in Pull% (percentage of balls hit to pull field) and (2) a decrease in GB% (percentage of contact classified as ground balls).The second component is important to discuss, line drives as well as fly balls improve power by introducing more doubles and triples, a higher capacity for damage. Essentially, beyond popups, ground balls are the least valuable contact, and reducing those will increase power production.
So what has Kwan done? Well first, at both levels AA and AAA, Kwan has run the two lowest GB% in his professional career, as detailed above that is immensely valuable to improving contact quality and in turn power outcomes. Second, Kwan has posted the two highest Pull% of his professional career, another key component of power. Essentially, it relates to among other things, spin. Pulling the baseball allows for better spin and more authority. One more key, it is necessary to emphasize while Kwan’s profile has changed it has not become dangerously extreme. Sometimes players will swing too hard towards elevating the baseball, with spiking fly ball rates and getting too far under the ball. While Kwan’s popup rate increased (IFFB%) he still is hitting a really significant number of line drives, the distribution is solid. The same can be said for directionality, too much pulled contact results in a player that is easily shifted, and thus a collapse in batting average via batting average on balls in play, 40-44% is not a pull rate that reaches that threshold.
What is the result of these changes? Isolated power rates of .202, and .194 for a player who previously sat around .100. This is a massive gain, and ultimately adding power to his contact skills, if sustained represents a significant expected production change. Now, it is important to shed light on the hit tool the underlies the package. A look at Kwan flashing pull field power. The efficiency of his hand and bat path is striking.
Of those with 200 or more plate appearances in AA in 2021, Steven Kwan had the lowest swinging strike rate at 2.6%! Second place, was exactly double at 5.2%. The difference in swinging strike rate between first and second was the same as the difference between second and twenty-third. While 23 is near average age in AA, it is still a stunning display of pitch recognition and barrel control. The data did not really change as Kwan jumped a level as he had the lowest swinging strike rate in AAA with a minimum of 100 plate appearances at 2.7%; materially better than second place once again.
Even better, Kwan is disciplined. Across AA and AAA Kwan walked thirty-six times and struck out thirty-one times. Walk rates generally decrease in the big leagues, and strikeout rates increase but even an 8% walk rate in the big leagues with Kwan’s contact rate skills and increasing contact authority makes for above-average offensive production. With all of Kwan’s components projection systems adore him to the tune of a 109 wRC+, or nine percent above league average offense. Kwan has added power by tweaking his batted ball profile, will it ever be elite power? Very probably no, but it will likely be average to above average which is enough for his overall offensive profile to shine through. Kwan’s discipline is above average, and his contact skills are elite. With average or better defense at a corner outfield spot, the Guardians may finally have found another piece of the outfield puzzle to play next to Myles Straw. Most important, Kwan has earned, and Guardians fans deserve to see Kwan sooner rather than later. Exposing him to a rule-five draft claim by not protecting him on the 40-man roster would be a reprehensible mistake.
In 2022, Steven Kwan should be in the Guardians opening day lineup, and afforded every opportunity to show off his offensive floor, and hopefully, the offensive ceiling too.