Kwan’s maturity on display amid stellar rookie season

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CLEVELAND — Guardians left fielder Steven Kwan had a choice: attempt to save his 18-game hit streak or prioritize his health. Maybe it’s a decision that would be difficult for some players, especially those who are only a few months into their big league careers, but there’s a reason Guardians manager Terry Francona can’t stop raving about Kwan’s exceptional maturity.

Kwan knew when he fouled a pitch off his left foot in the first inning (in the same spot he did in batting practice, as well), it was smarter to get off his feet for a night to be able to return to the lineup on Saturday and not risk further injury. So, he exited early in the Guardians’ 9-3 loss to the Astros on Friday night at Progressive Field, ending his impressive hit streak.

“When he hit it the second time, it was barking a little bit,” Francona said. “So, I thought the best chance for us to have him available [on Saturday would be pulling him], and he agreed. Because I asked him, I said, ‘Hey, man, I know you got a hitting streak.’ He kind of showed me something. He goes, ‘No, I’m all right.’ He’s a pretty savvy kid.”

Kwan’s hit streak had matched the longest in the Majors this season. It was the most consecutive games with a hit for Cleveland since Michael Brantley in 2019 (18 games) and the most by a Cleveland rookie since Brantley in 2010 (19 games). If Kwan could have gotten a hit in two more games, he would have owned the longest hit streak by a rookie in the divisional era (since 1969) in franchise history.

The hit streak meant more than just getting Kwan’s name in a couple record books; it solidified how crucial he is to this lineup. During that 18-game span, he batted .350 with an .851 OPS, six doubles, one homer, five RBIs, 16 runs scored, five walks and nine strikeouts while pulling his season average up from .279 to .297.

“He’s learning so fast,” Francona said earlier this week, when asked about Kwan’s consistent ability to produce. “I don’t know if you can teach somebody where the strike zone is. He’s a keeper.”

The biggest thing that Kwan has proved in his limited time in the big leagues? He can make the necessary adjustments to sustain a successful career.

Young players will inevitably run into obstacles. Some make it longer than others before they get tested. Kwan hit his first rough patch in the middle of May, when he went 3-for-31 (.097 batting average) with a .384 OPS in a 10-game span to close out the month. He was dropped to the bottom of Cleveland’s lineup, and he was forced to prove that he can settle back in to become the hitter he showed he was at the beginning of the season. Mission accomplished.

Since then, Kwan has become a pest for opposing pitchers, and he worked his way back up to the leadoff spot — which will now be hard to take from him. Shortstop Amed Rosario, who bats behind Kwan in the two-spot, raved earlier this week about Kwan’s ability to work the count and get pitchers to throw all their pitches, which sets Rosario up for better success, getting an opportunity to see what he’ll face before he even steps in the box.

Kwan will likely never be one to light up the radar guns with extreme exit velocity, but clearly, that doesn’t mean he can’t be successful. While he still ranks in the first percentile in hard-hit rate and in the third percentile in average exit velocity, he remains in the 100th percentile in both strikeout percentage and whiff rate. His sprint speed ranks in the 81st percentile, and his defense has been just as impressive, ranking in the 91st percentile in outs above average.

The Guardians are getting younger by the minute, as Hunter Gaddis became the 13th player to make his Major League debut for the club this season. But with Kwan setting the tone at the top of the order, it’s clear that youth doesn’t have to mean problems or struggles. “On the field, they’re playing like vets right now,” starter Cal Quantrill said earlier this week. “They’re doing everything you could ask of a true veteran, and they’re doing it at 23 and 24 [years old]. It’s been pretty awesome.”