What’s ‘Cleveland baseball’? Just ask Kwan

54 minutes ago

CHICAGO — If Steven Kwan is on, the Guardians lineup follows suit. Or at least according to first baseman Josh Naylor.

“I always tell [Kwan] it starts with him,” Naylor said. “And if he goes, we all go.”

What Kwan did at the beginning of the season, hitting .354 with a .959 OPS in his first 15 games and going 116 pitches before swinging and missing at a pitch, was certainly attention grabbing, but what he’s done since he hit a rut through most of May has been even more impressive. And even though he had five days off because of a rainout and the All-Star break, he showed in the Guardians’ 8-2 victory over the White Sox on Friday at Guaranteed Rate Field that he hasn’t missed a beat.

Guardians manager Terry Francona is always more anxious for the first game out of the All-Star break than he is for any other game during the regular season (other than maybe Opening Day). He wants his players to get away and take a much-deserved breather, but he doesn’t want them to come back too relaxed and not ready to play. The Guardians may not have hit many balls hard in the win, but once Kwan got on base in the first inning, there was no looking back.

“When [Kwan and Amed Rosario] are on base and they create chaos, that’s what me and [Jos? Ram?rez] and all the others need and want,” Naylor said. “That’s how we create all our RBIs for them. They’re incredible for us, man.”

The Guardians started the second half of the regular season with the same approach they had all throughout the first half: Playing scrappy. Kwan’s leadoff single sparked a four-run first inning and he later picked up two other base hits in the fourth and sixth. Of the club’s eight runs, two came via homer (an Andr?s Gim?nez two-run shot in the first) and the rest were pieced together from bloop hits and aggressive baserunning — the team’s specialty.

Kwan has become a master at this strategy. Maybe once in a while, like the first-inning single, he can hit the ball hard (103.1 mph), but that’s not the norm for the Guardians’ leadoff hitter. Kwan ranks in the first percentile in hard-hit percentage and the fourth percentile in exit velocity, per Statcast. But none of that matters when he’s in the 100th percentile in both whiff percentage and strikeout percentage — meaning he’s always putting the ball in play.

“Yeah, I think it’s Cleveland baseball,” Kwan said. “I mean, we may not hit home runs every time, but we’re going to get a way on, we’re going to take the extra bag, we’re going to work counts, kind of the stuff that Tito preaches.”

That approach stole the spotlight at the beginning of the season. In a time where baseball is so used to seeing long balls and strikeouts, Kwan is a rare reminder of an old-school mindset. As we said before, it worked when he was first called up, but then his opponents made adjustments to make it more difficult for him to constantly be a pest.

Kwan struggled in May, hitting .128 with a .425 OPS from May 9 through May 30, as he watched his season average drop from .354 to .244 in a month’s span. Many players can experience beginner’s luck or have a randomly hot stretch, but not many can bounce back from their first rut in the big leagues — and rarely can they do so in just a few weeks.

Since the beginning of June, Kwan has looked like the player he was at the start of the season. His average has climbed back up to .285 and he’s hit safely in 10 of his last 12 games, owning a .353 clip with five doubles, three RBIs and nine runs scored in that span.

“I think that’s the sign of a guy who’s going to stick around for a long time,” Guardians starter Cal Quantrill said. “The league adjusted, he struggled for a bit and then he bounced back and is doing exactly what he was doing to start. I think it’s almost more impressive.”

If nothing else, the Guardians need to learn as much as they can about their young players this season. They have to determine who will be key pieces to this roster moving forward to help get them aggressively back in the postseason hunts. So far, Kwan is demonstrating everything his team needs to see for his name to be inked into its future.

“He’s talking to the veteran hitters in Josey and Amed and whoever,” Naylor said. “He just wants to learn every day and he’s going to be a great player in the future.”