Curb Your Kwanthusiasm (But Just a Little Bit)

© Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to KwanGraphs, your source for everything… wait, no, that’s not right. Welcome to FanKwan, your … no, still not it. This part is definitely true, though: today I’m here to talk about Steven Kwan, the Guardians phenom who swung for our hearts and didn’t miss. He was our No. 57 prospect heading into the season, and ZiPS concurred, calling him its No. 62 prospect. He’s been better than that so far — a top 10 hitter in baseball, more or less. Can he keep it going? Will he bat .330 with more walks than strikeouts? I crunched data and watched film to come up with some educated speculation.

Let’s start with the great news: Kwan’s phenomenal bat control is as real as it gets. He’s swung and missed either one or two times (and hey, good news for pedants everywhere, I’ve even thrown in a special postscript at the end of this post so everyone can whinge about foul tips in the comments) in his major league career so far, which is obviously great. Even better, this isn’t something new. In 2021, he was the best contact hitter in the minors, bar none.

Over 1,388 pitches I captured, Kwan swung 551 times. He swung and missed 39 times, and had another seven foul tips. That’s a swinging strike rate of either 2.8% or 3.3% depending on your definition, both of which are otherworldly. The contact rate is no joke, either: he made contact on more than 90% of his swings, which led the high minors and would have placed him in a dead heat with David Fletcher for best in the big leagues.

Combine an extremely parsimonious approach – only five major leaguers swung less frequently than Kwan in the 2021 season – and high contact rates, and it’s no wonder he never swings and misses. That approach wasn’t without its costs – he took called strikes on 20% of the pitches he saw – but it was a huge success overall. He struck out only 9.1% of the time, walked more often than that, and ran a near-.400 OBP overall. That will definitely play, at any level.

The secret to running low strikeout rates despite a bunch of called strikes? Get more aggressive with two strikes. As we already covered, Kwan only swung 40% of the time overall. But with two strikes, he swung 61.5% of the time, defending the plate aggressively. His contact rate remained stable, and there you have it: he’s impossible to strike out.

Further great news: this approach can work at the major league level. Fletcher did the low-swing/high-contact/low-power dance in 2019 and ’20, combining a league-best contact rate with a league-low swing rate on his way to excellent walk and strikeout numbers. That said, Kwan’s walk numbers are in for a precipitous drop.

I can’t stress this enough: the plan pitchers are using to attack him is silly and bad. In his 29 plate appearances, he’s seen 11 first pitches in the strike zone. What? Like, what? How can this make sense? He has exactly one first-pitch swing this year – and why should he swing more than that? Jackson Kowar is a fun prospect, and I’m a believer overall, but this plan is not sound:

So yeah, the walks are going to come down. They can’t help but come down; Kwan is walking 27.6% of the time! Let’s put it this way: across the majors, pitchers throw in the strike zone on roughly half of first pitches. Against low-power hitters – more on that later – they’re more aggressive than that. I simply don’t believe that pitchers will let Kwan take his way into favorable counts much longer.

Last year, the lowest first-pitch zone rate for a batter with 300 or more plate appearances was 43.9%, and that was for Yasmani Grandal. Everyone below 48% was either a profligate swinger, a huge power threat, or both (yes, Javier Báez made an appearance). Kwan is neither of those things, and he’s at 38% right now. In the long run, he’ll likely end up in the upper 50s, like Fletcher, Adam Frazier, and hitters of similar persuasion.

If pitchers start to make Kwan swing, he’ll have plenty of opportunity to show off his high-contact ways. And hey, he’s been great there so far this year! He has 19 batted balls, and he’s batting .556 on them. That won’t continue, but his xBA, which Statcast estimates based on exit velocity and launch angle, is a robust .420. He has a .445 xwOBA on those balls, and while that’s a lot of letters all in a row, think of it this way: that mark would be in the top 15 percent of major league hitters last year.

Sounds pretty good, right? Expected statistics are useful early in the season because they bulk up data; you can look at what tends to happen on similar batted balls rather than what actually happened to those particular ones. But Statcast’s x-stats aren’t intended to be predictive. For example, here’s a montage of the five hits to which Statcast assigned the highest hit probabilities. Preemptive apologies for the abbreviated end; I ran into some technical difficulties, but it fell for a hit:

Hit the ball like that, and you’re probably reaching base! Only a nice catch by Tommy Pham kept Kwan from going five-for-five on those balls. But you can’t just keep dumping soft liners and fly balls into the shallow outfield forever. Kwan is hitting that kind of ball – classified by Baseball Savant as a flare/burner – on 47% of his batted balls in his brief major league career. That’s simply not going to hold true in the long run.

The highest career flare/burner rate for anyone with 200 batted balls in the Statcast era is 32.9%; the league average is 24.5%. Flares and burners are valuable – they’ve produced a wOBA of .619 over 200,000 batted balls. But they’re not something you can build your entire game around. Hitting them is great, but even if you’re the best in the world at producing them (that’d be Harold Castro), you’ll need something else to hang your hat on.

Luckily for Kwan, he doesn’t only hit flares. Take a look at his best swing of the season:

That’s just good hitting. Slightly more loft and it might have left the park. But Kwan doesn’t need to have a home run swing to prosper; when he’s making solid contact like that, all he needs to do is keep it off the ground. He’s mashed two batted balls over 100 mph already this year, and while that’s not a lot – it’s tied for seventh among Guardians, for example – it’s enough to make me believe that he’ll rack up some doubles and homers when pitchers inevitably flood the zone on him.

Last year in the minors, Kwan topped out at a 102.8 mph exit velocity. That’s not great! But he’s already eclipsed that in the majors, in only 19 batted balls: he hit a 103 mph grounder for a single against the Royals. The odds of him turning into a power threat aren’t high, but you don’t need to be worried that he’s Billy Hamilton out there.

That’s not the only thing to like about Kwan’s batted ball distribution. First, I like his odds of continuing to produce an above-average rate of line drives. It won’t be all line drives – we already talked about the flares, which line drives are a key part of – but hitters exert some control over line drive rates, and Kwan’s swing looks geared for it. That’s a nice tailwind for someone with limited top-end power; line drives are the batted ball type that least needs exit velocity, because they mostly land in places on the field that no one can get to. Turning an extra 3% of his batted balls from grounders or fly balls into line drives might not sound like a big deal, but over the long run that’s quite valuable, particularly for someone like Kwan who puts a lot of balls in play.

While we’re on the topic of batted balls, I have to mention one possible headwind: teams aren’t shifting against Kwan yet, but they might. In the minors last year, he pulled roughly 60% of his grounders, above the 54.5% that left-handed hitters produced as a whole. That’s probably a number worth shifting against, or at least doing one of those pinch-third-and-shade-everyone-else deals if you’re worried about bunts. But per Baseball Savant, his opponents have only been in a shift of any type – either “strategic” or a full overshift – for 16 of the 143 pitches he’s seen. A lot of that is just that the Royals, who he’s played against in four of his six games, don’t shift much. Ready for another supercut? Here are his four groundball singles:

The last one is likely a single against any defense, but the other three are classic shift victims. If he hits around .230 on grounders, like he did in the minors last year, that’ll be a further drag on his results on balls in play.

It sounds like I’m raining on Kwan’s parade, and I am a little bit, but there’s plenty of room to do worse than his .526/.655/.737 line and still be excellent. This is a guy we projected to hit .282/.345/.434 before the season even started. He’s already hit a batted ball harder than he did the entirety of last year. He’s shown that his carrying tool – boundless contact ability – works in the big leagues. I’ll take the under on our preseason projection of a 12% strikeout rate.

If Kwan hits those preseason projections the rest of the way and puts up the 559 PAs we have him down for, the hot start he’s already banked will result in a .291/.360/.445 seasonal line, good for a .349 wOBA. I’d shade up from that; as I said, the early strikeout numbers are an encouraging sign. That’s a great rookie season, particularly if he plays an above-average outfield (Outs Above Average thinks he does).

So I come here to bury Steven Kwan, but also to praise him. The .500-hitting, walk-taking, triple-stroking on-base machine you know and love is probably a mirage. But the plus hitter and solid outfielder who came out of nowhere (well, not if you read our Top 100) to be one of the best position players on a major league team? He’s alive and well.

Postscript

Whether you count a foul tip as a whiff comes down to personal preference, but I’ll tell you how I view it so you can tell me how wrong I am in the comments. When I’m doing analysis, I always lump them together, because a foul tip is indistinguishable from a swinging strike for game results. If I told you a batter had no swings and misses but three swinging strikeouts, you’d be confused. And if you wanted to know how often a pitcher induces his opponent to swing and come up empty, getting a strike for his troubles, foul tips count for that, too. If you’re talking about some potential record, or whether a foul tip should “count” as contact in some hypothetical “who’s the best contact hitter” debate, I can’t help you. That’s not what I’m here for. But for analysis? I’m in the foul-tips-are-whiffs camp, and I’m unlikely to change my mind about it.





Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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rjspears
4 months ago

Great analysis. Keep it coming.