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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Steven Kwan’s rise from pinball wizard to Guardians’ humble hitting savant

Cleveland Guardians left fielder Steven Kwan scores a run during Game 3 of their A.L. division series with the New York Yankees at Progressive Field in Cleveland, on Oct. 15, 2022. So far this season, Kwan is flirting with a .400 batting average and blazing a trail to the All-Star Game. (Maddie McGarvey/The New York Times)

By Zack Meisel / The Athletic

Steven Kwan’s path to hitting prominence started in his grandmother’s garage, where he fiddled with a rickety pinball machine that had an outer space theme. Because of his expert timing on the controls, the game could last all afternoon.

The root of Kwan’s rise to prominence in the batter’s box for the Cleveland Guardians is his hand-eye coordination, a trait mastered through childhood summers full of pinball.

Two decades later, Kwan is flirting with a .400 batting average and blazing a trail to the All-Star Game. He is leaving those in his dugout saying wow and leaving those in the opposing one asking how.

How could this 5-foot-9, 170-pound chess champion who was never a high-profile prospect, who figured his rotten freshman year at Oregon State was his baseball journey’s death knell, reside in the same stratosphere as the sport’s slugging behemoths?

Kwan is the lone soul uninterested in the hype. His father floods his phone with jarring statistics, but Kwan responds by urging him to ditch social media. He will entertain those facts after the season. He cannot be bothered with adoration. The instant he allows his focus to stray, he insists, he will not be prepared to keep this going.

This surge, though, has put Kwan on the national radar, even if he will not indulge. When he turns on an inside fastball and yanks it off the foul pole, he credits his “shorter limbs,” not his unparalleled contact ability. He explains every hit as a lucky bloop or the byproduct of fortunate placement.

“He’s the humble king,” Guardians outfielder Will Brennan said.

That attitude has guided Kwan to this point, in which he rivals the league’s luminaries on every leaderboard. So have a rigid commitment to mental preparation, a determination to prove his mother wrong and, of course, pinball.

When he was 4, Kwan told his mother he wanted to be a baseball player. Jane Kwan told him maybe it would be better to focus on something else.

She was playing the odds, and he still teases her about it. She never intended to doubt him. She just wanted to offer a dose of reality. But he understood her position.

“Small kid,” Steven Kwan said. “Barely any athleticism in our family.”

But he refused to ponder the future or shore up a plan to enter the business world once the baseball dream fizzled. He entered what he described as survival mode, a one-year-at-a-time approach to an athletic career that figured to slam into a dead end before long.

In his first college game, he was 0 for 3 with two strikeouts, a missed sign, a botched bunt and a misplayed ball in the outfield. He was convinced he had no future on the diamond. But, he said, he would not quit “until someone rips the cleats off me.” That never happened, and Kwan adopted his mother’s more realistic approach as he pushed forward.

He did not expect to break camp with the Guardians in 2022, especially with a shorter audition because of the lockout. But he started in right field on opening day. He was certain he would head to Class AAA after a week or two, once Josh Naylor returned from injury. He has not been back to Columbus, aside from a rehabilitation assignment. And Kwan and Naylor are now pivotal players in Cleveland’s lineup.

But, no, he will not get caught up in the hysteria surrounding his average, which was .385 through Tuesday, in 231 plate appearances, not quite enough to qualify for the American League batting title race. But he is gaining on that number (3.1 plate appearances per scheduled game).

“Hitting like this just isn’t very common,” he said, “so I’ve never really thought about something like this.”

Scott Barlow, pitching for the Kansas City Royals, allowed Kwan’s first major league hit, in 2022. When the two became teammates this season, Barlow had Kwan sign a bat for him. It rests in the back of the reliever’s locker.

Barlow was the first of many who have struggled to unearth a formula to quiet Kwan’s bat. The best tactic is not some 98 mph heater or wipeout slider. It is prayer.

When Kwan swung and missed for his 15th strikeout of the season one day last week — for perspective, Cincinnati Reds shortstop Elly De La Cruz has more than 100 — manager Stephen Vogt and his bench coach, Craig Albernaz, looked at each other and gasped.

“It’s like a glitch,” catcher Austin Hedges said.

Vogt remembers game-planning for Kwan last year as Seattle’s bullpen coach. The strategy was to throw it down the middle and let him slap a single somewhere or, ideally, shoot it toward a fielder. There was no use in wasting pitches against a guy who has a better handle on the strike zone than the umpires.

“His ability to make an adjustment in the middle of a pitch and time it up,” Barlow said, “whether it’s to foul it off or rifle a line drive off you real quick, it’s crazy.”

Kwan ranks at the top of the leaderboard in strikeout rate and whiff rate, and he rarely chases pitches out of the zone. If he does, it is for one of those short-limb-driven fastballs that he converts into a souvenir.

Kwan spent his winter seeking ways to hit the ball with more authority. More muscle and better bat speed were not the remedies. No, the key was in his approach. He stepped into a Chicago batting cage and practiced swinging and missing more. He needed to reach a point of acceptance. He would stand in, spot the ball, take a healthy hack and if he missed — which goes against every cell in his body — he had to learn to shrug it off.

The plan was to take more chances in advantageous counts when a whiff would be less detrimental than weak contact. He strove to alter his bat angle and to elevate a pitch he knew he could damage, to target the outfield gap or the fans in the third row.

On Sunday, Kwan turned on another fastball and pulled it into the right-field seats. Through Tuesday, he had hit a career-high seven home runs, in a third of the plate appearances of a normal season. He is jockeying with Shohei Ohtani for second place behind Aaron Judge in the league’s slugging ranks.

But do not tell him any of these facts until after the season.

When Kwan showers after a game, he watches the shampoo, soap and water funnel down the drain. In his mind, everything that occurred on the field goes with it. Every day is a clean slate.

“A lot of us can learn from that,” Brennan said.

Most mornings, Kwan meditates for 10 to 15 minutes. It centers him and helps him dismiss any intrusive thoughts, though he admits that has been more difficult lately, given the increased attention on his every swing.

Hedges took Kwan under his wing in 2022 and said it was the easiest mentorship he has forged. Kwan was curious and caring, eager to learn how to stick in the majors and how to foster a healthy clubhouse culture. Hedges has watched him blossom into a leader — he is the Guardians’ union rep at age 26. Now he finds himself learning from Kwan and marveling at his influence on a first-place team.

Kwan’s parents are savoring every moment, too. Most nights, they schedule dinner around the Guardians’ first pitch. On the West Coast, that often means a 4 p.m. meal. They would not dare miss the game’s most lethal leadoff hitter take his first cuts.

Through Tuesday, Kwan owned a 1.006 on-base plus slugging percentage, and he had more walks (20) than strikeouts (16).

And it all traces back to that pinball prowess. Kwan’s parents met while playing pinball in the 1980s. Kwan remembers asking for their permission to use the family computer so he could play a pinball game. Little did he know that he was also cultivating the skills that would make him one of baseball’s most imposing hitters.

“It feels lazy to be like: ‘It’s baseball. It’s lucky,’” Kwan said. “But I think sometimes, it has to just come down to that.”

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