With the end of the regular season just over a month away, many are beginning to put their predictions in for the big end-of-the-season awards. Aaron Judge or Shohei Ohtani for MVP? Tony Gonsolin or Sandy Alcantara for Cy Young? Perhaps the tightest race of all will be for the American League Rookie of the Year. As we enter September, it’s a three-horse race. The number one prospect vs. a Home Run Derby power hitter vs. a guy who wasn’t even supposed to make the Opening Day roster. My vote goes to the third one, and here’s an in-depth look into why.
Steven Kwan made his Major League debut with the Cleveland Guardians on April 7, 2022. From his first at-bat, it was clear that he would be an asset to the team in a year they were planning to find themselves and grow. In his first month with the big league team, Kwan blew all expectations out of the water.
He finished the month of April with a .354 batting average which, while extremely impressive for a rookie in his first month, was not his most eye-opening stat. That belonged to his on-base percentage. Kwan proved just how important it is to be patient at the plate by racking up a .459 OBP and posting a stat not seen since 2000. He started his Major League career by seeing 116 pitches without swinging and missing any of them. That was a total of 40 swings before he missed – a foul tip into the glove of Tyler Stephenson on April 13th. As the season continued, he proved that that strong month was no fluke.
Taking a step back, Kwan had a fairly quick trip to the majors. He was drafted by the Cleveland Guardians (then Indians) in the fifth round of the 2018 MLB draft out of Oregon State University. He began his professional career with the Arizona Indians of the Arizona Rookie League. In 50 plate appearances, he hit .350/.480/.450 with nine walks to three strikeouts. That was just a taste of what was to come for the young rising star.
Having a slower year in 2019 with the Lynchburg Hillcats, Kwan did not play in 2020 when minor league play was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He put together a breakout season the following year, hitting for a combined .328/.407/.527 line between AA Akron and AAA Columbus. His plate discipline continued to shine with a 36/31 BB/K ratio and 97 hits in 296 at-bats. This caught the attention of the big league team who invited him to Spring Training in 2022.
Back to where we started, let’s continue to look at his Major League numbers. Kwan’s got some pretty good competition for the title of Rookie of the Year this year, but what do his numbers look like compared to the others? I’ve chosen to compare Kwan’s numbers with those of former top prospect Adley Rutschman and Mariners’ superstar Julio Rodríguez.
In nine different stats, Kwan leads the three rookies in six of them and leads Rodríguez alone in one. To save your eyes from a paragraph’s worth of stats and words, here is a table of those stats.
|On-Base + Slugging||.762||.790||.805|
|Wins Above Replacement||4.0*|
|Team’s Place||1st in AL Central||2nd in AL West||4th in AL East|
While all these numbers are extremely important to the ROTY argument, it’s also worth examining a player’s value to his team outside of hitting the ball in play. It’s a widely known fact the Cleveland Guardians are by far the youngest team in baseball. At one point, the big league team was even younger than the AAA Columbus roster.
Since moving to the leadoff spot, Kwan has been one of many clubhouse leaders for the team. In many games, he can be seen cheering from outside the dugout, screaming with his fellow players, and doing all he can to hype the team up. While he’s not on Josh Naylor’s “I’m going to headbutt my manager” level, he brings an undeniable level of support that a young team like this needs.
So, if Kwan leads the AL rookies in all kinds of stats, is one of the most valuable players in the American League, and has led his team to first place when people thought they would be no higher than fourth, why hasn’t he been a part of the ROTY conversation? Because he plays in Cleveland. Take one look at MLB’s Instagram page. How many Guardians posts do you see? Two in their last 50 (if you include the most recent Power Ranking).
Since MLB won’t post about Kwan’s success at the plate, nobody outside of Cleveland knows about it. Since he was drafted as the number one pick in 2019, Adley Rutschman has been the number one prospect in baseball and his debut was one of the most hyped stories of the early season. For Julio Rodríguez, he was the star of the 2022 Home Run Derby and has the most power of the three young hitters, a quality that is incorrectly favored by many.
Because of these factors, Kwan is an under-the-radar pick for 2022 AL Rookie of the Year when he shouldn’t be. He should be the front-runner. Along with MVP candidate José Ramírez, he has been the catalyst for the team’s push for first place in a tight three-team race. While I’m not pushing for him to win Most Valuable Player (even though he is one of the most valuable team players in MLB this year – but that’s for a different time), I’m asking for people to take him seriously in the ROTY conversation. From his first plate appearance on a Major League field, Steven Kwan has proven that he deserves to be here.
Featured image from @CLEGuardians on Twitter.