It took all of three games for Guardians rookie Steven Kwan to become something of a legend in Cleveland. Playing every outfield position before settling in as the club’s everyday left fielder, the 5-foot-9 Oregon State product had eight hits in his first 10 at-bats and made contact in each of his first 26 swings as a big-leaguer.
This phenomenal opening series against the Royals sent Kwan’s Rookie of the Year odds from 60/1 before the season started to among the four American League favorites to win the award, at odds now ranging from 5/1 (WynnBET) to +650 (FanDuel, DraftKings). He’s even 6/1 at BetRivers, a sportsbook that didn’t have Kwan on the board to begin the season.
But should the 24-year-old’s success really be all that surprising? A serial .300 hitter in the minors and in college, Kwan hit .469 in spring training (15-32) with no strikeouts — a trend he continued until he whiffed for the first time in his sixth regular season game.
Despite going hitless in his last three games, Kwan is still batting .385 with an out-of-this-world on-base percentage of .541. He’s managed to draw eight walks and get hit by two pitches to reach base when he’s not spraying the ball around the field.
In his third game, which the Guardians won 17-3 over Kansas City, Kwan went 5-for-5 while also getting hit by a pitch, becoming the first player since 1901 to reach base six times in a game within his first three games. (In that Royals series, he also become the first player since 1901 to reach base 12 times within his first three big-league games.)
“He has a great eye at the plate, which is very rare nowadays when it comes to young players, because the mantra now is hit home runs or strike out and don’t really worry about how often you strike out,” said WynnBET Senior Trader Chris Youn, who compared Kwan to Wade Boggs. “He’s not gonna hit for power, but solid contact with a great eye, you’re gonna get some hits.”
Steven Kwan reached base 15 times in our 4-game series against the Royals, the most times in a player's first 4 career games since at least 1901.
— Cleveland Guardians (@CleGuardians) April 11, 2022
Kwan’s AL rivals off to slow start
Sportsbooks have remained unwavering in their confidence in Kwan despite his mini-drought, with Youn saying it would take a more prolonged, two-week slump to see his odds grow longer.
“All sportsbooks have taken enough liability on him for him to stay [at 5/1 or 6/1] for a little while,” explained Youn, who noted that Kwan’s out-of-left-field candidacy “is definitely different” from past Rookie of the Year winners, whose first-year exploits “were pretty expected.”
While it’s a microscopic sample size, Kwan’s three main rivals for this year’s award have all gotten off to slow starts. Consensus frontrunner Bobby Witt Jr., the Royals’ shortstop, was batting .156 heading into Tuesday night’s action, while Mariners center fielder Julio Rodriguez (.125) and Tigers first baseman Spencer Torkelson (.240) aren’t exactly setting the base paths on fire either.
But, clearly, there’s a ton of time for these more highly touted youngsters to round into form.
“Kwan is kind of thrust into the spotlight and expected to get on base, whereas Rodriguez, they can stick him seventh or eighth in the order because they have all these veterans around him,” Youn said. “With [Rodriguez], it’s a little different. There are expectations. It’s a little bit of a [Jared] Kelenic vibe, but not at the depths that Kelenic went through last year. But he definitely looks great at the plate.”
Strong rookie class overall
One thing that seems certain is, across both leagues, this looks to be a very strong rookie class, which can be partially attributed to lockout negotiations.
“A lot of times, you don’t hear about rookies until May or June because they’re just not proven,” Youn said. “A lot of it has to do with the new labor agreement — service time and stuff. With that kind of going away, it definitely affects how they’re using these rookies. Back in the past, it was bring them along slowly, because ‘if they happen to do well, we’ll get an extra year.'”
As for when he expects to see the field of top Rookie of the Year candidates crystallize, Youn said, “I think it’s that Memorial Day point. It’s that first gauge of where teams and players are at, and I think the Rookie of the Year race kind of follows that. You’ll see who’s playing on a daily basis, who’s in danger of getting demoted to the minors for extra seasoning. Regardless of how good they are, a demotion will hurt their chances.”