CLEVELAND (AP) — Before stepping into the batter’s box, rookie outfielder Steven Kwan squats for a moment, much the way his idol, Ichiro Suzuki, did.
The ritual centers Kwan, allowing Cleveland’s pesky leadoff hitter to move on to what’s next — getting on base or in a pitcher’s head.
Then, like the Japanese superstar, Kwan holds his hands close to his body and still — with his bat perpendicular — before swinging at a pitch or watching it pass.
He’s gotten it right more often than anyone expected this season — just like the surprising Guardians.
To explain Cleveland’s unexpected 2022 rise, start with Kwan.
Everything starts with him.
“It’s amazing,” Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash said during his team’s three-game series in Cleveland last week. “He’s right in the thick of everything they do.”
From the moment he made his major league debut in Kansas City on April 8, getting a hit and walking twice, Kwan has set the tone this season for the AL Central champion Guardians, baseball’s youngest team, which continues its surprise run into the playoffs at home Friday against the Rays in the wild-card round.
The 25-year-old Kwan seemingly came out of nowhere. So have the Guardians.
Kwan was a longshot to make Cleveland’s opening-day roster in spring training. But with every tough at-bat, base hit and solid defensive play in Arizona, it became obvious to the Guardians he was ready.
He went 10 for 15 with seven walks in his first five games while reaching base 18 times in that stretch, becoming the first player since 1901 to get three or more hits in each of his first five games.
“We saw him really good out of the gate,” Royals manager Mike Matheny said. “We couldn’t get him out.”
Kwan has barely slowed in the past six months. Aside for a statistical dip in May, when he batted .173, he’s hovered around .300 all season while pestering pitchers at the plate, making Gold Glove-caliber plays, and embodying Cleveland’s small-ball offensive ethos.
The Guardians don’t hit many home runs. They don’t strike out, either. Their approach is to make contact, put the ball in play, advance runners and do whatever it takes to score one more run that the opposition.
It’s a simple approach, how the game was once played. Kwan loves how the Guardians have become throwbacks in a swing-from-the-heels era.
“It’s cool,” Kwan said when asked to recap his surprising breakout. “It’s refreshing to see that my form of baseball is able to work in the bigs because a lot of it is slug (slugging percentage), extra-base hits.
”I’m just trying to get on base for the guy after me, so it’s refreshing to see that that kind of baseball is succeeding in this time.”
Kwan’s first-year fame didn’t come without failure. And in his case, immense struggle.
He got off to such a poor start at Oregon State — “I was really bad” — that the Los Gatos, California, native nearly quit. Kwan was so overwhelmed by self-doubt and “random thoughts” that his heart raced and vision blurred while hitting. It nearly crushed him.
“I had low self-esteem at that time, too,” he said. “So I was thinking, I’m being exposed, now I know that the real deal is.”
One of his college coaches introduced him to meditation and some breathing techniques, which allow him to channel both negative and positive thoughts, accept them and stay present.
It’s hard to imagine Kwan once being rattled. He’s the exact opposite now — Zen-like with a bat in his hands. He’s among the hardest in baseball to strike out, adept at fouling off pitches to stay alive. Earlier this season, he battled Seattle’s Luis Castillo for 12 pitches to start the game.
“I can only imagine what that feels like,” said Guardians pitcher Triston McKenzie, Kwan’s locker neighbor. “As a starter, you’re trying to set the tone for a game and you have this guy, just a non-stop tough at-bat and you’re trying to put him away. You’re trying to even get him to put the ball in play and it goes on forever.
“Mentally, it’s draining. For Steven, it’s just him staying with his approach.”
Kwan ranks among MLB leaders in advanced statistical categories like whiff percentage, chase rate, outs above average and more. He didn’t swing and miss at his first 116 pitches, the most to begin a career since at least 2000.
But it’s his versatility that makes Kwan dangerous.
“He’s basically a five-tool player,” Guardians catcher Austin Hedges said. “Not everybody knows he can hit a ball really hard. People think he’s just slapping singles around, but he smacks the ball.
“What he does defensively, on the bases and whether he’s getting hits or not, what a tough at-bat he is at the top of the lineup really sets the tone for us.”
Cool. Consistent. Composed. That’s how some of his teammates describe the humble Kwan, who can fire up his teammates by taking an extra base or diving head first into the stands to snag a foul ball like he did in Seattle.
“He’s someone you can always rely on,” McKenzie said. “He might be the most even-keeled, high-level competitor I’ve met in my life.”
The Guardians have marveled at what Kwan has been able to do for six months. Now the rest of baseball gets to see what he can do on October’s stage.
“He deserves it,” manager Terry Francona said of the attention. “It’s not easy being the leadoff hitter on a team that’s trying to win in your first year. That’s a lot of responsibility. He’s been terrific.
“And the best part about it is he’s probably a better kid.”
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