Steven Kwan's rise from pinball wizard to the Guardians' humble hitting savant (2024)

CLEVELAND — Steven Kwan’s path to hitting prominence started in his grandmother’s garage, where he fiddled with a rickety, outer space-themed pinball machine.

Press the flipper. The ball shoots through a metal rail to the top of the board, where it waltzes with a pinwheel. Then go to work. With expert timing on the controls — quick fingers and a quicker mind — the game could last all afternoon.

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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’s 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?

“He’s a pain in the ass,” Toronto Blue Jays manager John Schneider said, complimentarily.

Kwan is the lone soul disinterested in the hype. His dad floods his phone with jarring statistics, but Kwan responds by urging him to ditch social media. He’ll entertain those facts in December, after the season and after a long-awaited, mind-cleansing vacation. He can’t be bothered with adoration. The instant he allows his focus to stray, he insists, he won’t be prepared to keep this going.

This surge, though, has planted Kwan on the national radar, even if he won’t indulge.

Steven Kwan has homered in back-to-back games. 💥 pic.twitter.com/YEeErW7i7K

— MLB (@MLB) June 23, 2024

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. When he received a smattering of MVP chants as he approached the plate on Saturday, Kwan considered it nothing more than fans’ beer-fueled babbling.

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

That grounded 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 mom wrong and, of course, pinball.

When he was four, Kwan told his mom he wanted to be a baseball player. Her response, as Kwan recalls?

Probably not. Let’s focus on something else.

Jane was playing the odds, and Kwan still teases her about her errant projection during their weekly catch-up sessions. She never intended to doubt him. She just aimed to offer a dose of reality.

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He understands her position.

“Small kid. Barely any athleticism in our family,” he said. “My name is freaking Steven.”

He refused, however, 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 went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts, a missed sign, a botched bunt attempt and a misplayed ball in the outfield. He was convinced he had no future on the diamond. But, he said, he wouldn’t quit “until someone rips the cleats off of me.” That never happened, and Kwan adopted his mom’s hyper-realistic approach as he pushed forward.

He didn’t 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’d head to Triple A after a week or two, once Josh Naylor returned from injury. He hasn’t been back to Columbus, aside from a rehab assignment. And Kwan and Naylor are now two pivotal cogs in Cleveland’s lineup. They sat in the Guardians’ postgame interview room on Sunday and lauded each other for their power displays.

As Naylor waxed poetic about Kwan’s evolution as a hitter, Kwan stared down at the table, almost humiliated by the praise. Anytime someone mentions a Kwan surge, he’s quick to stress the law of averages will soon rear its head.

Josh Naylor and Steven Kwan talk about the growth of this team, and how they've been building on last year and just getting better every day. #ForTheLand pic.twitter.com/J8aAQQALNn

— Bally Sports Cleveland (@BallySportsCLE) June 23, 2024

And so, no, he won’t get caught up in the hysteria surrounding his .390 average.

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

Scott Barlow allowed Kwan’s first big-league hit, a sinking liner past the second baseman on a fastball at the top of the zone. 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 isn’t some 98 mph heater or wipeout slider or funky, left-handed arm slot. It’s prayer.

When Kwan swung and missed for his 15th strikeout of the season one day last week — for perspective, Reds shortstop Elly De La Cruz has 103 — manager Stephen Vogt and bench coach Craig Albernaz looked at each other and gasped.

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

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 either 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 and who can recognize and make contact with anything, anywhere.

“You can have a scouting report on him,” Barlow said, “but he covers so much. You can do soft away, hard in and mix and match, but his ability to make an adjustment in the middle of a pitch and time it up, whether it’s to foul it off or rifle a line drive off you real quick, it’s crazy.”

He 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’s 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 weren’t the remedies. He’s still that scrawny kid named Steven.

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’d 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.

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The plan was to take more chances in advantageous counts when a whiff would be less detrimental than weak contact. He strived 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 instead of the Bermuda Triangle between the shortstop, third baseman and left fielder.

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

Just don’t tell him any of these facts until December.

Steven Kwan is putting together a truly remarkable season so far! 🤯#MLBTonight breaks down the @CleGuardians hitting maestro and some of his mind-boggling advanced metrics. pic.twitter.com/mPCVw8nNJi

— MLB Network (@MLBNetwork) June 21, 2024

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

There’s no hitting streak at stake. There’s no slump weighing him down. Every day is a clean slate.

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

Each day, Kwan jots down in his journal three things he did well, a way to practice gratitude after partaking in a game based on failure. When he was twice thrown out on the bases in Atlanta earlier this season, he scribbled about the thought process that prompted each mistake. He couldn’t punish himself for taking a chance he assumed would pay off. And he was reminded he should work on executing a steal of third. Any silver lining is a worthwhile takeaway. When he spent four weeks on the injured list in May, Kwan wrote about being thankful the injury wasn’t worse, given his history with finicky hamstrings.

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Most mornings, Kwan meditates for 10-15 minutes. It centers him and helps him dismiss any intrusive thoughts and block out noise, though he admits that’s 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’s ever 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’s the Guardians’ union rep at 26 years old. Now, he finds himself learning from Kwan and marveling at his influence on a first-place team.

“He inspires the hell out of me,” Hedges said.

His parents are savoring every moment of this ride, too. Most nights, they schedule dinner around the Guardians’ first-pitch time. On the West Coast, that often means a 4 p.m. meal. They wouldn’t dare miss the game’s most lethal leadoff hitter take his first cuts.

Kwan owns a 1.023 OPS. In his last 33 games, he has 16 multi-hit affairs and only five strikeouts. He has more walks (19) than strikeouts (16) this season.

And it all traces back to that pinball prowess. Kwan’s parents met while playing pinball in the ’80s. Kwan remembers asking for their permission to use the family computer so he could play a pinball game. He’d spend hours pushing Z with his left index finger and comma with his right index finger to trigger the flippers, and to cultivate the skills that would eventually make a kid named Steven one of baseball’s most imposing hitters — even if he refuses to embrace that title.

“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.”

(Photo of Steven Kwan: Ken Blaze / USA Today)

Steven Kwan's rise from pinball wizard to the Guardians' humble hitting savant (1)Steven Kwan's rise from pinball wizard to the Guardians' humble hitting savant (2)

Zack Meisel is a senior writer for The Athletic covering the Cleveland Guardians and Major League Baseball. Zack was named the 2021 Ohio Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association and won first place for best sports coverage from the Society of Professional Journalists. He has been on the beat since 2011 and is the author of four books, including "Cleveland Rocked," the tale of the 1995 team. Follow Zack on Twitter @ZackMeisel

Steven Kwan's rise from pinball wizard to the Guardians' humble hitting savant (2024)
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