The Guardians Lose Hot-Hitting Steven Kwan

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Steven Kwan has been instrumental in helping the Guardians climb to the top of the AL Central and compile the league’s second-best record (23-12) and largest division lead (2.5 games). Unfortunately, the 26-year-old left fielder won’t be around to help them for awhile due to a hamstring strain, though if there’s a silver lining, the injury has opened the door for the debut of one of their top prospects, 23-year-old Kyle Manzardo.

Kwan felt tightness in his left hamstring and departed after the third inning in Saturday’s game against the Angels. During the inning, he had run into foul territory to make a basket catch on a Mickey Moniak fly ball, and afterwards, showed some discomfort:

An MRI revealed that Kwan had suffered an acute strain of the hamstring, and on Monday, the Guardians placed him on the 10-day injured list. This is Kwan’s first trip to the IL in the majors, but according to the left fielder, he’s no stranger to hamstring injuries, having suffered them while in college at Oregon State and during his time in the minors. “I’ve had little ones here and there on both legs,” he said after Saturday’s game. “It’s a hamstring thing. Hamstrings always pops up.”

The injury, expected to sideline Kwan for four weeks, comes at a time when he’s been at his absolute best. He’s hitting .353/.407/.496, good enough to lead the AL in batting average and rank third in on-base percentage, fourth in WAR (1.9), seventh in wRC+ (164), and even 13th in slugging percentage. What’s remarkable is that he’s doing this the way he always does: rarely hitting the ball hard, but just about always hitting it if it’s in the strike zone. In fact, Kwan’s 84.4 mph average exit velocity is the lowest mark of his three-year career:

Steven Kwan Statcast Profile

Season BBE EV LA Barrel% HardHit% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2022 509 85.1 11.8 1.4% 20.8% .298 .268 .400 .341 .341 .312
2023 570 86.0 10.7 1.1% 18.8% .268 .282 .370 .358 .313 .317
2024 122 84.4 11.0 3.3% 18.0% .353 .322 .496 .426 .399 .355

Kwan’s exit velocity ranks in just the fourth percentile, but don’t worry, he can go lower. His hard-hit rate, which is also a career low, ranks in the first percentile, but his barrel rate — which has tripled relative to last year — is waaaay up in the 15th percentile instead of also ranking in the first percentile, as it has in each of the past two seasons. He’s already barreled four balls, putting him more than halfway to his career high of seven. Similarly, his three homers put him halfway to his career high of six.

Kwan couldn’t succeed without doing some things very well. He’s very disciplined at the plate, chasing just 24% of pitches outside the zone according to Sports Info Solutions’ measure. If he likes a pitch in the zone enough to swing, he doesn’t miss it. His 96.9% zone contact rate is the majors’ second highest, and unlike the one hitter with a higher rate (Jeff McNeil, 97.5%), he’s been exceptionally productive; McNeil has not, hitting .231/.311/.306 (87 wRC+). Kwan’s 2.9% swinging strike rate is the lowest among qualifiers, while his 7.6% strikeout rate is second only to Luis Arraez (6.7%). He hit the IL while riding a streak of 74 consecutive plate appearances without a strikeout, having last been punched out by Boston’s Kutter Crawford on April 15.

Where Kwan has been particularly effective relative to years past is in the shadow zone, the region that’s roughly one ball width inside and outside the strike zone:

Steven Kwan in the Shadow Zone

2022 268 62 .256 .247 .318 .298 .284 .279
2023 318 71 .242 .253 .314 .303 .268 .271
2024 63 22 .379 .389 .517 .493 .417 .408

SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Kwan’s wOBA on those balls this year is just one point below his wOBA on balls in the heart of the zone (.409, via a .381 AVG and .556 SLG), which is just ridiculous. Five of his 11 extra-base hits have come on such pitches, including a homer off Chris Sale on April 26, a triple off Justin Verlander on May 1, and a couple of doubles at the expense of A’s outfielders who must have been testing their slapstick routines:

By Statcast’s swing/take metric, Kwan is three runs above average in the shadow zone, good for 13th in the majors and a 15-run improvement relative to last year.

Nobody will confuse Kwan’s batted ball stats with those of Shohei Ohtani, but he does excel in the type of contact that’s reflected by his sweet spot rate, the percentage of batted balls hit with a launch angle between eight and 32 degrees. Last year, batters hit .593 and slugged 1.092 on sweet spot contact, making such balls a bit more productive than 95-mph-and-above hard-hit balls (.506 AVG/1.008 SLG), though not nearly as productive as barrels (.742 AVG/2.493 SLG). So far this year, batters are hitting .572 and slugging 1.007 on sweet spot contact. Kwan hasn’t been quite that good with his sweet spot contact (.528 AVG/.801 SLG), but his 40.2% sweet spot rate is the highest of his career and places him in the 86th percentile, up from 34.6% (61st percentile) in 2022 and 37.7% (85th percentile) in ’23.

The other thing to note about Kwan is his defense. In both 2022 and ’23, he led all left fielders in both Defensive Runs Saved (21 runs above average in 2022, 16 last year) and Statcast’s Fielding Run Value (8 in 2022, 7 last year). Obviously, the sample size is small, but Kwan is tied for the major league lead with 4 FRV and is tied for third with 4 DRS as well.

The Guardians will certainly miss him on both sides of the ball. Monday night’s game against the Tigers offered a template for how manager Stephen Vogt is likely to handle Kwan’s absence. With righty Jack Flaherty on the mound, lefty Estevan Florial started in left field and led off, with lefty Will Brennan starting in right; both went 1-for-3, with Florial leading off the home half of the first with a double and Brennan plating him with a single. In the eighth inning, against lefty Joey Wentz, righty Ramón Laureano pinch-hit and then took over in right — the position where he generally platoons with Brennan — and bumped Brennan to left. Florial (.206/.286/.429, 105 wRC+) and Brennan (.245/.287/.415, 96 wRC+) have both been around league average, with low on-base percentages but very different approaches; the former has struck out 38% of the time, the latter just 14.9% of the time, but both have provided some much-needed pop to an outfield that produced just 18 homers last year. Vogt mentioned that utilitymen Gabriel Arias and David Fry could be in the mix as well. Both are righties and have more experience in right field than left; Fry, the far better hitter of the two, is batting a sizzling .327/.456/.462 (165 wRC+) through 68 PA.

Kwan’s roster spot was taken by Manzardo, a 23-year-old lefty first baseman whom the Rays drafted in the second round in 2021 out of Washington State and then dealt to Cleveland in the Aaron Civale trade last July 31. Manzardo — whose name always puts me in mind of a great Jerry Stiller moment on Seinfeld — spent most of last season with the Rays’ and Guardians’ Triple-A affiliates, hitting an unremarkable .236/.337/.464 (97 wRC+) with 17 homers, a 13.3% walk rate, and a 19.3% strikeout rate. After placing 28th on our in-season Top 100 list with a 50 FV grade, he fell out of the Top 100 when concerns about his modest power (45 raw, 40 game) led to his being downgraded to a 45 FV prospect this list cycle. Even so, his feel for sweet spot contact is strong enough to project him to produce at a position-appropriate level.

Manzardo played well enough during spring training that he probably should have broken camp with the team, but between his not being on the 40-man roster yet and Florial being out of options, he drew the short straw. Back at Columbus, he lit up the International League, hitting .303/.375/.642 with nine homers and a 149 wRC+ in 128 PA while more than doubling his barrel rate from last year’s 9.6% to 19.8%; on 91 batted ball events, that’s not nothing. President of baseball operations Chris Antonetti praised his work at Columbus:

“He’s been good against left-handed pitching, his approach against lefties has improved… He’s worked really hard at his defense, both his footwork around the bag and his throwing and he continues to put up and manage really good at-bats.”

Manzardo was a pushover against lefties last year, hitting .159/.267/.327 with three homers and an 8.6% barrel rate in 131 PA. He’s up to .286/.323/.607 with a pair of homers and an 18.2% barrel rate in 31 PA this year. He isn’t going to supplant first baseman and resident thumper Josh Naylor, who’s hitting .275/.360/.533 (151 wRC+) with a team-high eight homers. Instead he’ll mainly DH and spot at first when Naylor DHs. With Florial getting a plurality of the plate appearances amid a rotating cast that includes José Ramírez, the Guardians have gotten a 118 wRC+ from their DHs, which has helped them to rank second in the league in scoring with 4.94 runs per game.

There’s no getting around the fact that losing Kwan hurts. First and foremost, the Guardians don’t have anybody else who’s particularly well-suited to setting the table; after Naylor, their next-highest OBP is Andrés Giménez‘s .336. What’s more, in the midst of his breakout, Kwan was on pace to break Shoeless Joe Jackson’s franchise record for hits (233 in 1911). At least his absence provides the Guardians with a chance to see what they have in Manzardo, a prospect who’s earned his shot.

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