The swath of Kwan

Steven Kwan

Against easy pickings, Kwan owned the season’s first weekend. The competition to come isn’t liable to be that agreeable.

The baseball team formerly known as the Indians launched their season against the Royals in Kansas City. Though the launch began with a pair of low-scoring losses (3-1, 1-0), it concluded with a 17-3 blowout win and a 10-7 three-run win. Meaning that the Guardians out-scored the Royals 30-9 for their trouble.

Meaning, too, that they, like every American League Central team not named the White Sox, opened 2-2. But the Guardians opening was important for things that didn’t happen almost as much as things that did, including:

The Hope Memorial Bridge, whose Guardians of Traffic sculptures inspired the team’s new name, didn’t collapse. No known tidal wave arose from Lake Erie to flood or drown the city. No crash of thunder, lightning, and rain poured onto the city. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame didn’t induct Lawrence Welk, as an early influence or otherwise.

But a Guardians prodigy made nineteen trips to the plate during the four-game season-opening series without striking out even once, without missing the chance to send runners home in three such plate appearances, and with extra base hits in 15.8 of those season-opening plate appearances.

The only mistake center fielder Steven Kwan made during those first four games of his life, and of his team’s life as the Guardians, happened in the bottom of the seventh Monday, when Kwan saw himself throwing Royals outfielder Andrew Benintendi out at the plate on a bases-loaded liner by Royals third baseman Hunter Dozier.

Kwan’s foresight forgot to inform him the ball actually needed to be in his glove before he could make the throw he saw in advance. Rookies make such mistakes all the time. The ball hit the heel of the glove instead, allowing Benintendi to score before Kwan’s outfield partner Myles Straw threw Royals first baseman Carlos Santana out on a tight play at second base.

The Guardians escaped further damage by inducing an inning-ending double play, then loaded the bases on the Royals in the top of the eighth on a leadoff double and a pair of walks alternating with two air outs. Like any rookie, Kwan was more than anxious to atone for his seventh-inning slip, particularly because it allowed the Royals back to within a run. Unlike many rookies, Kwan performed the perfect atonement.

He slashed a 1-2 hanging curve ball into the right field corner for a bases-cleaning triple  and put the Guardians up 9-5, a lead they’d pad by a run with a ninth-inning run-scoring ground out. Good thing, too, because Benintendi thanked Kwan for the seventh-inning miscue enabling his run when he batted in the bottom of the ninth and, with touted-enough Royals rook Bobby Witt, Jr. aboard with a leadoff walk, planted one over the right center field fence.

Guardians relief pitcher Emmanuel Clase retired the next three Royals in order to secure the 10-7 win. But who needed him? Kwan finished the game and awoke the next morning as the talk of about 98 percent of baseball and its watchers, many of whom were only too well prepared to name him this season’s American League Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, and Silver Slugger awards, and to the Hall of Fame, post haste.

Not so fast.

Yes, Kwan reached base fifteen times during the four-game set. No player ever did that in his first four major league games. Yes, Kwan is also the first major league player since the Great Depression to have a five-hit game in only his third major league game. Yes, too, he faced 82 pitches in his first four games and never once swung on and missed a single one of them.

And, yes, especially, Kwan seems as grounded as the day is long, the product of agreeably down-to-earth parentage, a young man unlikely to let something like smashing precedents go to his head and find room aplenty to bounce around.

But, as Akron Beacon-Journal columnist Ryan Lewis warns, there’s more likelihood that the grounded Kwan returns to earth than there is for him making Ted Williams resemble Ted Cruz. “Kwan is obviously not going to continue to hit .692 forever,” Lewis writes.

But until his fortunes reverse just as severely as what he’s shown so far, he has his place in the No. 2 spot in the lineup. It means that for the time being, the Guardians have Myles Straw locked into center field and Kwan in one of the corner outfield spots. That leaves the other spot to Oscar Mercado, Amed Rosario and Josh Naylor, once he’s able to return from an injury—though Naylor could also time at first base with Bobby Bradley struggling to get going. All of a sudden, at least in the short run, the Guardians’ outfield has some answers.

USA Today writer, Steve Gardner, is even more cautious, handing Kwan an award . . . a “Tuffy Award,” named facetiously in honour of a 1994 Cub, Tuffy Rhodes, a modest journeyman who opened that season immodestly, becoming the first in Show to smash three home runs in his first three season’s plate appearances, and off a former child prodigy named Dwight Gooden.

From there, Rhodes hit only five more bombs the rest of that season. He finished his Show career with thirteen home runs and 45 extra-base hits total over 675 lifetime Show plate appearances. Then he went to play in the Japan Pacific League—and hit 464 home runs in thirteen seasons (including tying Sahaharu Oh’s single-season JPPL-record 55 in 2001) before retiring after the 2009 season.

“[W]hat’s not to like about someone with an .800/.857/1.000 slash line?” asks Gardner, the slash line combining Kwan’s short-spring training performance to his regular season premiere? Then, Gardner answers:

Playing time certainly doesn’t seem to be an issue for Kwan in the near future. And with that kind of on-base percentage, he should remain near the top of the lineup. The question is how much else he will be able to provide over the long haul.

Kwan hit twelve homers and stole just six bases last year in the minors. And at 5-9, 175 pounds, there’s still doubt about how much power he’ll ever have. It’s not impossible, of course, but it’s more likely that he’s a closer comp to Nick Madrigal than Jose Altuve.

Beating up on Royals pitching to start the season is the tide that lifts all boats along the shores of Lake Erie. At the risk of incurring the wrath of Kwan (and the rest of the Guardians), the journey is about to become much more difficult.

The Guardians get to slap Cincinnati pitching silly for their next two games, the Reds having said—after the owners’ lockout and the eventual new collective bargaining agreement was supposed to have started putting a big dent in tanking—“That’s what you think,” dumping key parts of their pitching staff, outfield, and infield alike.

But then the Guardians get to tangle with the defending National League West champion Giants, the defending American League Central champion White Sox, and the tied-for-second-in-the-AL-East-finishing Yankees. One after the other. No team or its most immediate rookie star gets to face the pushovers all the time.

In The Godfather (the novel, not the film), Don Vito Corleone mused how true it was that great misfortune sometimes led to unforeseen reward. There’s always the chance, for Kwan and his Guardians, that great immediate reward leads to too-often-foreseen misfortune, if not disaster. But his opening act was incomparable, invaluable fun.

One cheer for the White Sox

Yermin Mercedes

Hitting this home run on a 3-0 count in the ninth in Target Field got Yermin Mercedes a target on his back in May—placed by his own manager.

Somewhere among the legion of September call-ups this year, there was one missing conspicuously from the now American League Central champion White Sox. A fellow having a splendid time of things overall at Charlotte (AAA-East), considering he’s a catcher at a somewhat advanced age. A fellow who exploded out of the box in the Show this year but ran into an unforgivable hiccup near the end of May.

The hiccup wasn’t his, but his manager’s.

Yermin Mercedes’s 2021 in Charlotte was respectable enough to finish with a .782 OPS, a .502 real batting average (RBA: total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances), but a September snub and a likely absence from the White Sox’s postseason roster.

It may or may not be because he stumbled a moment after his manager threw him under the proverbial bus in May, for reasons described most kindly as brain damaged. In a season during which there were controversies politely called dumb, this one may yet confer upon Tony La Russa the Ignoble Prize for Extinguished Achievement.

But it defies baseball sense that Mercedes shouldn’t earn another shot with the White Sox while they carry one backup to Yasmani Grandal who carries a .616 OPS. and isn’t exactly a run-stifler defensively.

Mercedes hit the road swinging right out of spring training, going 8-for-8 right through the sixth inning of a game against the Angels. He was the only Show player since 1900 to open a season that way. It looked as though his only flaw was that, unlike the cars with whom he shares a marque, he can’t go 0-60 in three seconds flat.

But then came that fine May day when Mercedes checked in at the plate in the ninth inning  against a Twins position player on the mound, first baseman Willians Astudillo. Yes, the White Sox were blowing the Twins out, 15-4. But, yes, the Twins still had five legitimate relief pitchers available for duty.

Astudillo threw Mercedes yet another meatball, on a 3-0 count, and watched it sail over the center field fence. So did La Russa, who turned out to be distinctly unamused at his own player. Mercedes had just broken one of the Sacred Unwritten Rules, and the Hall of Fame manager considered him a heretic with No Respect for the Game.

La Russa probably swore he gave Mercedes a take sign on 3-0, though CBS Sports’ Matt Snyder was hardly the only one who thought that might have been either disingenuous or downright false. If true, Snyder wrote, it’s worth a stern talk—in the dugout, in the clubhouse office, anywhere except in the press where La Russa took it.

“I heard [Mercedes] said something like, ‘I play my game’,” La Russa was quoted as saying. “No he doesn’t. He plays the game of Major League Baseball, respects the game, respects the opponents.”

Oh. As though the opponent showed so much respect for the game that they simply rolled over, played dead, and sent a first baseman/catcher to the mound to pitch an inning, even the ninth? We’re supposed to respect an opponent when they all but tank the rest of the game?

(Don’t even think about telling anyone you can’t possibly overcome a 15-4 deficit. The 1925 Philadelphia Athletics would love to prove you wrong. After closing twelve-run deficits twice in a game against the Indians, they closed an eleven-run deficit in the eighth and went on to win, 17-15. They upheld Berra’s Law [it ain’t over until it’s over] decades before Yogi gave it a formula.)

The following day, Twins relief pitcher Tyler Duffey threw behind Mercedes the moment after coming into the game. La Russa said in the press he had no trouble at all with Duffey doing that. His pitcher (and Cy Young Award conversation member) Lance Lynn demurred: “The way I see it, if a position player is on the mound, there are no rules. And if you have a problem with whatever happened, then put a pitcher out there.”

One up for Sir Lancelot. Perhaps Lynn was somewhat amazed that a skipper who admitted a fortnight earlier that he didn’t know the written rules could now be called a strict constructionist about the unwritten ones.

For all anyone knows, the La Russa-inflated dustup with the Twins knocked more than a little air out of Mercedes, who finished May with a .311/.366/.480 slash line, fell to .271/.328/.404 by the end of June, and was sent down to Charlotte. The frustrated Mercedes first threatened retirement, then reported to Charlotte after all.

Who’s to say La Russa’s foolish mishandling of that 3-0 home run, to say nothing of all but encouraging the Twins or anyone else to throw at his batters if they swing on 3-0 against a position player on the mound, didn’t deflate Mercedes inside no matter how he tried not to let it show?

Exhumed from retirement, La Russa’s Hall of Fame resume of thirteen division championships, six pennants, and three World Series rings, I wrote after the 3-0 homer, “won’t save him, if he costs himself his clubhouse and the White Sox turn from early-season surprise to season-closing bust.”

Well, the White Sox didn’t exactly turn from early-season surprise to regular-season closing bust. They were fun to watch as often as not, particularly playing and winning the Field of Dreams Game against the Yankees in mid-August. (“Hey, Dad—want to pitch me a walk-off?”)

They didn’t exactly overwhelm an American League Central that has underwhelmed just about all season long, either. This wasn’t entirely their fault. It’s not easy to lose impact players or significant pitchers to injuries for varied lengths of time. It’s also not easy to play the game with the occasional but nagging suspicion that your manager can hang you out to dry at any moment, for any reason, even (especially?) a foolish reason.

They’d lost eight of eighteen before opening a Thursday doubleheader with a 7-2 win over the Indians in Cleveland. Their .561 winning percentage entering today is lower than last year’s short-season .583.

It doesn’t get all that much better from there. They’ve been a .500 team since the All-Star break. They entered that Cleveland set Thursday with a 25-29 record against all .500-or-better teams. They’ve swept only one season series this year—all seven against the .323-winning Orioles. They may or may not have surprises in store for their likely round-one postseason opponent—the Astros, who took their season series against each other 7-2.

La Russa hasn’t always resembled the genius he’s cracked up to be, still. Oh, he was about as clever and attentive as he could be in keeping his oft-wounded charges from dissembling even in a weak division. La Russa and his White Sox endured where others haven’t after the injury bugs became a plague.

But look to the unwisely missing backstop among their reserves. To his credit, La Russa offered Mercedes a show of support—last month, at a time Mercedes pondered aloud whether his next baseball stop might be in Japan. It took La Russa a mere four months to pull him back out from under that bus.

“As you probably know, if you are paying attention, several times he said how close we are,” La Russa said then. “He knows I’m a supporter of his. So I’ll reach out to him and see what’s going on. It could be he’s just feeling frustrated. I’ll try to explain to him he’s got a big league future.”

Four months after La Russa treated his Mercedes like a rustbucket Trabant, that might be a bit of a tough sell.