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.