GOODYEAR, Ariz. – Steven Kwan is among several chess players on the Cleveland Guardians. He went over some moves with Bo Naylor and then watched Naylor take on Hunter Gaddis.
Kwan has been playing for a couple of years, both in person and on a chess app. Asked who is the best player on the team, Kwan said he heard Josh Bell is pretty good.
“But I would say, I think you have to assume that you’re the best,” he continued.
That’s the mentality that took Kwan from a fifth-round pick in the 2018 amateur draft out of Oregon State to a surprising rookie season with Cleveland a year ago. The outfielder hit .298 with 52 RBIs, 19 steals and a .373 on-base percentage, helping the Guardians to the AL Central title.
This spring training is a much different feeling for the 25-year-old Kwan, who counted Ichiro Suzuki as one of his favorite players while growing up in Northern California.
“Not feeling like you’re walking on pins and needles is definitely a much better place to be,” he said.
If Kwan is feeling any more pressure after breaking out last season, it’s hard to tell. He said he looks at every year in the majors as a challenge.
“I make it a big point to never stay too high or too low. Just stay kind right in the middle, stay neutral,” he said. “I think that’s going to be really important because I think once that I accept that oh, I’m this big leaguer, I’ve made it already, blah, blah, blah, then things start getting too comfortable and then things start slipping.”
That mindset helped Kwan stay focused after he got off to a historic start last year. He reached base 18 times in his first five games, the most for a player in that span since 1901. He also went 116 pitches before he swung and missed, the most of any player to start a career since at least 2000, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
After struggling in May, batting just .173 in 21 games, Kwan hit .341 in June, .314 in July, .296 in August and .325 in September, showing impressive consistency for a rookie. He scored 89 runs in 147 games and finished with more walks (62) than strikeouts (60).
“He’s got a lot of ways to impact us winning,” manager Terry Francona said. “Whether it’s his legs, his defense, occasional home run, he’s got a lot of ways to help us win.”
Whether it’s Kwan or any of Cleveland’s young players that had a hand in the team’s 2022 division title, Francona doesn’t buy the idea that duplicating its success last year will be any more difficult than what it accomplished last season.
“I think if you put pressure on yourself, it can become harder,” he said. “Try to tell our guys all the time, man, don’t chase numbers. … If you’re a good player, show up and try to do something every day to help us win. You look up at the end of the year, you’ll be where you’re supposed to be.”
In many ways, Kwan’s first big league season looked a lot like what he accomplished in college and in the minors. He batted .328 and scored 96 runs in 156 games for Oregon State. After the 2020 minor league season was canceled because of COVID-19, he hit .328 with 12 homers and 44 RBIs over two minor league stops in 2021.
He can hit, and he doesn’t see any reason why that would change anytime soon.
“I think just understanding where I come from, kind of my mindset last year, and continuing it forward,” he said.