Fantastic fact check: Will Steven Kwan hit 15 home runs this season?
last friday The Athletic Fantasy Baseball Podcast, I argued against adding Steven Kwan in shallow leagues, given that it had already been added everywhere else (discussion starts at 1:59). My argument was based on my assumption that Kwan is not likely to strike for power. The basis of my argument was that Kwan didn’t hit with much power when elevating batted balls. He currently has an average exit speed of 85.8 mph on fly balls and line drives (EV FB/LD), which puts him just 1.1 mph ahead. JP Crawford, which is at the bottom of the EV FB/LD ranking. More importantly, Kwan has always been an excellent contact hitter in the minors, and hitters with extremely high contact rates in the majors have a poor record of energy production. As of 2018, there is a highly significant negative correlation between contact rate and home run-to-fly-ball ratio (R-squared = 0.34) for skilled hitters.
Derek VanRiper countered by saying that because Kwan makes contact so frequently and hits pitches that other hitters don’t, his average outing speed might be watered down — but he could still make a lot of pitches. Kwan hit 12 homers in just 341 plate appearances between Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus a year ago, and there are examples of major leaguers recently recording strong wattage numbers despite a batted ball profile. which gives them the appearance of being a slap hitter.
The perfect example is Ketel Marteand the graph below will help illustrate why.
To be at least a decent power hitter with medium to low exit speed on flies and liners, you need to have the ability to throw some batted balls with high speed. The graph shows that, among skilled hitters between 2018 and 2021, there is a significant negative correlation between Max EV and Contact%. So it turns out there’s something to the stereotype of all-or-nothing power hitters swinging for the fences, and there’s also a lot of truth to the idea that great contact hitters are often slap hitters with little noise. The upper right portion of the graph represents hitters who had frequent contact and recorded a Max EV well above average. It is a fairly sparsely populated quadrant, but three of these points belong to Marte. (Had he received enough plate appearances to qualify, he likely would have placed a fourth run there in 2021.)
If you’re curious who’s represented by the big red dot that sits just above Marte’s three dots, it’s Mike Trout, circa 2018. So yeah, Marte did something quite rare and special over the past four seasons. Not only did he post Max EVs on par with Trout, but he did so with a lower FB/LD EV (as indicated by the lighter dots) and a much lower average launch angle (as indicated by the smallest point size).
In the past four years, there has been no other hitter like Marte, but because he was able to achieve high Max EVs and solid power indicators (14.1% HR / FB , .209 ISO), it offers hope that maybe Kwan can, too. However, it is neither fair nor accurate to make a strict comparison between Kwan and Marte. Kwan saw 170 pitches as a major leaguer, and he only missed one. He has a contact percentage of 98.2%. No hitter has had a season in the past four years with a contact percentage above 92.0%, and only three hitters – David Fletcher, Michael Brantley and Tommy La Stella – have finished at least one season with a contact percentage. greater than 90.0%. Although Marte is a bona fide contact hitter, his highest contact percentage over the past four seasons was 87.5%, and that was in 2020 when he hit just two homers in 195. marble appearances.
Without drastically reducing his contact rate, Kwan could eventually hit 15 or even more than 20 homers over a full season – just as Marte projects – but that would make him an even bigger outlier than Marte. Except for this unlikely scenario, there are three other ways for Kwan to average (in the 0.280s or 0.290s, if not 0.300s or more) and still be a decent power source:
- The Marte Path: A large increase in Max EV. Kwan’s contact rate will almost certainly decline. It might be better if he regressed to the typical Marte level (around 85%) instead of Fletcher’s level of 91-92%. Then we would need to see Kwan hit occasionally with an exit speed in the range of 110-115 mph. His Max EV is currently 103.0 mph, but there’s time for him to build up the power and hit Marte’s lightly trodden path.
- The Mookie Betts way: fewer balls on the ground. There are several hitters who had above-average Contact% and below-average Max EV who managed to hit 25 home runs in a season or more. Alex Bregman, Justin Turner and Anthony Rendon are among them, but Betts can best characterize this particular path. All hovered around a mid-to-high 80s % contact while hitting ground balls at an extremely low rate, typically around 30-35%. Between 2018 and 2021, Betts was well below the major league median with a Max EV of 110.6 mph, but he managed to hit 100 home runs in 2,116 plate appearances. A ground ball rate of 33.2% over that span helped Betts increase that total. It’s not an unthinkable result for Kwan, who posted a 35.9 percent rushing rate at Akron last season, followed by a 40.0 percent rush rate at Columbus.
- The Brantley Path: A more modest Max EV increase. This path is perhaps the most realistic, as it wouldn’t require Kwan to regress his contact percentage below 90%, nor would he need to become an extreme fly ball hitter. However, that also doesn’t leave much room for error or bad luck, as we saw with Brantley himself in 2021, when he hit just eight home runs in 508 plate appearances. In 2018 and 2019, however, Brantley turned a contact rate above 90% and a Max EV just below 109 mph into a total of 39 home runs in 1,268 plate appearances. Even allowing for the bunny ball of 2019, that precedent gives us realistic hope that Kwan can end 2022 with at least 15 homers.
It’s also entirely possible that Kwan is taking a fourth path. Fletcher’s batting profile and Max EVs weren’t dramatically different from Brantley’s, but his average FB/LD EV was much lower. While Brantley hasn’t averaged below 91 mph in the past four seasons, Fletcher hasn’t averaged one as high as 87 mph. As noted above, Kwan’s current FB/LD EV is below 86 mph, so this is a critical stat to track over the next few weeks if you’ve added him in the last few days. If he doesn’t get closer to averaging at least 90 mph on his flies and liners, Kwan could end up with a similar stat line to Fletcher but with a lower likelihood of delivering 10 stolen bases or more.
Although Kwan seems to have a tendency to become a leaner version of Fletcher, I was wrong to assume that he didn’t have the potential to produce a level of power that could be useful even in 12-team leagues. In the coming weeks, we should be able to get a clearer picture of whether Kwan will start to look more like Marte, Betts, or Brantley than Fletcher.
Is there a player you’ve made assumptions about but aren’t sure they’re correct? Let me know in the comments below, and I might queue your player up for a fantastic fact check in a future column.
To note: Season-to-date stats are for games played up to Monday, April 18.
(Top photo: P Photo/Colin E. Braley; Statistical credits: Baseball Savant, FanGraphs)