Fantasy fact check: Will Steven Kwan hit 15 home runs this season?

On last Friday’s The Athletic Fantasy Baseball Podcast, I made a case against adding Steven Kwan in shallow leagues, given that he had already been added everywhere else (discussion starts at 1:59). My argument rested on my assumption that Kwan is not likely to hit for power. The basis for my argument was that Kwan had not been hitting for much power when elevating batted balls. He is currently averaging 85.8 mph in exit velocity on fly-balls and line drives (EV FB/LD), which puts him just 1.1 mph ahead of J. P. Crawford, who sits at the bottom of the EV FB/LD rankings. More importantly, Kwan has consistently been a great contact hitter in the minors, and hitters with extremely high contact rates in the majors have a poor record for power production. Since 2018, there has been a highly significant negative correlation between contact rate and home run-to-fly-ball ratio (R-squared = 0.34) for qualified hitters.

Derek VanRiper countered by saying that, because Kwan makes contact so frequently and gets to pitches that other hitters don’t, his average exit velocity could get watered down — but he could still barrel up a lot of pitches. Kwan did hit 12 home runs in just 341 plate appearances between Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus a year ago, and there are examples of major leaguers who have recently put up solid power numbers despite having a batted ball profile that gives them the appearance of being a slap hitter.

The perfect example is Ketel Marsand the graph below will help illustrate why.

To be at least a decent power hitter with a middling-to-poor average exit velocity on flies and liners, you have to have the ability to crank some batted balls with great velocity. The graph shows that, among qualified hitters between 2018 and 2021, there is a significant negative correlation between Max EV and Contact%. As it turns out, then, there is something to the stereotype of all-or-nothing power hitters who swing for the fences, and there is also a lot of truth to the idea that excellent contact hitters are often slap hitters with little thump. The upper-right portion of the graph represents the hitters who have made frequent contact and have recorded a Max EV that is well above average. It’s a pretty sparsely-populated quadrant, but three of those dots belong to Mars. (If he had received enough plate appearances to qualify, he likely would have placed a fourth dot there in 2021.)

If you are curious as to who is represented by the large red dot that sits just above Marte’s three dots, that’s Mike Trout, circa 2018. So, yes, Marte has been doing something pretty rare and special over the last four seasons. Not only has he been posting Max EVs on a par with Trout, but he’s been doing it with a lower EV FB/LD (as indicated by the lighter-shaded dots) and a much lower average launch angle (as shown by the smaller size of the dots).

Over the last four years, there has not been another hitter like Mars, but because he has been able to achieve high Max EVs and solid power indicators (14.1 percent HR/FB, .209 ISO), he offers hope that maybe Kwan can, too. It’s not fair or accurate, though, to make a strict comparison between Kwan and Mars. Kwan has seen 170 pitches as a major leaguer, and he has swung and missed at only one of them. I have a 98.2 percent Contact%. No hitter has had a season over the last four years with a Contact% above 92.0 percent, and only three hitters — David Fletcher, Michael Brantley and Tommy La Stella — have finished at least one season with a rate above 90.0 percent. While Marte is a bona fide contact hitter, his highest Contact% of him over the last four seasons was 87.5 percent, and that was in 2020 when he homered just twice in 195 plate appearances.

Without substantially lowering his contact rate, Kwan could conceivably hit 15 or even 20-plus home runs over a full season — just like Marte projects to — but that would make him an even bigger outlier than Marte. Barring that unlikely scenario, there are three other ways that Kwan could hit for average (in the .280s or .290s, if not .300 or higher) and still be a decent power source:

  1. The Mars path: a large surge in Max EV. Kwan’s contact rate is almost certainly going to regress. It might be a better thing if it regresses to Mars’s typical level (around 85 percent) instead of to Fletcher’s level between 91 and 92 percent. Then we would need to see Kwan occasionally hitting with an exit velocity in the 110-to-115 mph range. His Max EV from him is currently 103.0 mph, but there is time for him to crank up the power and embark on Mars’s lightly-treaded path.
  2. The Mookie Betts path: fewer ground balls. There are several hitters who have had an above-average Contact% and a below-average Max EV who have managed to hit 25 home runs in a season or more. Alex Bregman, Justin Turner and Anthony Rendon are among them, but Betts may best typify this particular path. All have hovered around a Contact% in the mid-to-upper 80s while hitting ground balls at an exceedingly low rate, usually between 30 and 35 percent. Between 2018 and 2021, Betts was well below the major league median with a Max EV of 110.6 mph, but he managed to club 100 home runs over 2,116 plate appearances. A 33.2 percent ground ball rate over that span helped Betts to pad that total. This is not an unthinkable outcome for Kwan, who posted a 35.9 percent ground ball rate at Akron last season, followed by a 40.0 percent rate at Columbus.
  3. The Brantley path: a more modest arises in Max EV. This path may be the most realistic, as it would not require Kwan to regress his Contact% below 90 percent, and he wouldn’t need to become an extreme fly-ball hitter. However, it also doesn’t leave much margin for error or bad luck, as we saw with Brantley himself in 2021, when he hit only eight homers in 508 plate appearances. In 2018 and 2019, however, Brantley parlayed a contact rate above 90 percent and a Max EV just below 109 mph into a total of 39 home runs over 1,268 plate appearances. Even taking the rabbit ball of 2019 into account, this precedent gives us a realistic hope that Kwan could finish 2022 with at least 15 home runs.

It is also entirely possible that Kwan takes a fourth path. Fletcher’s batted ball profile and Max EVs have not been radically different from Brantley’s, but his average EV FB/LD has been much lower. Whereas Brantley has not registered an average below 91 mph in any of the last four seasons, Fletcher did not record one as high as 87 mph. As noted above, Kwan’s current EV FB/LD is below 86 mph, so this is a critical stat to track over the next few weeks if you added him in recent days. If he doesn’t pull closer to averaging at least 90 mph on his flies and liners, Kwan could wind up with a similar stat line to Fletcher’s but with a lower probability of delivering 10 or more stolen bases.

Conclusion

While Kwan does seem to be trending towards becoming a lite version of Fletcher, I was wrong to assume that he lacks the potential to produce a level of power that could be useful, even in 12-team leagues. In the weeks to come, we should be able to get a clearer idea of ​​whether Kwan will start to resemble Mars, Betts or Brantley more than he does Fletcher.

Is there a player you’ve been making assumptions about but aren’t sure they’re correct? Let me know in the comments below, and I may queue your player up for a Fantasy Fact Check in a future column.

Note: Season-to-date stats are for games played through Monday, April 18.

(Top photo: P Photo/Colin E. Braley; Statistical credits: Baseball Savant, FanGraphs)

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