MLB trends: Guardians rookie Steven Kwan off to historic start; stolen bases on the decline

Table of Contents1 Kwan’s historically great debut 2 Urías missing velocity 3 Stolen bases still…

The 2022 MLB regular season is less than one week old and, to be completely honest with you, this is the worst time of year to analyze baseball. The sample sizes are so small and it is damn near impossible to differentiate what’s meaningful from what’s nothing more than baseball being weird. But, we soldier on.

Our weekly series breaking down various trends across the league begins Wednesday with a look at the historic start to one rookie’s career, one starter’s alarming velocity drop, and the league-wide stolen base rate. Let’s get to it.

Kwan’s historically great debut

It has been a history-making start to the career for Guardians outfielder Steven Kwan. The former Oregon State Beaver is 10 for 15 (.667) with seven walks to begin his big league career. He has not struck out. Kwan reached base 18 times in his first five career games, the most times on base in a player’s first five games in the Modern Era (since 1901).

“There are a lot of player development people who have their chest out right now, as they should,” Guardians manager Terry Francona told the Associated Press after Kwan reached base three times Monday. “I know we’re four games in, but every single one of them kept saying ‘Hey, he’s going to be OK, man.’ So I know they’re proud.”

Kwan, 24, was a fifth-round pick in 2018 and he was never considered a tippy-top prospect, though he was R.J. Anderson’s breakout pick for the Guardians entering 2022. He is a bat control/contact machine with a great approach but little power and iffy defensive value (Kwan dropped a fly ball with the bases loaded Monday) who hit .328/.407/.527 between Double-A and Triple-A in 2021.

The bat-to-ball ability is truly elite. As MLB.com’s Sarah Langs notes, Kwan had seen 115 pitches this season and not swung and missed once, by far the most pitches without a swing and miss to begin a career since 2000. Also, he has yet to strike out in 2022. Regular season or spring training. Between spring training and the regular season, Kwan as 58 plate appearances and zero strikeouts.

Not surprisingly, Kwan had the lowest swinging strike rate in the minors last season, and was not particularly close. Here’s the leaderboard (min. 300 plate appearances):

  1. Steven Kwan, Guardians: 2.6 percent
  2. Michael Stefanic, Angels: 5.0 percent
  3. Isaac Paredes, Tigers: 5.2 percent (included in the recent Austin Meadows trade)
  4. Kyle Kasser, Angels: 5.2 percent
  5. Grant Williams, Red Sox: 5.3 percent

The MLB average swinging strike rate was 11.3 percent last season, for reference. With Kwan, the gap between No. 1 and No. 2 on that leaderboard is the same as the gap between No. 2 and No. 51. The last minor leaguer with a swinging strike rate as low as Kwan’s last year was journeyman infielder Breyvic Valera in 2015. The last big leaguer was Marco Scutaro in 2013.

There are questions about Kwan’s long-term value given his lack of over-the-fence power (he hit 15 homers in three minor-league seasons) and defense. There is no question about his impact early in his MLB career though. He has reached base at a historic rate thus far, and his supreme bat control gives him a chance to be a high-volume hitter with some of the hottest hot streaks in the sport.

Urías missing velocity

The first start of the regular season for Dodgers lefty Julio Urías did not go according to plan. After completing at least five innings in 31 of his 32 starts last season, Urías got only six outs in his season debut this year, though, to be fair, it was Coors Field and there was some defensive weirdness behind him. Chris Taylor made a pretty bad error with two outs in the first inning:

Urías was charged with six runs on six hits and two walks in two innings plus five batters. He did not strike out a single hitter, and Rockies hitters missed with only four of their 24 swings. That includes zero misses with 10 swings against his fastball. That is a very low rate for Urías, who had a 21.3 percent whiff rate with his heater in 2021, and a 24.4 percent whiff rate overall.

Most worrisome: Urías was missing a good deal of velocity. Velocity usually peaks in the summer months, so being a tick or two down in the cold in April isn’t uncommon, but Urías was missing more than a tick or two. The average velocity numbers:

Fastball

94.0 mph

94.1 mph

91.4 mph

Curveball

81.0 mph

81.4 mph

80.3 mph

Changeup

87.0 mph

86.8 mph

84.6 mph

Urías did not throw a pitch over 93.1 mph in his season debut this past weekend. Last season, his average fastball was above that in 30 of his 32 starts, and the two starts that didn’t came late in September, when Urías was well over his previous career high in innings. We’re in red flag territory here. Missing close to 3 mph should set off alarms.

“If I don’t execute the pitches, I could throw 100 mph and it wouldn’t matter,” Urías told Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register following his season debut. “I feel like executing the pitches is more important and it’s what I’m going to focus on.”

The obvious caveat is this was not a normal spring training. Pitchers only had a three weeks to prepare for the regular season and basically everyone came out of camp on a pitch limit. That said, Urías was missing velocity in spring training, and last year’s 185 2/3 innings were a career high by almost 100. His previous career high was 87 2/3 innings in High Class-A in 2014.

Also, Urías is just under five years removed from shoulder capsule surgery, which was a kiss of death not too long ago. Torn shoulder capsules ruined the careers of John Danks, John Maine, Mark Prior, Johan Santana, and many others over the years. To date, Urías has recovered from that major procedure as well as the Dodgers could have reasonably hoped. It’s still not something you want in a player’s history.

It feels like Urías has been around forever, but he is only 25. A young pitcher who eclipsed his previous high by close to 100 innings and has major shoulder surgery in his history showing up down two grades on his fastball is an obvious concern. The Dodgers are not blessed with as much rotation depth as previous years. Urías at 91-92 is a different animal than Urías at 94-96. If he’s compromised, it would be a significant blow to the club’s title hopes.

“It’s certainly not ideal,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts told Plunkett. “I do think it’s a byproduct of just not having a normal buildup. I’m not using that as an excuse. I think it’s just a matter of fact. We’re building him up and building up arm strength. I just think that’s the reason. He’s healthy. He feels good. That’s one part of it.”

Stolen bases still on the decline

It is no secret the stolen base is a dying art in Major League Baseball. Last season teams attempted 0.61 stolen bases per game. In 2011, it was 0.93 stolen base attempts per game. You have to go back to the 1999 for the last time teams attempted more than one stolen base per game (1.01 per game). Steals are becoming few and far between.

And so far this season, stolen bases continue to decline. Through Tuesday’s games teams are 55 for 82 stealing bases this year. That’s a 67.1 percent success rate and 0.55 steal attempts per game. Compared to the first week in the previous seasons, that is way down (we’re going to ignore the shortened pandemic season in 2020):

2017

0.78 (69.9%)

0.71 (73.0%)

2018

0.65 (76.9%)

0.71 (72.1%)

2019

0.70 (72.3%)

0.64 (73.3%)

2021

0.52 (80.0%)

0.61 (75.7%)

2022

0.55 (67.1%)

???

The stolen base attempt rate the first week of the season doesn’t correlate perfectly to the full season stolen base attempt rate, but they follow the same basic trend, and that is downward. Teams aren’t running nearly as often as even three years ago. The stolen base success rate for the entire season is, generally speaking, on the rise. Teams are attempting fewer steals, but when they do attempt them, they’re successful more often. They pick their spots and go when it’s a high-probability play.

There are countless reasons for the decline of the stolen base. Teams don’t think they’re worth the risk when you have so many home run hitters. So many pitchers have adopted a modified stretch delivery that cuts down on their time to the plate. Instant replay means accurate calls. There’s injury risk too. Mike Trout injured his thumb sliding into second a few years ago and missed two months.

It’s also possible this is cyclical, and in a few years stolen bases will tick back up. For what it’s worth, MLB is testing several rule changes to promote stolen bases in the minors. They’re moving second base in, they’re making the bases larger, and they’re putting restrictions on pickoff moves. Stolen bases are exciting and MLB is exploring ways to bring them back. It’s worth trying.

For now, stolen bases continue to trend down. Stolen base attempts are much lower in the first week of this season than they were three years ago, when they were lower than three years before that. Maybe we can blame that on the short spring training and players not wanting to push things, but it fits with the overall trend in baseball. Steals are no longer a go-to weapon.

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