November 28, 2022

Guardians Clinch the AL Central, A Summer to Remember and How This Team Feels Different

Despite the fact that the Guardians had just steamrolled the White Sox and all but won themselves the American League Central division with two weeks of superior play, I genuinely did not think they were going to clinch the division this weekend. The first time I heard it was a possibility, I thought it was a nice goal to aim for, but really, was more of a best-case scenario to not trifle over. Surely, the Guards would lose a game in Texas this weekend. That’s only natural. Even the best teams lose in baseball. And surely, the White Sox were going to bounce back. It would also only be natural if they did something like take two games out of three from Detroit. Don’t get me wrong. I thought the Guardians very much had the division in hand. It was only a matter of time. I just didn’t expect that time to come so quickly. I did the same thing that everyone else around baseball has done all year. I underestimated the Cleveland Guardians.

And here were are. It’s evening on Sunday, September 25th, 2022 and our Cleveland Guardians are American League Central Division Champions following both a White Sox loss to the Tigers and the Guardians’ own resounding 10-4 defeat of the Texas Rangers. And with an 18-7 record to date in September, I find it hard to fathom how suddenly and positively the 2022 season has twisted in the Guardians’ favor. Even more, I can hardly imagine if I were to travel back in time and tell my past self in April what was about to transpire. Beyond being freaked out by seeing a time-traveling version of myself, I figure that it would go something like this.

Current Me: “Hey listen. You know how this is the worst you’ve felt about a Cleveland baseball team since probably Manny Acta was the manager? Look, it’s all going to work out. We win the Central this year.”

April Me: “Are you serious?! I mean, it doesn’t seem likely to me, but I could maybe see how. Jose may be in the last two years of his contract, but they haven’t traded him. He’s still going to be great. And we got Franmil. I feel good about our starting rotation and Clase gives us a premier closer. I just don’t know if the rest of the bullpen is ready. Someone like Tyler Freeman or Gabriel Arias must come up to the Majors and play every day and produce. I feel like Gimenez has had his chance and blown it. But what about that outfield? We did nothing this off-season. I can’t believe they didn’t even try to get Michael Conforto or Mark Canha. Is Bradley Zimmer‘s defense really that big of help to us? Is Oscar Mercado finally hitting again? Is Josh Naylor playing out in right-field so that Bobby Bradley‘s power bat can be in the lineup? How the heck is Steven Kwan making this Opening Day roster?!”

Current Me: “Look, I don’t want to spoil it for you. But pretty much everything you said after praising Clase wasn’t right and ends up working out for the best. You’re going to love Kwan and don’t be so sure the Andres Gimenez is a bust just yet. That’s all I’ll say for now. Just do this one thing for me. Enjoy watching this ball club this summer. Its going to be a lot of fun and you probably won’t even realize it until you’re deep into it. Its not even entirely about the talent. They are just a great group of guys that play really hard and seem like they enjoy playing together and that makes them a ton of fun to watch. They also play a little unorthodox, but like I said, I don’t want to ruin it for you.”

April Me: “Oh, so kind of like the Cavs this year.”

Current Me: “Yeah, but let’s just say we don’t have to concern ourselves with a play-in tournament for the Guardians.”

April Me: “Oh man… okay, say no more. I’m in!”

Current Me: “Great. Now enjoy! Oh and by the way, you’re taking on Joc Pederson being the worst free agent outfielder in the class is going to come out awful. Quit acting smug about it.”

Self burn aside, at this point you get the picture. The transformation that this 2022 Cleveland Guardians team has made over the course of this summer has been a lot to witness. Every take that April Me had was, perhaps debatable, but rational at the time. You seriously have needed to live the last five and a half months of Guardians baseball to really grasp what has happened. Honestly, if you are a fan and haven’t been following along, I hate to break it to you, but you’ve done yourself a great disservice.

It has been an absolute blast to watch this team succeed and do so way ahead of schedule. Eleven different rookies have taken a plate appearance for this Guardians team. They’ve collectively hit .263 with an On Base Percentage of .326. Both marks are 20 and 14 points better than the league average hitter, respectively, whether rookie, veteran, or otherwise. The five most utilized rookies (Steven Kwan, Oscar Gonzalez, Ernie Clement, Richie Palacios and Nolan Jones) come in with a batting average of .273 and OBP of .332 and maybe more impressively, have stuck out in only 14.9% of their plate appearances. The league average strikeout rate is 22.3% while the league average for rookies is 25.2%. Yes, the rookies- the hitters most susceptible to the pitfalls of Major League pitching- remained unphased and struck out at a lower rate than any team in baseball. Those rookie position players have been emblematic of the entire offense, in part because they have taken up so much of the playing time, but also because they embody the Guardians’ style of play. By now it is known around the league (and if it isn’t they’re all going to find out in October), that there’s no such thing as an easy out against Cleveland. Every at-bat is a battle. Cleveland has the best contact rate and lowest strikeout rate in the game. Everyone runs hard on the bases. They lead the league in infield hits. There’s no such thing as a routine ground ball.

This team isn’t just about the rookies though. Remember when we were all concerned about Shane Bieber‘s velocity? Well, Biebs still isn’t pumping it up there at 94 or 95 regularly, but over the course of the summer, he turned into a taller, more handsome version of Greg Maddux. He even nearly pitched a Maddux (complete game shutout under 100 pitches) against the White Sox on July 12th. He has a 2.27 ERA in the second half to go along with the 8th best expected FIP (stat based on the quality of contact he allows) in baseball during that time. Triston McKenzie has been stable, and healthy with a season ERA of 3.04 and the 9th most Wins Above Replacement of any pitcher in baseball in the second half. He looks like a legitimate ace of the future if not also the present. Cal Quantrill is the starting pitching version of the Guardians lineup. He competes on every pitch and while pitcher’s win-loss records don’t mean much these days, you don’t go 14-5 without keeping your team in a lot of ballgames. I would take our three top-of-the-rotation starters and feel good about them against any other top three in the American League (except for maybe Seattle, but I emphasize “maybe”).

And then there’s the bullpen. Emmanuel Clase is perhaps the best closer in baseball. At the least, he seems like the one that other teams enjoy facing the least. Apparently, sweat and rosin are a good enough concoction to have restored James Karinchak to top-flight effectiveness. But this bullpen is so much more than its two headliners. Sam Hentges (2.41 ERA, lefties slugging .171 against him) has found a home for his hard fastball and wipe-out slider in the bullpen. Holding onto former Rule-5 draft pick Trevor Stephan (2.69 ERA, 5.5 K:BB ratio, 2nd best on the team) all last season was more than worth it as he is now a premier piece of the late-inning puzzle. Enyel De Los Santos (2.81 FIP), Nick Sandlin (2.20 ERA) and Eli Morgan (0.92 WHIP) all are more than capable of quality innings. Truthfully, games in the playoffs could be six innings long for Cleveland’s opponents because the Guards have such a good bullpen.

I haven’t even talked about how Andres Gimenez leads the team in WAR and might be the best all-around second baseman in baseball. How Jose Ramirez might be the most prolific current Cleveland athlete. How among those previously named rookies Steven Kwan and Oscar Gonzalez have taken what was once thought of as the team’s biggest weakness- its outfield- and turned it into a possible strength for the next five years (while being worth a combined 2.9 more WAR than Conforto and Canha that April me wanted). How Amed Rosario has made it very, very difficult to not consider him not only the stopgap shortstop of the present but perhaps the long-term solution. How Josh Naylor plays with passion and hits absolute rockets all over the field.

I could go over all the data and analytics to prove all these assertions. I usually would. The metrics are important, but there is more to this particular team than On Base Percentages and Wins Above Replacement. You can’t measure team chemistry, and this squad has it in spades. This jumps off the screen at you if you watch them on the field after games or in the clubhouse. These guys love playing and playing together. These days especially, it is challenging to measure the impact of a field manager, but Terry Francona deserves an immense amount of credit for fostering a culture that has let the youngest team in the Major Leagues find success while learning to play the game at the highest level. While Francona deserves that credit, the players deserve it even more for embracing the challenge and playing hard every day. I think catcher Austin Hedges said it best earlier this week in a post-game interview when asked about how this team has handled the pressure so well. His answer was simple, “Because we have been doing this for six months… we don’t rise to the occasion. The occasion is every day.”

I cannot explain enough how much I love that. It’s the type of thing you see on a corporate banner or in one of those cheesy motivational videos on YouTube. But having watched this team from day one, having seen how they approach every game, every at-bat, every pitch, you can tell it’s not lip service. It’s not false promises and just saying the right thing. This team is just a bunch of mostly young guys playing as hard as they can, not taking anything for granted and in the process, they have shocked the pants off of the White Sox and the Twins.

And the post-season is coming. There’s the potential for more pants-shocking on the horizon. I’m not going to put myself all the way out on that limb and say that this team is going to win it all. I will, however, say that this team feels different. This doesn’t feel like the 2017, 2018, or 2020 teams that seemed to expect to succeed with just their regular professional effort. This team feels hungry. It feels too young to realize it wasn’t supposed to make it this far. It feels too poised to care. It feels too ambitious to just be happy to face the Astros or the Yankees. Again, I’m not guaranteeing or predicting anything, but I just don’t see some big daunting reason why the Guardians don’t have the ability to beat anyone placed in front of them in any given series.

And if they don’t? So be it. As I told the April version of myself earlier, this summer has been worth the price of admission. I feel strongly that the past five and a half months have been some of the most fun baseball I have ever witnessed. And while we can only hope, that fun may just be getting started. As Guardians fans, 2022 has been a summer to remember, and that’s why we should be prepared for a post-season that’s more of the same.

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