Guardians Defensive Identity Leads to Four Gold Gloves

While they may not have reached their ultimate goal, the 2022 Cleveland Guardians did more than just win the American League Central division and take the New York Yankees to five games in the Division Series. The manner in which they completed those feats made them all that much more impressive. Success came ahead of schedule for the Guardians, as they played seventeen rookies on the season, remaining victorious despite obviously re-tooling their roster with young talent.

What may be just as important as the wins and losses though was that the Guardians found success by establishing an identity. That identity includes strong starting pitching, an arsenal of lock-down relief pitchers and a squad of contact-hitting position players that embrace effort and athleticism. Those position players were menaces in the batter’s box and on the base paths all season, using their physical tools to wreak havoc on opposing teams. Those position players also added one more giant piece to the team’s identity: some of the best defensive baseball in the game. The Guardians as a team were in the top five in most major advanced fielding statistics, most notably landing 3rd in Ultimate Zone Rating Per 150 Games.

It should not be a surprise then, between the concerted effort to have athletic and capable fielders on the field and the fantastic results that those players provided, that a franchise record four Cleveland Guardians have been rewarded with Gold Glove Awards for the 2022 season. Those winners were pitcher Shane Bieber, second baseman Andres Gimenez, left-fielder Steven Kwan and center-fielder Myles Straw. Each of them is winning the first Gold Glove of their careers.

Starting pitcher Shane Bieber may be the biggest surprise of the group, as the three decorated position players behind him have built reputations for their glove work in their short careers and as prospects. Still, the Guardians ace is well deserving. Most notably, he led all American League pitchers in Defensive Runs Saved. This essentially means that he performed better than any other pitcher in the AL at fielding the baseball when considering the difficulty of the plays the was making. His glove work on the mound amounted to saving three more runs than the average pitcher would have over the course of the season. Bieber accomplished this feat through soft hands, great reaction time and poise in fielding his position. To his credit, he also only committed one error on the season. He will come into 2023 healthy and ready to compete at the top of the Guardians rotation.

In recent history, Gimenez had been considered a potential shortstop of the future for this Cleveland ball club. Instead, he may have to settle for being arguably the best fielding second baseman in the game. Despite having now only one Major League season under his belt, he possesses great range, being able to patrol both the hole between first and second base as well as the area behind the actual second base bag with ease. That range led to countless diving stops on the infield throughout the season. By the metrics, Gimenez was the best second baseman (minimum 600 innings played) in the league in terms of UZR/150, meaning he was great at making both routine and spectacular play. His versatility, range and arm made him a perfect Swiss army knife when the Guardians put on the shift as well. His positioning will be limited in 2023, but his ability to field the ball with the best should continue.

I had spoken about Steven Kwan’s defensive prowess during the season, but it deserves at least some repeating. Kwan made some of the most memorable Web Gems of the Guardians season. Between diving into the stands to catch fly balls, snaring surefire line drive doubles out of the air and making a game-saving diving stop on the warning track of Coors’ Field, Kwan more than earned this accolade. He blew away the competition in terms of Statcast’s Outs Above Average, a measure that uses Statcast’s data to measure how difficult each play is that a fielder attempts. By this data, Kwan was literally 50% better than any other left-fielder in baseball. He was worth 12 Outs Above Average, his next closest competitor only accumulated eight. The plays in the field are only part of what has made Kwan a fan favorite in just one season, but they are not a small part.

And that leaves Myles Straw. Straw signed a five-year extension with the Guardians coming into the season and while most of the summer was a struggle at the plate, he made up for it by playing sparkling defense in the outfield’s most important position. Straw’s prowess can easily fly under the radar because while he can make a spectacular catch like his fellow Gold Glove brethren, he often doesn’t need to. Straw is so fast on his feet that he often doesn’t have to dive for balls that other players would need to dive for. Quite frankly, Myles Straw’s center field is where tailor-made doubles go to die. And if for some reason he isn’t able to get to a ball before it lands, Straw fared best among center-fielder’s in terms of Fangraphs’ Arm Factor. This means his throws had better outcomes (in terms of outfield assists, keeping runners from taking extra bases, etc) than any other center-fielder in the game. Interestingly though, Straw’s actual throw speed isn’t anything more than average. His “arm talent,” as explained by manager Terry Francona earlier this season, is more about positioning his body for a quick release and making decisive decisions with the ball as soon as he possesses it. Regardless of the reason why, between Straw’s range and release, he makes every base attained by opposing offenses that much more difficult. The Guardians will have to decide in 2023 if Straw’s otherworldly defensive talent is enough to keep him in the lineup daily. Playing him could continue to be a low-key move that brings great value.

Again, in 2022 Cleveland Guardians baseball became synonymous in part with some of the best defense in all of baseball. This is perfectly exemplified by their four Gold Glove Award winners. Even better, these achievements are likely far from a flash in the pan. They are yet another cornerstone for the identity of a team that got a taste of post-season success in 2022 and will be looking for more success in seasons to come. Key to this is that the earliest that any of Gimenez, Kwan and Straw can become free agents will be after the 2025 season. Dependent on what the Guardians wish to do with Straw’s team option that year, all three position players could remain on the Guardians roster for at least the next four campaigns. Bieber’s future is a lot hazier, but what is clear is that if the Guardians stay the course, they have the ability to differentiate themselves through their glove work. That can lead to a lot of winning baseball.

Yes, offense matters. A lot has been made this year specifically about how home run-hitting makes it a lot easier to win post-season games. I don’t deny that. The Guardians should look to add punch to their offense this season, but the foundation that they have built through the defense, athleticism and contact give them strengths to hang their hat on. It sounds like a Yogi-ism, but in order to be good, you have to be good at something. It doesn’t have to be what everyone else is good at.

The Guardians have done the hard part. They’ve built strengths within their organization. With the young talent that is already achieving they have the ability to hold onto those strengths for a long time. Now they just need to supplement that talent.

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