Progress Report: A Memorial Day Weekend Analysis of our Cleveland Guardians

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“It’s early. Wait until the weather heats up. There’s a lot of season left. We can’t judge this team yet.”

For more than a decade, this was the mantra of a Cleveland baseball fan under the tenure of manager Terry Francona. Don’t take this as a slight against a living legend. Francona was a superb skipper. He is destined for the Hall of Fame in part for his tenure as the winningest manager in Cleveland baseball history.

But despite six trips to the playoffs and a World Series appearance, Francona’s teams were known for being slow starters in baseball’s marathon of a season. In only three of the ten Aprils where Francona was at the helm did Cleveland ever have a record above .500.

There was merit in the mantra, not only because of the overall success that Cleveland was able to have over the course of entire seasons under Francona, but also because it really is true that judging teams solely off the first few weeks of a campaign can be incredibly misleading. For example, the Pittsburgh Pirates were 20-9 at the end of April last year. They would finish the year 76-86. So yes, in a 162-game season, there is ample time for the best to rise to the top and for fool’s gold to best tested. As a general rule, we don’t have a decent handle on the caliber of most ball-clubs until somewhere between the 40-game mark and Memorial Day.

And what do you know? As I write this before the start of Friday night’s affair with the LA Angels, the Guardians are at the 50-game mark with Memorial Day weekend approaching. Sounds like the perfect time to take a first swipe at an evaluation. I break it down with an overview and then a look at each of the team’s units including a letter grade of their performance thus far.

So, let’s begin…

Overview

Letter Grade for Their Overall Performance So Far: A

What strikes me most about the Guardians is that while they had a penchant for slow starts under Francona, they have been piping hot straight out of the gate under first-year manager Stephen Vogt. The Guardians find themselves at a record of 33-17, in the midst of a six-game winning streak and in first place in what appears to be an improved American League Central Division by a game and a half.

What’s more impressive is that the Guardians have achieved this early success despite the fact that they have faced significant adversity. Ace pitcher Shane Bieber has pitched a grand total of 12 innings this season, and will not pitch again. Potential future ace Gavin Williams hasn’t pitched at all. Sam Hentges, expected to be a key contributor to the back end of the Guardians bullpen, has missed more than a month of the season. Lead-off man and left-fielder Steven Kwan is currently on the Injured List as well. Coupled with some poor base-running and fielding decisions at times, and perhaps some friction surrounding Gabriel Arias‘s work ethic, these are pitfalls that could have this team in a worse position, especially when you consider that this roster is very similar to that of last year’s team that was below .500.

So, how have they done it? Well, at face value they have persevered. Vogt has utilized the full compliment of his 26-man roster, mixing and matching and keeping all his players both fresh and rust-free. This philosophy has put the team in a mentally where everyone can contribute. Everyone can be a difference maker. The ending to Sunday’s ballgame against the Twins is a fantastic example of how this season has played out. After multiple mental mistakes in the field by shortstop Brayan Rocchio, closer Emmanuel Clase and first baseman Josh Naylor allowed the Guards to squander a 9th-inning lead, the Guardians could have become dejected and defeated. Instead, Will Brennan‘s three-run home run in the bottom of the frame would be the difference. Whether it deals with injury, mental mistakes or bad luck, this team has done a great job of picking each other up.

This mentality has been the case in all facets and for that, Vogt deserves a lot of credit for keeping his team focused and on track. Speaking of facets, here’s a look at how the Guardians have fared so far in all aspects this season, allowing themselves to land in the lead position in the AL Central.

Offense

Letter Grade: B

The Guardians were a below-average offensive team in 2023, largely due to a complete lack of power within their batting order. And I do mean a complete lack of power. They not only finished last in home runs but finished with a significant chasm of 27 home runs between themselves and the next team in the rankings. This particular negative characteristic stuck out like a sore thumb and at times made the team frustrating to watch to the point that their offensive ineptitude could be overstated. They were 22nd as a team in wRC+ last year, but it felt like they were even lower due to their lack of punch.

As such, the Guardians came into this spring talking as a unit about wanting to drive the ball with more authority both early in the count and in favorable counts, so far, that new point of emphasis seems to have been effective. Cleveland is no longer dead last in home runs. Rather, they are 13th in baseball in home runs per game. They’re 10th in doubles. Admittedly, this power influx has seen their strikeouts increase. The team is 6th in K-rate as opposed to being the best team in baseball a K-avoidance, but the juice has definitely been worth the squeeze. The Guardians are fifth in Runs per game. Last season they were 27th. By no means are they lighting the world on fire with a Ruthian-type power surge, but they don’t need to. A high-contact offense with skilled base-runners just needs enough power to be respectable, and the Guardians have had more than respectability thus far.

Individually, Jose Ramirez and Naylor have led the way. Hitting mostly out of the three and four spots, they are both in double-digits in homers. Ramirez had struggled to find consistency outside of his power numbers early in the season but has come around of late, hitting .318 with seven home runs in his last 17 games and increasing his wRC+ for the season to 123 (100 is average, higher is better). Naylor has provided ample protection in the order to Ramirez, having what appears to be a career year to this point, slashing .247/.335/.506 with 12 homers.

Kwan was also off to a superb start before a hamstring injury sidelined him. He was leading baseball in runs scored and near the top of the league leader-board in batting average. He actually still leads the team in Wins Above Replacement despite missing 18 games to date. The team has also found a great contributor in David Fry. Considered a utility man who can also catch at the beginning of the year, Fry has been huge in picking up the slack in Kwan’s absence. In Vogt’s own words, Fry has earned more playing time moving forward. Fry is hitting .349 while walking a ton (17.4% of the time) and actually has the best wRC+ in all of baseball for any batter with at least 60 plate appearances.

At the same time, we need to be objective. In contrast to all the success, there are some indications that Cleveland is getting a little lucky at the plate. Namely, their Statcast data as a collective continues to suggest that they are punching above their weight. They are 25th or worse in Barrels per Plate Appearance, expected wOBA (cumulative offensive stat that judges a player or team’s quality of contact) and Hard Hits per Swing (where they rank dead last). However, the Guardians have proof of concept that their offensive makeup can work. Cleveland was 29th in home runs when they won 91 games in 2022. That team had a similar Statcast offensive profile as this one.

Even so, there was a hope that Ramon Laureano would smash lefties like he has historically and play well enough to also be mixed in against right-handed pitching. Instead, he hit .177 against lefties and .143 overall before getting designated for assignment earlier this week.. He was slugging just .229. Meanwhile, fellow outfielder Estevan Florial has also struggled at the plate. He is striking out in 38% of his plate appearances. Additionally, when he has put the ball in play, he hasn’t done it with much authority- he’s 10th worst in baseball in expected wOBA. Florial survived the roster crunch when Johnathan Rodriguez was promoted earlier this week, but even if he doesn’t have any options for the minors left, he will need to improve in order to not face the same fate as Laureano.

Lastly, while Fry has been awesome, he is the prime example of fortunate luck among the offense’s success. His Batting Average on Balls in Play is an incredibly high .414 while the difference between his real and expected wOBA suggests he’s the 2nd luckiest hitter in the entire sport. With more playing time having been earned based on his success, we will get ample opportunity to see if it is sustainable.

Fielding

Letter Grade: C

The Guards have built a reputation in recent years of being a defensively strong group in support of their robust pitching. The team continues to receive excellent individual efforts from their elite fielding position players. However, their defense as a collective has taken a small step back in exchange for the ability to put more hitters on the field more often.

This is directly related to their outfield with Tyler Freeman being the main example of this decision-making. Freeman hadn’t played outfield, let alone center-field, before this season. Even so, he has essentially been the team’s everyday center-fielder thus far. By the eye test, he hasn’t been too bad. There’s been some awkward routes and he’s looked green at times; there was a ball he nearly overran and fell backward onto his butt to catch- but outside of that instance, he hasn’t embarrassed himself. By the numbers though, he is unfortunately one of the weaker center-fielders in the game based on Outs Above Average. It’s not all bad, he has shown off a very strong arm in the outfield, but when compared to a Gold Glove-caliber center-fielder like Myles Straw, the data suggests that he has been a noticeable step backward. The outfield’s other steps backward are in a similar vein. No one has been a disaster in the outfield to the untrained eye, but guys like Florial and Fry aren’t particularly strong.

Moving to the infield, Jose Ramirez has also taken a noticeable step backward defensively. He is currently worth -2 Outs Above Average and has been particularly weak at charging the ball. Ramirez continues to get more days out of the field and in the DH role this season. I’d expect that to continue mostly for health reasons, but also because the Guardians may have better third-base options in the long run.

On the positive side though, Cleveland’s Platinum Glove winner has continued his exemplary play. Andres Gimenez continues to make every play and be one of the elite middle infielders in the game. Kwan was also continuing his sparkling reputation in left-field including possessing the ability to throw runners out on the bases. Both are in the top five in Outs Above Average for their positions with Kwan doing so while missing time.

Lastly, Guardians rookie catcher Bo Naylor has definitely had some growing pains. He hasn’t hit to expectation so far and there have been some glaring issues at times with passed balls and throwing on stealing attempts. None of this can be denied and it honestly seems like the younger Naylor brother has struggled with his confidence at times. However, one source of confidence for Bo comes from his pitch framing ability. Surrounded by a plethora of mentors, Naylor is actually in 4th place among all catchers in Framing Runs, having had a significantly positive impact on the pitching rotation with his deception.

Starting Rotation

Letter Grade: B-

Once considered the sturdy backbone of the roster, the Guardians starting rotation so far hasn’t performed to the level that fans may be accustomed. In part, this is because the injury bug has been so harsh. As stated in the intro, the Guardians have gotten just 12 innings combined from Shane Bieber and Gavin Williams. Williams likely won’t appear until after the All-Star Break. Bieber won’t at all.

With that said, the remaining Cleveland rotation has gotten by more with ingenuity, guile and over-achievement than with the imposing dominance that has been their reputation in recent history. In a way, I give them a lot of credit. Even with the issues they have had, the Guardians’ starting rotation is right in the middle of the pack in ERA at 13th (3.83 ERA). Guys like Carlos Carrasco and Ben Lively, who were essentially cast off by other teams, have been finding ways to land somewhere between putting up strong performances and doing just enough to keep the Guardians in ballgames. Even Triston McKenzie, who some have had concerns about because his velocity has noticeably dipped on some nights, is finding ways to pitch effectively despite working with what appears to be somewhat diminished stuff. Logan Allen struggled early but seems to be coming on (no runs allowed in his last two starts). To his credit, Tanner Bibee has done a lot to prove he wasn’t a one season wonder last year.

The key to this rotation though is that they must start pitching deeper into ballgames. This is going to be a challenge. Carrasco and Lively at this point in their careers don’t profile as pitchers that are going to find a lot of success facing batters three and four times in a game. Walking fewer hitters (23rd best as a rotation in walk rate) would be a good place to start. Williams returning healthily is imperative. McKenzie needs to continue to find ways to pitch deep into games. Bibee needs to be someone that the team can lean on as both a stopper and innings eater. A trade for a broad-shouldered, front-of-the-line starter would do wonders for this team down the stretch.

Bullpen

Letter Grade: A++

The starting rotation has been able to get by in significant part because of how absolutely domineering the bullpen has been. First in ERA. First in FIP. First in K% minus BB%. First in WHIP. They maximize strikeouts and limit walks and when teams do put the ball in play they get hits and runs less often than any other team in baseball. It doesn’t get much better than that.

And it all starts with closer Emmanuel Clase. For how wobbly he was at times last season, he has been that much more dominant this year. He has been practically unhittable, posting a 0.36 ERA. Zero. Point. Three. Six. ERA. He’s walked Two batters all year while striking out 24 in 25 1/3 innings. And he is in the top 20 of all pitchers in quality of contact allowed based on expected wOBA. So, he’s striking guys out, not walking guys and not allowing hard contact. Again, it doesn’t get much better than that.

It’s not all solely about Clase though, as Vogt has had a deep squadron of arms to pull from throughout the early going. That depth is even more pronounced than was expected before the season started. The Guardians had a nasty viral bug work its way through the pitching staff during Spring Training. This along with injuries to James Karinchak and Hentges put the Guardians in a position to need to accelerate the promotion of rookie Cade Smith to the Majors.

A right-hander with a tall frame and electric stuff, Smith was a plausible but outside-shot candidate to make the team out of Spring Training. His number was called due to the tenuous health situation the bullpen found itself in at the end of March and he hasn’t just run with the opportunity, he has sprinted with it. Smith is striking out better than 1/3 of the hitters he faces. His FIP is fifth best (minimum of 10 innings) among relievers at 1.35. His star has risen so much, that he was entrusted to notch his first MLB save earlier this week in replacement of Clase who had pitched in three straight ballgames and needed a breather.

Beyond the phenom, Tim Herrin filled Hentges’s role in the bullpen as the only lefty in relief to start the season. Today, his ERA is below one. Nick Sandlin has been a sensational fireman, essentially used as the first man out of the pen mid-inning to strand runners on base. Only two inherited runners have scored on his watch all season. He’s 17th among all relievers in WHIP at 0.78. Scott Barlow was added in a trade with San Diego this off-season in order to add another reliever onto the roster with experience in the high leverage. Barlow struggled early, but his peripheral numbers are excellent. He’s is sporting the best Barrel Rate among all of the team’s relievers.

Up and down the line, the biggest strength of this team has been its bullpen. The ultimate test will be if they can sustain this level of dominance over the course of 162, especially when they are being asked to go into action as early and as often as they are. The amount of depth they have is in their favor, but as the season goes on, their endurance may get tested. I do believe that even if they are stymied slightly by fatigue, they can still be a hugely dependable unit.

Conclusion

Earlier this week I said a lot of nice things about this Guardians team and about how well the last week or so has gone. I spoke in contrast about an incredibly talented New York Mets team that cannot seem to get it together on the field and mentioned how strikingly different the Guards appear to be. At this point in the season, Cleveland seems to be greater than the sum of their parts.

There are flaws in this ball club still, there is no doubt. But they are outplaying those flaws. The rotation is doing just enough to keep them afloat. The offense has done some combination of over-performing and improving for last season that will get better understood as we get deeper into the summer. The bullpen has been as dominant as humanly conceivable.

This is a team that reminds me of the mid-2010s Royals teams that went to back-to-back World Series. It is hard to deny that there are many similarities in their strengths and weaknesses with the one exception being that while both teams starting rotations are performing similarly, Cleveland has more young potential.

For as positive and things feel right now, it is still far too early to say this is a World Series team. Not yet. But it has the elements of one. After all, the only team in baseball with a better record against about .500 teams is the Baltimore Orioles.

We’re deep enough into the season to know that the Guardians are a worthy team. There is no reason for the playoffs to not be a goal.

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