April 23, 2024

The Guardians Are Playing Better Baseball… Is It Sustainable?

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June 2nd, 2023. The Minnesota Twins are hosting the Cleveland Guardians on a warm and cloudy Friday night at Target Field in downtown Minneapolis. The game between the two American League Central rivals would see the Twins pitching staff spin a 6-hit shutout between starter Bailey Ober and three relievers culminating in a 5-out save by Twins closer Jhoan Duran. The contest’s only run came on a 2-out double by Twins lead-off man Jorge Polanco off Nick Sandlin scoring Kyle Farmer in the bottom of the 7th.

The Twins’ victory would put them 3.5 games up on the 2nd place Detroit Tigers in the AL Central. Cleveland would find itself in 3rd, 5.5 games back from the division lead, seven games under .500 and equidistant to Detroit in 2nd place and Chicago in 4th. A night that saw Aaron Civale return to the starting rotation after an early season injury seemed to fail to provide a spark.

But here’s the thing. Despite no Hollywood storyline moment, no massive comeback, no startling addition to the roster and no known classy or inspirational clubhouse speeches, the Guardians have played like a much better ball club since that night. Saturday, June 3rd saw the Guardians turn around and defeat the Twins 4-2, spurred on by a go-ahead home run by Will Brennan, an insurance home run by Steven Kwan and six quality two-run innings from Logan Allen. That victory would be the start of a 33-game span that runs through the end of the first half of the season. During that run, the Guardians have gone 20-13 (extrapolated to a full season, they would get 98 wins). They now find themselves in sole possession of first place in the division. Over the course of this 33-game span, they have seen their run differential also improve from -34 to -7, an improvement of 27 runs in the positive direction. Only Tampa Bay had a better run differential among AL teams during this time period.

And I know what you may be thinking, the Guardians may be improved but they cannot possibly hang with the teams that are top in their class in baseball. After all, this team has shown a propensity for being good enough to win the AL “Comedy” Central but not to run deep into the playoffs. But during this most recent hot streak, the Guardians have played respectably against all comers. They have posted a winning record of 6-5 against teams that are currently first or second in their division, including taking two of three games against the Houston Astros- often considered one of the stalwarts of the AL.

This transition has come largely through improvement on the offensive side of the game. The Guardians got off to a woeful start at the plate this year, averaging 3.6 runs per game through our magic day of June 2nd. Since that day, they are averaging 4.8 runs per game, more than a full run. They were dead last in weighted Runs Created+ on June 2nd (79) and have performed offensively at an above-average rate since (112, as a reminder, 100 is average and higher numbers are good), coming in at a more than respectable 6th place during this time span. While they still find themselves in 23rd overall on the season, they have raised their season wRC+ from that abysmal 79 to a much more competitive 91.

So, to what can we attribute this change in offensive fortune? Was it sweeping mechanical changes by the Guardians hitters? Change in overall strategy at the plate? Rob Manfred feeling bad for the fans of Cleveland and secretly juicing the baseballs when the Guardians hit?

Actually, it appears that in terms of outcomes on the field, two things changed. For one, the Guardians have started putting the ball over the fence more often. While the Guardians still haven’t exactly become Ruthian, they hit 33 home runs in the first 57 games of the season (our date of June 2nd again). Since then in just 33 games they have hit 27. This has been a 41% increase in round-trippers, a marked improvement from the early going.

The other thing that has changed is that, quite frankly, the Guardians’ luck has turned around. Very little has changed in terms of walk rate or strikeout rate for the ball club over the course of the last month or so, but what has happened is that the team batting average is better by nearly 50 points and their slugging percentage is better by more than 70. You would think therefore that their batted ball profile is also better- players are hitting the ball harder and more on the line or in the air- creating more extra-base hits and the aforementioned home runs. However, the Guardians’ exit velocity and Hard Hit% are essentially the same during this more recent span of time and they remain last in the league in Barrels.

What has changed though is their Batting Average on Balls in Play, or BABIP. The Guardians were 25th in terms of BABIP through June 2nd at .277. They are 1st in BABIP from 6/3 through 7/8 at .328. It’s hard to give a reference point on what an average BABIP would be because the shift ban this year has muddied the waters. Historically though, somewhere between .290 and .300 would be considered normal. For reference, last year’s Guardians team had a BABIP of .294 which was 13th in baseball. One can actually make the argument then that while the Guardians were certainly unlucky offensively in the first two months or so of the season, they’ve also seen overly good fortune since. That would suggest that this change to a more competent offense isn’t sustainable.

To vet this, another way to look at whether Guardians hitters have been lucky or unlucky is through the use of expected statistics. Essentially, the fine folks at Statcast are able to take the data they collect on balls that are hit and compare it to the outcomes of similar hits and discover the probability of different outcomes (single, double, out, etc). From this, they can come up with things like the player’s expected batting averages and slugging percentages and we can compare them to the player’s real-life stats to see if that player has been lucky or unlucky compared to the theoretical outcomes they should have received.

Through June 2nd nine of twelve Guardians “regulars” (players that saw 250 pitches or more) had expected stats that over-performed their real-life stats, meaning that they were unlucky. The three hitters that were lucky were Andres Gimenez, Mike Zunino (surprisingly) and Gabriel Arias. Gimenez is the only one that would be considered at this point a long-term everyday player to the same extent as someone like Jose Ramirez, Steven Kwan, or Josh Naylor, all of whom were unlucky.

The more recent time span has seen six of 13 Guardians “regulars” (125 pitches or more this time) have their real-life stats over-perform their expected stats (meaning they’ve been lucky) and this does include all three of Ramirez, Kwan and Naylor, as well as Amed Rosario. So while there is reason to be excited that the Guardians have played a better and more inspired offensive brand of baseball for a little over a month now, I think we need to be open to the possibility that while this team isn’t as bad as they were through the very earliest parts of June, they may also not be as good as they have been recently.

When or if the tide will turn again though is yet to be seen. While statistics do often indicate the past, present and future of our great game they aren’t foolproof. There is a lot to be said about how success breeds confidence and a team that seemed snake-bitten in the early stages of this season has to be feeling much better about themselves given their current success.

Additionally, any hopeful Guardians fan will tell you that Terry Francona’s teams during his now decade-long tenure in town have a propensity to perform better in the second half of the season. This is largely fact. The Guardians’ win percentage under Francona in the first half of the year is .522 (not including 2023). The Guardians in the second half have a winning percentage of .587. They’ve had a better record in the second half of the season in eight out of 10 years that Francona has been at the helm.

At least if you’re the Twins, you have to feel a little bit hot under the collar right now. The All-Star break is imminent and after having a handle on the division lead for nearly the entire first half, you have just squandered it. The team that has taken it from you is the same team that terrorized you down the stretch last year. The Guardians are back at their old ways again and they just won’t go away. They just won’t die. The two teams still need to play six more games against each other in late August and early September. Will the Twins keep their composure or will they spiral?

Nothing is certain. Regardless of good luck, bad luck, or no luck the Guardians have put themselves in a position to do something to which they have become very accustomed and comfortable: playing meaningful baseball in the second half. I think history dictates that you can’t just hand-wave away the idea of another AL Central crown.

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