Any fan of Cleveland baseball in the last decade has familiarized themselves with a team identity which has been nothing but consistent. The teams of the 2010s (and the first two years of the 2020s) were defined by one thing and one thing only: starting pitching. Numerous names have found themselves enter and leave the club’s starting rotation, and despite this it remained the unit that carried the team on its back. Clevelanders spent the better part of a decade convincing themselves this is the way a normal person would construct a baseball team, saying things like “pitching is more important in the postseason” or my personal favorite “we just need to pick up a bat at the deadline.” If you have been following the team in 2022, however, you will hear no such excuses. In the first month and counting of this season, a new name has also meant a new identity for the Guardians. In statistics where Cleveland has been a mainstay at the top of leaderboards, like team ERA, WHIP, and strikeouts, the 2022 club has been in the middle of the pack at best. This has been and is certainly a cause for concern, but it has been largely overshadowed by the fact that you will find the Guardians near the top of the leaderboard in an array of offensive statistics like team OBP and runs scored. Early on this season, this team has done nothing short of flipping the script completely. The knock on this new-look Guardians is that “it’s early” and it is certainly a valid one. This begs the question, is this what we should expect out of Cleveland going forward or is this an early season fluke? Let’s look at the numbers.
The Guardians’ Red Hot Offense: Fluke or For Real?
The numbers, in the aggregate, bode well for Guardians fans. This team is hitting the cover off of the ball in the early going of 2022. However, if we really want an idea of how likely this is to continue, the aggregated stats can only get us so far. We need to break down this lineup, piece by piece.
Let’s start with perhaps the only player in this lineup for which this offensive boom should not come as a surprise. José Ramírez has been perennial MVP candidate for years now, and so far in 2022 he seems hellbent on actually winning the award. As of May 9th, Ramírez sports an incredible wRC+ of 205 (good for second in the American League behind only the Angels’ red-hot Taylor Ward) along with a whopping fWAR/150 of over 10. If the season ended today, it would be difficult not to make Ramírez the American League’s Most Valuable Player. The good news is, at season’s end, a realistic expectation would be that he is still among the AL’s best and is in consideration for the award. The bad news is, it is very unlikely that at season’s end his offensive production will be more than twice as much as the average MLB hitter. An fWAR above 10 is not unprecedented, but his name is not Mike Trout, so it would be wise to omit this from your expectations as well. Ramírez coming back to earth might but a small dent in Cleveland’s ballooned offensive output, but if the unit regresses to that of years past it will not be because of him.
For those not well-acquainted with Cleveland’s farm system, Steven Kwan truly came out of nowhere to open the 2022 campaign. The Oregon State product’s incredible start made national headlines, and also made him an early favorite for American League Rookie of the Year. Kwan has seemingly provided front-of-the-lineup consistency that Cleveland has been missing for years (keep in mind this is a team that batted Jason Kipnis in the 2-hole for the better part of a decade). He is likely the biggest question mark going forward for this offense, however, because as aforementioned he is a rookie. His small sample size at the Major League level makes it difficult to project future production, but that does not mean one cannot try. Kwan is an old-school baseball fan’s dream, he hardly strikes out and hits a lot of singles. This player type comes with its concerns, however. When he makes contact, Kwan only hits the ball hard about a quarter of the time, good for being in the 5th percentile in all of baseball for Hard Hit Rate. He also is currently overperforming his xwOBA by a whole 50 points, which suggests he is often getting lucky with the rate at which his batted balls fall for hits. Players like Kwan (with both speed and good on-base skills) have been able to consistently overperform in the past, so perhaps this is not cause for concern and he is able to keep it up. Only time will tell, the writing is on the wall for a substantial regression from Kwan. Lastly, it is also worth mentioning that even a regressed Kwan would be a much larger offensive contributor than Cleveland has had in its outfield in quite sometime. Kwan could be responsible for some regression in this offense, but he won’t be the reason it returns to the level of prior years.
As far as wRC+ goes, Owen Miller has been producing nearly to the level of Jose Ramirez. One of the smaller additions to the return package in the Mike Clevinger trade, Miller’s early 2022 breakout has been an extremely welcome surprise. Unfortunately, Miller might be the biggest candidate for regression in Cleveland’s lineup. Kwan’s 50 point overperformance of his xwOBA makes him susceptible to regression, and Miller wOBA is a whopping 76 points higher than his xwOBA. This is probably a surprise to no one, but it is unlikely that Miller will have a wRC+ of over 200 at season’s end. Most concerning about Miller’s underlying statistics is that he currently has a BABIP of over .400. This mark is purely unsustainable, and as it returns to normalcy his OBP of .424 will naturally take a hit as well. The good news for Miller is that it seems like he has adjusted to Major League pitching, and while he is certain to regress he is not going to end with anything close to his 2021 wRC+ of 49. Miller is also no stranger to being a very good hitter, seeing that in every season he played in the minors he was at least 20% more productive than the average hitter, and in three of those seasons he was at least 30% better. Miller is inevitably going to regress, but that regression will realistically take him from being Barry Bonds to being a solid contributor for Cleveland’s offense.
Andrés Giménez cannot make the same claim to offensive production throughout his career that Miller can, as he is currently producing at a level that has not been seen from him since he was in Rookie Ball. The headliner of the return package in the Francisco Lindor trade, Giménez was excepted to replace Lindor’s defense at shortstop but it was known that he would not fill the offensive hole left by his departure. To just about everyone’s surprise, Giménez currently sports a wRC+ of 162. Less surprising is that he currently overperforms his xwOBA by 61 points and has a BABIP even higher than Miller’s at .411. Adding to the list of concerns is that Giménez hardly ever walks, doing so only 2.7% of the time in 2022. This means that he relies virtually only on batted balls to get on base, which means a short streak of bad luck could be disastrous for his overall production. This is a case where it would be great to be wrong, but the statistical evidence that Giménez is capable of keeping this up simply is not there. If Cleveland’s offense takes a major step back, it would most likely be partially due to Giménez’s bat.
In what seems to be a sea of players due for regression, Franmil Reyes has nowhere to go but up. Reyes’ wRC+ currently stands at 77, which combined with lackluster defense has his fWAR for the season at -0.3. Make no mistake, Reyes has been anything but productive in 2022. However, this is in some ways good news. In the last few seasons, Cleveland has relied on Reyes to provide much needed power and overall offensive production. The fact that the Guardians have been among the league’s best offensive units with Reyes struggling to such an extent bodes well for the club going forward. Also, as aforementioned, Reyes has nowhere to go but up. His wOBA currently stands at a putrid .269, and his xwOBA is only 5 points higher. Reyes is not getting unlucky, he has simply not been hitting well. However, a remanence of the Franmil Reyes of years past is evident. Reyes still crushes the ball, and despite his struggles remains in the top quarter of baseball in Average Exit Velocity, Hard Hit Rate, and Barrell Rate. At season’s end, Reyes might not have the numbers he was able to put up in 2021, but it is almost certain that he will improve from current production levels. In this way, Reyes’ struggles are somewhat good news, as Reyes regaining his footing will likely offset regression from other players.
Other Factors and What to Expect Going Forward
The players above obviously do not comprise the entirety of Cleveland’s lineup, but they do comprise the players likely to experience the biggest changes from current production levels. Other players that might experience regression would include Myles Straw, who is sure to see a substantial downtick in the success of his batted balls but whose hefty walk rate gives some indication of stability. By season’s end there is certainly a possibility that Straw finds himself in the back half of the lineup, with someone more consistent such as Kwan taking the leadoff spot. Josh Naylor remains the true wild card, while he is hitting at a production level that is completely foreign to him, there is little evidence to suggest that this is a fluke. Naylor is producing at a higher level because he seems to have legitimately improved as a hitter. The possibility of regression is certainly there nonetheless, but if there is one bat to keep your eye on as a fan it should be Naylor. Overall, the answer to the question of is this new-look offense the real deal is a resounding “kind of.” Will the unit as a whole be producing at current levels by season’s end? Almost certainly not. However, is this offensive unit legitimately better than that of years past? Almost certainly so. There are going to be bumps in the road, but the 2022 Cleveland Guardians offense is something about which fans should be excited.
The Cleveland Pitching Factory: Gone or Under Temporary Maintenance?
The success of the Guardians’ lineup has overshadowed what has been a substantial disappointment from the staff that fans often refer to as “The Cleveland Pitching Factory.” Is the lackluster performance on the mound simply a bump in the road, or will the Guardians truly have to rely on their offense going forward. As was done with the lineup, lets take a look piece by piece.
Unarguably the ace of Cleveland’s rotation, Shane Bieber has strayed from the production expected of him early on in 2022. Through six starts, Bieber sports an ERA of 4.13 nearly a whole run higher than his 2021 mark. Normally, this early into the season numbers like this would be of mild concern. However, 2022 Shane Bieber has looked like a completely different pitcher than 2021 Bieber. Firstly, Bieber’s stuff is not what it was last season. Both his velocity and spin rate have taken substantial hits. As a result, Bieber is simply not creating swings and misses. In 2021, Bieber was in the 97th percentile of Whiff Rate among all Major League pitchers. So far in 2022, he is in the 59th percentile. There are other ways to get outs of course, but Bieber’s Ground Ball Rate has also seen a slight downtick. These factors add up to Bieber being a significantly less productive pitcher than what fans are used to. This is serious cause for concern, but Bieber has earned the benefit of the doubt up to this point in his career. The lockout created an abbreviated spring for pitchers to prepare their arms, and this could be the root of Bieber’s stuff issue. It is a wait-and-see situation with Bieber, but the numbers are alarming.
Triston McKenzie gets a spotlight here not because he has been struggling but because he has been the best pitcher in Cleveland’s rotation in 2022. McKenzie is producing at a similar level to his 2020 campaign, which is demonstrative of the fact that this is likely not a fluke. Even his underlying and predictive statistics show a marked improvement from 2021, so with McKenzie the news is all good for Guardians fans. The possibility of regression exists as it always does, but it would be realistically optimistic to project that McKenzie can keep this up to some extent.
In nearly every statistic, Plesac has been a mirror image of his 2021 performance so far this season. This is bad news for fans, as there is little statistical evidence to suggest it is going to get much better for Plesac. Unfortunately, rather than his recent struggles being a fluke it is becoming more and more likely that it was his initial breakout that was the fluke. We now have a larger sample size of Plesac producing at this current level than we do of him at his initial breakout levels. Even in his rookie season where he posted a 3.81 ERA, his peripherals looked similar to that of 2021 and this season. It is becoming more and more difficult to argue with the notion that this is simply who Plesac is as a pitcher. This is again a situation in which it would be great to be wrong, and Cleveland’s staff could certainly use a Plesac return to 2020 form.
An examination of Aaron Civale‘s 2022 stats display a slightly less bleak image than in the case of Zach Plesac. Civale has been nothing short of bad this season, with an ERA of over 9. Fortunately, the numbers show that he is not in reality a pitcher that should be sporting an ERA of 9. Civale returning to normal levels of production should act as a significant boost for this staff, simply given how disastrous his starts have been in 2022. Civale’s FIP, xFIP, and SIERA all closely resemble his 2021 numbers. It would be very realistic to expect Civale to return to being the pitcher that he was in 2021, where he had an ERA of 3.84. His 2022 ERA most likely will not turn out to be that low simply because of this rough opening, but the numbers show he is likely to be a solid back-end starter on the whole for 2022. The only problem with this is that if the front-end starters continue to not perform, solid back-end production from Civale may not move the needle for this staff.
Despite the majority of Cleveland’s starting rotation, Cal Quantrill is performing at a level that is by no means alarming. His 2022 ERA of 3.54 is much welcome for someone who has been Cleveland’s 5th starter this season. Quantrill has been very solid, and the numbers suggest he will continue to be solid. His Statcast numbers, for example, are nothing to behold, as he resides in the middle of the pack for most metrics. However, the same was true in 2021 when he posted a 2.89 ERA in 150 innings. In a season that has been turbulent for Cleveland pitching, Quantrill has been a calming continuity. Again, regression is certainly possible but there is lacking evidence to assert such a thing is likely to happen.
Other Factors and What to Expect Going Forward
The conclusion reached here is similar to the conclusion that was reached on the question of Cleveland’s offense. Is the starting rotation likely to experience some modest improvement? Most likely yes. Is this starting rotation still worse than what Cleveland is used to in years past? Most likely yes. For 2022 this is essentially the state of the Cleveland Guardians. The good news for future years is that the Cleveland Pitching Factory is certainly still alive in the minors, with several notable prospects slated to make their debuts in the coming years. Most notable among these is Daniel Espino, about whom you should be excited not just if you’re a Guardians fan but if you’re a baseball fan. In the long term, Cleveland pitching looks to be just fine.
Overall, the new identity of the 2022 Guardians is here to stay in some capacity. Fans should be excited to enjoy a level of offensive proficiency of which they have been deprived for so long, however seemingly at the expense of Cleveland’s world renowned starting pitching.
Featured Image: @CleGuardians on Twitter