Cleveland Guardians 2023 Season Preview
Baseball has always been my favorite sport, but I really rediscovered my love of the game by watching the 2022 Cleveland Guardians. The youngest team in baseball was must-see TV on a nightly basis, as the “Guardiac Kids” moniker just seemed to fit. The throwback to the “Kardiac Kids” of the 1980 Cleveland Browns just made sense. The Guardians were 17-7 in games that entered the ninth inning tied. They had seven walk-off wins and 40 comeback wins. They were 62-4 with a lead after five innings.
I’ll be the first to admit that my hometown team fell on the right side of luck and variance a lot. Just as one example, Cleveland was 13-6 against the Twins, despite each team scoring 89 runs in the 19 regular season meetings. The Guardians had a magical 21-8 run in September to lock up the Central Division title and gave the Yankees everything they could handle in a five-game series that could very well have gone differently.
This was a team that went 46-35 at home with a +3 run differential and 46-35 on the road with a +61 run differential. It was a team that went 28-17 in one-run games. It was a team that reenergized 63-year-old Terry Francona. It was a team that the city, and to some degree, baseball fans around the country, rallied around.
In looking objectively, it’s fair to wonder what happens now. The Guardians didn’t really show a ton of signs of their storybook season by going 46-44 with a +5 run differential in the first half. They don’t get to beat up on the AL Central (47-29) to the same degree with the schedule changes. However, they’re armed with one of the best farm systems in baseball and an offensive philosophy that fits this season’s rule changes as well as any. Oh, yeah, and maybe the best bullpen in baseball.
Explanations of the stats used in this preview can be found in my “MLB Stats to Know” article.
2023 Cleveland Guardians Odds
(odds from DraftKings as of Mar. 8, click for updates)
World Series: +2200
AL Pennant: +1100
AL Central: +135
Win Total: 86.5 (-120/100)
Make Playoffs: Yes -135 / No +115
Cleveland Guardians Offense
It took me a long time to believe in the Guardians last season because their offensive philosophy goes against so much of what I believe. I’m a stats guy through and through. Michael Lewis’s Moneyball was a life-changing read for me. The Guardians have always operated with strict financial constraints, so they’ve had to find edges in various ways that don’t cost a lot of money. That used to be with platoon advantages (righty vs. lefty, lefty vs. righty) and high walk rates.
Now, they’ve adopted a full-on contact-based approach. Cleveland had the lowest K% by 1.3% at just 18.2%. The league-wide strikeout rate has steadily been on the rise, not because of guys just trying to hit home runs, but because hitting is really hard. Pitchers throw harder than ever and throw fewer fastballs than ever. I’m of the mindset that you sacrifice strikeouts for power and you deal with strikeouts because deep counts also produce walks. Cleveland’s mindset is different.
Cleveland’s K% was the lowest since the 2017 Astros at 17.3%. They didn’t hit for power, which was ultimately their undoing in the playoffs, but they hit their way on base and then used speed to generate runs and put pressure on the opposition. They finished third with 119 stolen bases and led the league by a large margin in going first to third on singles. They were also fourth in percentage of runners scoring from third with less than two outs.
They were also 30th out of 30 teams in Hard Hit%, a full 1.1% below the lowly A’s. They were far and away dead last in Barrel% and 29th in average exit velocity. Contact quality is a huge characteristic of my handicapping and Cleveland’s was extremely poor, but their percentage of contact was elite. The new rules would seem to benefit them and their strategy.
They were seventh in batting average, but 21st in slugging percentage. A thumb injury zapped some of Jose Ramirez’s power, as he still had a tremendous season with 29 homers, 20 steals and a 139 wRC+, but he had 19 homers at the All-Star Break and just 10 after it. Josh Naylor hit 20 homers and was strong with a 117 wRC+. Andres Gimenez turned into a breakout star with 6.1 fWAR, a .297/.371/.466 slash, a 140 wRC+ and stellar defense at second base.
Steven Kwan rode elite plate discipline numbers and a tremendous feel for contact to a 124 wRC+ in his rookie season. He was also a Gold Glove left fielder with 21 Defensive Runs Saved and 10 Outs Above Average. Myles Straw couldn’t hit a lick, but he, too, won a Gold Glove. The Guardians just found ways to create value out of most of the roster.
And, here’s the thing about this season. The top six hitters in plate appearances are all back and had wRC+ marks of 139, 103, 124, 64 (Straw), 140 and 117. Oscar Gonzalez was eighth in plate appearances with a 122 wRC+. Straw will keep playing because of his defensive value, but one player out of the mix is Owen Miller, who had 472 PA with an 85 wRC+. He’s effectively been replaced by Josh Bell, who has a career 116 wRC+ (along with Franmil Reyes, who had 280 PA with a 69 wRC+). Mike Zunino also replaces an awful hitter in Austin Hedges, though Zunino is a huge question mark after undergoing thoracic outlet syndrome surgery.
Zunino is one of the rare exceptions from a contact standpoint, but the ball screams off of his bat when he does hit it. He and Bell add dimensions of much-needed power to the lineup, though Bell also makes a lot of contact as a great fit. It is rare for the Guardians to add free agents of consequence, but these are the two big signings of the offseason and look to be excellent fits.
Lastly, my favorite thing about this Cleveland team is that there are no clearly below-average players. Even the bench options are young, toolsy guys that are byproducts of some outstanding drafting and player development. Will Brennan is likely to take some plate appearances from Straw and the infielders on the bench can play multiple positions.
I mentioned it briefly, but Cleveland’s offensive ideology could be a blessing with the new rules. They were very aggressive - and very successful - on the bases and it looks as though we’re in a new era for the stolen base. I will say that their spray and pray mentality on offense with the fifth-highest rate of opposite field contact may not be helped as much by the end of the shift, but guys like Bell and Ramirez stand to benefit greatly and those are their run producers. The rules should prove fruitful for teams that don’t strike out and nobody strikes out less often than the Guardians.
Cleveland Guardians Pitching
This is one of the best pitching factories in baseball. And three dudes are coming in Tanner Bibee, Daniel Espino and Gavin Williams who all have above-average starter upside, though Espino could end up an elite closer as well. Bibee might be the next Shane Bieber, so he’s a guy you want to keep an eye on if you’re in dynasty fantasy leagues.
The current Bieber is still outstanding, despite a well-publicized loss of velocity. Bieber was limited to 96.2 innings in 2021 because of a right shoulder strain, but came back to throw 200 innings last season with elite peripherals. His K% was down a bit, but his walk rate was the best of his career and the mild homer problem he had in 2021 went away again. He still allowed a lot of hard-hit contact, which has been my one concern about him, but he had three Gold Glovers behind him and Ramirez probably could’ve won the award as well.
The reason Bieber’s Hard Hit% against is so high is because hitters are primarily putting fastballs in play because they can’t make contact with his other offerings. Fastballs just have a higher rate of exit velo. Even then, his average exit velo on fastballs in play dropped 1.6 mph from 2021 to 2022. We also saw the lowest rate of fastballs in his career and I think we’ll see another decrease this season. Strikeouts are good for getting paid and he has incentive to raise that K% again with a contract situation looming.
The leap that Triston McKenzie made was the most surprising development for me last season. He improved his command by cutting his HR/FB% from 14.7% to 10.3% and also cutting his walk rate by nearly half from 11.7% to 5.9%. He was virtually unhittable in the second half with a .251 wOBA against, even though he probably should have struggled as he reached new innings pitched thresholds. He ranked in the 10th percentile in exit velo and 11th percentile in Barrel% but also had arguably the best outfield defense in baseball. He will have another great one this season and pitches above the swing plane of most hitters. I’m still skeptical he’ll be that good again, but he showcased a lot of upside.
The rest of the rotation is really interesting because it could look substantially different in August than it does in April. Cal Quantrill had a 3.38 ERA with a 4.12 FIP and a 4.39 xFIP, so a lot of pundits and projection systems are looking for regression. I happen to dig Quantrill’s command profile with a 69th percentile Hard Hit% and a high Chase Rate that keeps him from getting barreled.
Aaron Civale made 20 starts with a 4.92 ERA and a 3.87 FIP, so he’s the opposite of Quantrill in the eyes of the advanced stats as a guy that should improve. He had three lengthy IL stints but posted a 3.55 ERA with a 3.35 FIP and some outstanding peripherals after the first one. That’s better than I can say about Zach Plesac, who was the subject of a lot of trade calls this offseason. I think he’s the odd man out sooner rather than later in this rotation, to be replaced by Cody Morris, Logan Allen (a different one) or Bibee. The Guardians had four starting pitcher prospects among FanGraphs’ top 100 prospects - Allen (57), Bibee (70), Williams (81), Espino (93).
The star of the show is this bullpen. It is ELITE. Trevor Stephan is the best reliever you’ve never heard of. Emmanuel Clase is arguably the best one that you have. The pen was fifth in ERA and fifth in FIP for the full season but led MLB in ERA, FIP and fWAR in the second half. This group pitched 33.1 innings in the playoffs against the Rays and Yankees with four runs allowed on 13 hits with 45 strikeouts against 11 walks. In those seven games, opposing batters hit .119.
Sadly, Sam Hentges, who was emerging in an Andrew Miller-esque role, had shoulder issues in camp and his prognosis is up in the air. Fortunately, the Guardians do such an incredible job of developing pitching talent that they’ll use Tim Herrin or another internal option for that role.
Cleveland’s 18.2% K% was the lowest for the team since a 17.5% mark in 2012. That team went 68-94, scoring just 31 fewer runs than last year’s version, but allowing 211 more runs. That was the last season of the Manny Acta era and also the last time the Guardians failed to win at least 80 games in a full season. Francona has been the manager ever since and the team’s one losing season was 2021 when they went 80-82.
Player to Watch
SP Cal Quantrill: Quantrill was one of the most profitable pitchers to bet on last season. His 3.38 ERA would have been impressive 10+ years ago, but a lot of bettors bet against him and created line moves because of his 4.31 xERA, 4.12 FIP and 4.39 xFIP. Nobody believed in what they were seeing, but he went 15-5 and the team went 22-10 in his 32 starts. He’s lowered his HR/FB% every season in the league and just had the highest pop up rate of his career. He gets a lot of weak contact outside the zone and has reverse platoon splits thanks to a sinker and a changeup that run away from lefties. He also has a great defense behind him. I think a lot of bettors will fade him, which might work out, but I think he’s just something of a statistical anomaly.
Cleveland Guardians Season Win Total
You won’t find me betting against a bullpen like this. Even though the win total line is bordering on the upper 80s, Cleveland’s tremendous depth erased any shred of thought in my mind of taking the under. However, I think the over is a tough bet to make as well. The youngest team in baseball last season saw breakout campaigns from Gimenez, Kwan, McKenzie and even guys like Gonzalez and Quantrill to a degree. There are a lot of individual unknowns on this roster.
On the whole, this looks like a really good ballclub and a better one than last year with a higher offensive ceiling thanks to Bell and Zunino. The depth in the minor leagues exceeds that of just about every other team in the league. However, a LOT went right for this team last season in the second half and they were trending towards being .500 or a little better into August before finishing on a 40-21 run. They finished 22 games over .500 after being 68-64 on September 4.
The Guardians have five playoff appearances in the last seven seasons and that isn’t by accident. I also don’t think greatness should be a surprise if this team blows past its projections. I’d want to believe in them more than I want to be against them because they’re one of the best-run organizations in all of sport and have rotation upgrades on the way. They’ll be must-see TV for me every night this summer and I’m as excited as I’ve ever been for a Cleveland baseball season, but I can’t invest in their season win total, so this is just a pick for the article. There is a path in which a lot of what went right last season goes wrong this season and they’re merely a .500 club.
Lean: Over 86.5