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The Meh of Mediocrity, Misses, and Mirages (Season Recap Part 1 of 2)


Photo Courtesy of David Richard--USA TODAY Sports


Disappointing. Frustrating. Baffling. There's many different words that can be used to describe the 2023 Cleveland Guardians season. Yet in my mind only one modern term best summarizes what we witnessed this season: meh.


"Meh" essentially is an often used to illustrate an emotion of apathy, lack of interest, or a feeling of being uninspired.


How was this season "meh?" From start to finish it seemed as if this team was sleepwalking through their games. It felt as if the team never could carry over any momentum from one series to another. There were no long stretch of success for the team despite being in contention until mid-September. This was due to a very weak Central division this year.


The most telling stat of this is that for the first time since the 1989 Los Angeles Dodgers, the 2023 Cleveland Guardians went the entire season with no losing or winning streaks of more than 4 games.


Only twice did Cleveland sweep an opponent in 2023 (the A's and Rangers at home) and were swept four times (by the Mets, Rangers, Astros, and Royals all on the road).


Even though the Guards finished the first half in first place, it was with a .500 record of 45-45. Their season high mark with their record was being just 3 games over the .500 mark, both times in early April. Cleveland spent only 11 days in first place over the course of the 2023.


So much went wrong in 2023 for the Cleveland Guardians. In this article, I want to take a deeper look at why this was the case with the 3 m's that made up the "meh": Mediocrity, Misses, and Mirages.


Mediocrity


One is Enough


Consistency actually was a staple of the season. The problem was that it consisted of lots of losing. More specifically losing 2 out of 3 games each series. It happened a whopping 20 times when Cleveland managed to get one win in a 3 game series. Twice they lost 3 of 4.


More mediocre consistency can be seen in the month to month record for the 2023 Guardians: 12-14 in April, 12-15 in May, 14-12 in June, 14-12 in July, 11-16 in August, and 12-15 in September. That's a small range of 11-14 wins each month countered with 12-16 losses.


By avoiding long losing streaks, the Guardians despite being under .500 for most of the season kept themselves in contention until mid-September but never could get over the hump.


Blown Out Bullpen


So why did the team lose so frequently and often? The bullpen was a huge culprit; especially in the 2nd half. Due to nearly having all rookie starters in the rotation in July, August, and part of September--the bullpen began to wear down and had frequent meltdowns.


Emmanuel Clase had a truly bizarre season. Despite recording a career high 44 saves which led all of baseball he also blew the most games of any closer with a whopping 12!


Clase gave up twice as many hits and runs from a season ago in exactly the same amount of innings. His strikeouts went down from 77 to 64, as it seemed as if he had a ton of bad luck with balls in play finding holes along with weak, well placed infield hits.


James Karinchak never did adjust to the pitch clock (more on this later) and never found his footing in the pen. Sam Hentges started off on the injured list and had a rough first half before settling into his dominant self in the last two months.


After signing a long-term extension, setup man Trevor Stephan regressed significantly imploding more often as the season wore on. Eli Morgan, Enyel De Los Santos, and Nick Sandlin produced mixed results.


In total, the bullpen blew 42 leads that led to eventually losses. Mixed in through the 2023 campaign was 12 walk-off, gut wrenching losses on the road.


Power Outage


Directly related to the bullpen's woes was the pitiful, pathetic offensive performance of Cleveland's batters this season.


The lack of power easily was the team's biggest downfall from Opening Day to Game 162. In total, the Guardians managed just 124 homers which was by far the lowest in the MLB. How bad was this? The Nationals were second to last but finished with 27 more than Cleveland did!


The top three power hitters for the Atlanta Braves (they tied the 2019 Minnesota Twins for the most homers in MLB history for one season with 307) combined for 135 themselves (Olsen, Acuna Jr., Ozuna) which is 14 more than the Guardians had as an entire team this season!


The Guardians starting outfield of Brennan, Kwan, and Straw combined for only 11 homers. Just one player (Jose Ramirez) hit more than 20 homers.


In runs, Cleveland ranked 27th with 662. In exactly half of their games, they scored 3 or less runs. Their record not to anyone's surprise was just 19-62 in these contests.


Oh So Close


Due to a non-existent offense, Cleveland played in a massive amount of 1 run games. 58 to be exact. That's nearly once every series! Their record was 27-31, a far cry from a year ago in which they posted a solid 28-17 mark.


In extra innings, the Guards played fairly well posting an above .500 record of 11-9 in 20 games. Seven times Cleveland recorded a walk-off win at home.


On the flip side, only 17 times did the offense record of blow out victory winning by a margin of 5 runs or more. The largest deficit the offense came back from with a win was just 4 runs.


Being not terrible or great in the close contests---the 2023 Guardians were at best mediocre finding ways to win at times and lose more often than not when it mattered the most.


Misses


The Front Office


It was a disastrous year for the front office. The free agent signings of catcher Mike Zunino and first basemen Josh Bell were complete busts.


Zunino was mercifully released in June after looking completely lost behind the plate and at the plate. Bell got off to a ice cold start and never recovered getting traded to the Marlins at the deadline, then immediately seemed to find his power stroke with his new ballclub.


The off-season trades of outfielders Will Benson and Nolan Jones in the short term look to be disastrous. Benson hit 11 homers with a .275 batting average for the Reds while Jones had an outstanding rookie season reaching the 20/20 mark with an stellar .297 batting average for the Rockies.


Deciding to keep Amed Rosario for the start of the season didn't pay off as he had his typical slow start and was later traded just for a washed up Noah Syndergaard from the Dodgers (who struggled in a short stint with the team).


That trade along sending away Aaron Civale to the Rays didn't sit well with fans as it felt like the front office had given up on the team (albeit the acquisition of Kyle Manzardo, a top first base prospect heading into 2024 looks promising).

Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images


Regression


Meanwhile banking on repeat breakout performances of Steven Kwan, Andres Gimenez, and Oscar Gonzalez didn't pan out.


Gonzalez had a nightmarish season at the plate batting just .214 with 2 homers and 12 RBI spending most of the season at Triple-A.


Kwan had the least regression but overall didn't seem to be the same dynamic player he was as a rookie.


Gimenez finished with an outstanding September, but simply wasn't the same clutch player he was in 2022.


Injuries


Injuries also played a huge factor in the team's struggles for 2023. Triston McKenzie only made 4 starts all season due to a couple of big injuries to his pitching shoulder and right elbow but thankfully not needing Tommy John surgery as of now.


Ace Shane Bieber had a lackluster first half, then missed nearly the entire second half with elbow inflammation.


After a couple of starts in April, Aaron Civale was out through May with an injury of his own. Cal Quantrill tried to pitch through an assortment of arm injuries that led to multiple lengthy stints on the injured list. He was rocked hard until finally pitching healthy in September.


No injury resulted in Zach Plesac's terrible season with the Guardians that lasted just 5 starts in which he posted an ugly 7.59. He was released but then was reassigned to the minors were he continued to struggle mightily banished from the rotation.


The position players didn't suffer many long term injuries in 2023 but the most critically devastating one was Josh Naylor suffering an oblique strain that made him miss the entire month of August.


Ultimately this injury was the knockout blow for an already bottom of the barrel offense in 2023.

Unprepared for New Rules


With the addition of the new pitch clock, bigger bases, ban of the shift, and only getting 2 pickoff attempts---teams ran all over the Guardians pitching staff. Especially the bullpen.


A single or a walk quickly turned into a runner in scoring position, which led to a mass amount of runs for the opponent. Clase and Karinchak especially seemed to struggle keeping runners from stealing which ultimately led to countless losses early on.


Meanwhile the Cleveland magic of a year ago in aggressive base running was largely absent in 2023. While the Guards ranked 5th in baseball with 151 steals, it seemed as if the runners were hesitant to take an extra base or swipe a bag due to an offense that struggled mightily to get clutch hits when it mattered most.


Mirages


All-Star Break Surge


In a season with few high points, late June to early July perhaps was when the team gave the illusion that they'd turned the corner and headed upwards to being a playoff contender.


On Sunday, June 18th, the Guardians avoided a sweep in Arizona with a rate blowout victory by the score of 12-3. Then they'd sweep the hapless Oakland A's at home to bring their modest winning streak to 4 games pulling within a game of first place.


By the All-Star Cleveland was sitting back in first place with a mediocre .500 record of 45-45 after dropping the final game against the Kansas City Royals at home.


Rumors of Shane Bieber getting traded for a much needed power bat began to intensify, only to immediately fizzle out with the news that he was headed to the injured list.


After a frustrating sweep to start the 2nd half against Texas, the Guardians won 7 of 10 going a single game over .500 at 52-51 after defeating the White Sox on July 27th.


Cleveland fans, the media, and the Guardian players alike seemed sold that the team was a playoff contender.


However, the team would lose 8 of the next 10 games, falling 5.5 games out of first place. During this time, the front office traded away Josh Bell and Aaron Civale along with Amed Rosario earlier.


The Guardians got swept in Houston which included getting no hit against Framber Valdez and Josh Naylor suffered an injury that cost him a full month of playing time.


Jose Ramirez got in a boxing match with White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson on August 5th at home in what resulted in a wild brawl. Yet the team kept losing games afterwards failing to build any momentum from the incident.


A September to Forget


Falling several games below .500 the Twins couldn't quite put the Guardians away in late August after they took a series in Minnesota thanks to a wild pitch in the 9th allowing Cleveland to tie the score and then surrendering a game winning homer in the 10th by Kole Calhoun on August 30th.


Two days later, the Guardians won their 4th straight game in a playoff like atmosphere at home overcoming a 9th inning and 11th inning deficits to beat the Tampa Bay Rays 7-6 to pull within 4 games of a .500 mark and stay 5 games back behind the Twins.


Shockingly Cleveland had been gift wrapped 3 pitchers from the Angels who were waving the white flag on their season just days earlier putting Lucas Giolito, Matt Moore, and Reynaldo Lopez on the wavier wire.


In acquiring two big bullpen arms and a possible reliable starting pitcher, the fan base and team seemed energized. But it was another mirage. The offense and bullpen sputtered that Sunday blowing a chance to sweep the Rays at home.


In the biggest series of the season, needing to at least win the series over the Twins, the Guardians sent out Lucas Giolito in his debut start for the team the next day on Labor Day.


In one of the ugliest losses in Jacobs Field history, the team was massacred in giving up 20 runs on 20 hits including 6 homers! Giolito gave up 9 runs in 3 innings and the third string catcher David Fry incredibly came in to essentially pitch batting practice to the Minnesota hitters finishing the game with 4 innings getting blasted for 7 runs himself.


Cleveland never recovered in losing that game and only won one more series for the remainder of the season (a sweep of the Rangers at home) finishing with a lifeless 10-16 mark.


Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images


The Making of Meh


Perhaps one of the most telling signs of the Guardians failures in 2023 was their lack of winning games against their division rivals.


Their final record was a pathetic 24-29. They didn't win a single series against the 100 loss White Sox or rebuilding Tigers. Not one! Nor did the Guards ever sweep the 100 loss Royals during the season but in fact were swept in Kansas City in late September!


Cleveland was a bad road team failing to sweep a single series away from home posting a record of 34-47 being swept themselves 4 times. Only twice in June and July did they finish with a winning monthly record by the slimmest of margins (14-12) both times.


In the end, the Guards finished with their worst record since 2012, their worst season under Terry Francona as manager at 10 games below .500 at 76-86 and sank to 3rd place behind the Detroit Tigers at season's end.


2023 was a season full of injuries, offensive struggles, failing to put any winning consistency together from one series to the another, and simply put---a lot of "meh" for the fans when it was all said and done.


Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images


Sources:


All stats, data courtesy of www.fangraphs and www.baseball-reference.com

Pictures unless otherwise noted courtesy of www.flickr.com

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