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In the Middle with Muddled Mediocrity


The more things change, the more they stay the same. This sentiment perfectly captures the first half of the 2023 Cleveland Guardians season which featured an almost identical record to a year ago at the break, 45-45 through 90 games; compared to 46-44 in 2022.


Yet a vast amount of differences could be stated in looking back at the first half journey of 2022 contrasting to the ballclub's season so far in 2023.


Last year the expectations for the team were low, while this year's team has been faced with the weight of repeating their success of winning a division title.


2022 featured many sweeps with winning streaks and losing streaks; 11 in the first half alone! While this season in comparison has only had just two sweeps with the longest winning streak at 4 (twice) and a few losing streaks of 3.


The starting rotation in 2022 was healthy and reliable with Bieber, McKenzie, and Quantrill all pitching deep into games on a consistent basis.


This season the starters have battled injuries and inconsistency as Shane Bieber remains the only opening day starter whose been in the rotation all the way through the first 90 games.


Lastly, the most obvious difference is the changes in the gameplay itself. The pitch clock, the ban of infield shifts, bigger bases, and balanced schedule have made for some unique challenges for players and teams alike here in 2023.


The Slow Start


It seemed like a given that the Guardians would get off to a slow start this season. It's been their trend for the past decade since Terry Francona took the helm as manager in 2013.


After a disappointing season opener in losing 3-0 in Seattle, it appeared early on that this season would be different for a change after Cleveland finished their first road trip with a record of 5-2.


By the middle of April, the team had a solid but hardly exciting 9-6 record through 15 games. On the verge of a sweep against the lowly Washington Nationals, the bullpen blew a 6-3 lead in the 7th and then proceeded to drop 7 of 9 games, falling to 11-13 by late April.


The offense sputtered for the next several weeks, falling to the bottom in all of baseball in nearly every category.


After a subpar 12-14 April, the Guardians continued to struggle to a lackluster 12-15 month of May. Perhaps the low point of the season so far was getting swept in New York to the Mets, losing all 3 games in the late innings by 1 run.

The Offense Awakens


Heading into the Sunday before Memorial Day, Cleveland was a season low 7 games below .500 at 22-29 and 4.5 games out of first place. That's when arguably the turning point of the season occurred on May 28th.


Down 3-2 in the bottom of the 9th with two men on base, Ramirez hit a line drive into the right center field gap, lifting the Guardians to an improbable 4-3 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals.


The offense began to awaken from a two month slumber scoring 24 runs in 3 games against the Orioles winning 2 of 3 on the road.


A week and a half later, another incredible win occurred when Cleveland overcame 5 deficits from the 7th inning on to beat the defending world champion Houston Astros at home in 14 innings, 10-9!


However, the momentum of a series win against Houston immediately fizzled out with a frustrating west coast trip to San Diego and Arizona in which the ballclub lost 4 of 6.


The last three weeks before the break the Guardians took advantage of an easier schedule sweeping the Oakland A's at home, winning 2 of 3 against the Royals in Kansas City, taking 2 of 3 against the Cubs at Wrigley Field, and finishing the first half by coming out on top 3 of 4 games against the Royals again at home.


Cleveland completed the first half with a mark of 13-7 in the last 20 games (a record of 14-12 in the month of June) with a .500 record of 45-45. But due to being in a terrible American League Central division, actually hold a slim half game lead in first place.


Now let's examine some of the stats and individual players performance this season to date:

Rocky Road to a Rookie Rotation


While 2022 saw the Guardians insert several rookie position players, 2023 has seen the emergence of a handful of new arms in the rotation and bullpen. From the very start, the rotation has been ravished by injuries.


The most noteworthy was suffered by Triston McKenzie, who was expected to be an anchor at the top of the rotation. Suffering a back injury during his final start in spring training, McKenzie went on to miss the first two months of the season.


Then Triston returned to make just two starts in early June before suffering an elbow injury which most likely will keep him out the remainder of 2023 and could require him to have the dreaded Tommy John surgery which would keep him off the mound all of next season as well.


Aaron Civale looked strong in his opening two starts against the Mariners, then he went on the injured list for the fifth time in the past two seasons in early April.


Not returning to the mound until late May, he has since regained his dominant form from early 2021 to finish the first half. But he's injury prone and it's hard to know if he'll remain healthy for the remainder of 2023.


Cal Quantrill is experiencing an injury plagued season now back on the injured list after getting pummeled in two starts in returning from an injury the first time around a few weeks ago. His record is a terrible 2-6 with an awful 6.45 ERA in 13 starts.


Zach Plesac began the season as the fifth starter but immediately was shelled in the early part of April before being designated for assignment. He currently remains stuck in the minors with little hope of ever being a reliable pitcher for the Guardians again.


Shane Bieber, the ace of the staff, endured through the worst half of baseball he's ever pitched. While Bieber has had some solid starts, lately he's given up big innings in frequently having trouble getting through a lineup the third time around. His strikeout rate is low, his walks are up, and his ERA has shot up to 3.77 on the season.


Trade rumors perhaps are affecting his performance or he's never truly recovered from his injury back in 2021.

Calling Up the Kids


In light of a rotation that's been rocked to the core due to poor performances and injuries, the top pitching prospects were forced to be called up sooner than expected.


Right-handed Tanner Bibee and lefty Logan Allen came into the scene during late April. Both immediately showed poise and presence in their debuts.


Bibee has quickly emerged as a potential future ace in his 13 starts to date. He's 5-2 with a 3.34 ERA with 71 strikeouts in 70 innings of work.


Allen got off to a fast start in his first handful of starts, but struggled to get quick outs and failed to pitch deep in games. As a result, he was sent back to the minors.


Yet overall through 12 starts Logan has proven to have a top level arm and should be a staple in the rotation for years to come with a 3-2 record, 3.47 ERA and 63 K's in 62.1 innings.


In late June, the number one pick of the 2021 amateur draft, Gavin Williams, made his much anticipated debut after flourishing in a year plus of pitching in the minors posting incredible strikeout numbers.


Through 4 starts, Gavin has been as advertised showing dominant stuff and could easily mature into a future ace along with Bibee.


Also making a few starts early on were Peyton Battenfield and Hunter Gaddis. Battenfield got little run support, then was roughed up a bit in a few starts, and eventually ended up on the 60 day injured list (where he's currently at). Gaddis struggled with his command in his given starts and is now back in the minors.

Free Agent Busts


The storyline of the first half was dominated by the offensive struggles of the team, especially in April and May. While the Guardians bats did come to life in June and July, it's still a lineup that overall has some major glaring holes due to a variety of reasons.


First is the free agent busts of Mike Zunino and Josh Bell. Zunino got off to a fast start at the plate hitting well over .300 the first few weeks with several doubles.


Then his bat went ice cold and the strikeouts went through the roof. Recovering from off-season surgery, Mike never seemed to be comfortable behind the plate providing atrocious defense failing to keep the ball in front of him or throw out baserunners.


Despite signing a one-year six million contract, Zunino was released in mid-June ending a short and forgettable tenure with the Guardians in what a failed signing of a catcher by the front office.


First basemen Josh Bell signed a two-year deal with the ballclub, previously playing on the San Diego Padres, to provide a middle of the order power bat. He struggled immediately out the gate and never truly has recovered posting subpar numbers across the board with a paltry .230 batting average, 9 homers, and 42 RBI.


Now in the span of nearly a full season, he's only hit 12 homers between the Padres and Guardians suggesting his best days are already in the past putting Cleveland in a difficult position moving forward.

Bat--tling Regression


Along with the free agent busts of Zunino and Bell, the regression of Steven Kwan and Andres Gimenez has resulted in a struggle to produce runs for the Guardians.


Kwan is striking out far more than his rookie season (he had 60 in all of 2022 and already has 48 this year). His batting average is a decent .263 but he offers little else offensively with 2 homers and 21 doubles posting a bland .685 OPS.


Gimenez had a breakout, All-Star season in 2022 coming through with clutch hits time and time again batting near .300 with 17 homers. This season he got off to a cold start and has just recently begun to consistently drive in runs. In the first half Andres hit .248 with 7 homers and 34 RBI.


Meanwhile Amed Rosario once more got off to a miserable start in April and May batting near .200 for most of the first two months. But as he's done throughout his career---when the weather heat up---so does his bat. He's raised his average to .268 with 91 hits and 34 RBI at the break.


Postseason hero of 2022, Oscar Gonzalez seemed lost at the plate from the first day of spring training into April. With Will Brennan taking the bulk of at-bats early on, Gonzalez was sent packing back to Columbus and now is on the verge of being called back up after a strong showing in the minors of late (we'll discuss this more in Friday's upcoming article).


Speaking of Brennan, he burst on the scene in limited action last September hitting .357 in 11 games and even got a few at-bats in the playoffs. Then after a strong first few weeks of 2023, he suddenly stopped hitting failing to make adjustments at the plate through mid-May. But over the past few months, Brennan has batting well over .300 and making consistent contact again.

The Power Struggle


The lack of power continues to be the number one reason the Guardians struggled to produce offensively. In fact, the Guardians are on the pace of one of the worst homerun producing seasons since 1990. They're dead last in baseball in homeruns with 60 in 90 games, on pace for about 110 this season.


To put this in perspective, the Atlanta Braves have hit 169 homeruns and outhomered the Guardians entire season to date in the month of June with 61 homers! Also the Kansas City Royals are next to last in homeruns to the Guardians but have hit 19 more this season currently sitting at 79 homers!


Or one last way to look at it, Mariners Julio Rodriguez blasted 61 homers in the Homerun Derby in Seattle on Monday in the span of a few hours, which is one more than the entire Guardians team have hit in 90 baseball games this season!


The offensive stats across the board for the team in the first half are not good. Cleveland is 27th in runs scored, 15th in batting average, and 26th in OPS.


The issue isn't hard to uncover---the Guardians are loaded with a lineup of contact hitters who don't drive the ball for doubles or homers. The starting outfield of Straw, Kwan, and Brennan have a combined 7 homers between them! Amed Rosario only has 2 homers and the catchers on the team combined only have hit only a handful of homers this season.

The Dynamic Duo


The core of the offensive production this season has come from the bats of Jose Ramirez and Josh Naylor in the middle of the lineup.


Struggling like the rest of the lineup in April, Naylor has been a force to be reckoned once the calendar turned to May. He's batting .305 with 64 RBI both in the top five in the American League at the break.


At the age of 26, Josh is having a breakout season at the plate and was worthy of being named to the All-Star team (sadly he wasn't picked though).


Ramirez was the only Cleveland Guardian on the All-Star team in 2023 once more putting up stellar numbers at the plate and on defense. His 14 homers leads the team, he's got 53 RBI with 23 doubles and a .289 batting average.


Combined Naylor and Ramirez have nearly half the team's homers with 25! Take one or both out of the lineup and the offense is utterly punchless at the plate.


A Perplexing Pen

On paper the 2023 Guardians bullpen was one of the best in baseball in the first half. With the second best ERA and tied for seventh in saves, it would seem at first glance it was smooth sailing. Yet, on the contrary, the bullpen has seen its share of struggles so far this season.


Most notably is closer Emmanuel Clase. He's on pace for nearly 50 saves in 2023 and was selected to pitch in the All-Star Game (for family reasons he sat out).


However, Clase has a whopping 7 blown saves which is the most in baseball, 5 losses, and an high ERA of 3.38 which is a far cry from his amazing 2022 sparkling 1.36 ERA.


Digging into the reasons why this is the case is quite apparent. He leads all of baseball with 44 appearances and relievers with 42.2 innings of work. He's been overworked and it's showing.


The pitch clock has been an adjustment for him as he doesn't have a lot of time in-between pitches to put full effort into each one in order to throw his usual 100 mph. And the amount of 1-run games the team has played in is truly remarkable (more on this in a moment).


James Karinchak battled control issues and was prone to giving up the long ball before he eventually was sent to the minors. Sam Hentges began the season on the injured list and has yet to completely return to his dominant form he showed during the second half of 2022.


Trevor Stephan signed an extension at the start of this season and hasn't been consistently reliable like he was in 2022. He's already surrendered double the amount of homeruns he did all of last season.


Eli Morgan, Enyel De Los Santos, Xzavion Curry, and Nick Sandlin have been used often due to a young rotation of rookies while providing solid contributions in most appearances.

The Stats Tell the Season's Story


The Guards have already played in 14 extra inning contests this season posting a decent 8-6 mark. They've been outscored by 7 runs through 90 games posting a slightly over .500 record at home at 24-22 yet have put up better offensive numbers on the road scoring 198 runs compared to 167 at home.


The stat that most reveals the storyline of the first half is the amount of one-run games the 2023 Cleveland Guardians have played. That number is an incredible...36! Naturally they're right around .500 in these games with a record of 17-19.


In total, over one-third of the games Cleveland has played to date have been decided by one run! Last season, Cleveland had 45 one-run games played throughout the entire season. Is it any wonder why the team has struggled to find their success from 2022 in light of this?!


Where Does This Team Go From Here?


The Guardians have struggled to consistently win or put everything together for a long stretch of games. Clearly, the one-run games have taken their toll on the starting rotation, bullpen, and lineup leading to a mediocre .500 mark at the break at 45-45.


The picture is fuzzy for the future of the franchise. They're stuck in the middle of the season with a mediocre record.


Despite being in first place by the slimmest of margins, there are plenty of question marks left to be answered that will ultimately determine the fate of the season.


We'll examine these question marks in a second half preview upcoming on Friday which will be a special bonus article of Believeland Beat this week. Stay tuned!

Sources:

Data and stats courtesy of Baseball-reference.com and https://www.fangraphs.com/

Photos courtesy of Flickr.com


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