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The Seven Factors to this Season's Struggles



After another disappointing loss to the White Sox Tuesday night, the 2023 Cleveland Guardians are off to the worst start through 48 games at 21-27 since 2010 before Terry Francona began his tenure as manager.


After a decent 9-6 start through mid-April, Cleveland has been a dismal 12-21 since then. Incredibly the team hasn't sweep a single series to date and only won two series since mid-April. In April the Guardians went 12-14, in May they're just 8-12 through 20 games.


Coming off an exciting, unexpected 92-70 season last year in which 17 rookies made their debut, the team was the youngest in all of baseball. Yet the Guardians somehow won the American League Central title and went the distance in the ALDS against the Yankees.


In light of this, the first two months of 2023 have been massively disappointing and disheartening for Cleveland baseball fans.


So why is his team struggling so badly to meet expectations? Was last season a fluke? Is there any hope for a turnaround and a return to the playoffs? Let's first look at seven key factors on why the 2023 Guardians are off to such a miserable start:


Free Agent Busts


During the offseason the front office made two big free agent signings that for the most part were well received by the media and fans alike. The first was signing first baseman Josh Bell from the San Diego Padres.


Despite failing to meet expectations after getting traded from the Washington Nationals to the Padres, Bell was a switch hitting first baseman slugger who hit 17 homers and drove in 71 last season. Over his career, Josh had hit 130 homers in 7 seasons and was seen as a solution to the team's lack of power.


While Bell is among the lead league in walks, his power thoroughly nearly 50 games has been non-existent. He has just 3 homers, 10 doubles, 21 RBI, and a .230 batting average.


The second free agent signing was catcher Mike Zunino who would replace Austin Hedges behind the dish. Coming off a major injury in 2022 playing just 36 games, the acquisition was seen as a one-year rental before prospect Bo Naylor was ready to take over.


In 2021, Zunino hit an impressive 33 homers for the Tampa Bay Rays and was thought to be a big upgrade offensively over Hedges. After a fast start in early April with 7 doubles and 2 homers, Zunino's bat suddenly went ice cold.


He went hitless at the plate through the month of May up until Sunday evening's loss to the Mets, recording an infield hit. Then on Monday he finally homered in a 3-0 win over the White Sox at home.


Altogether he's batting a horrid .170 with a whopping 48 K's in only 96 plate appearances. This means Zunino is striking out once every other at-bat!


Also worth noting is the atrocious defense of Zunino. He's allowed 4 passed balls and 29 stolen bases in 35 attempts. That's the worst defensive value of all catcher in all of baseball.


In summary, the signings of Bell and Zunino have been massive flops so far.



Sophomore Slumps


The weight of expectations can make or break a team. For the youngest team in baseball the second year in a row---it's been crushing them.


Oscar Gonzalez burst forth in the middle of last season hitting doubles and providing heroics in the playoffs. He got off to an awful start at the plate looking lost batting just .192 with 1 homer and is now on back in the minors.


Steven Kwan had an amazing debut season finishing third in the American League Rookie of the Year voting. While he's off to a decent start in his second season, his strikeouts are up, his batting average is down, and his overall numbers aren't quite as impressive so far in the early going.


While Andres Gimenez wasn't a rookie last season, he was only 22 years old playing in his first full season posting an incredible All-Star clutch year at the plate and with his glove.


Signing a big $100 million plus 7 year extension at the start of the season, Andres has looked lost at the plate batting .228 with 3 homers and 9 RBI. His lack of production has made the 2023 Guardians lineup punchless and pathetic in the bottom of the order.


As a whole, the team seems to be folding under the pressure now that there's expectations placed upon them.


Teams have made adjustments to the Guardians hitting approach and now the fly balls aren't falling for hits like last season. Thus our lineup looks lifeless and defeated from the first pitch on game after game.


Rookie Rotation


You can never have enough pitching. The 2023 Cleveland Guardians are loaded with young and promising arms--but their lack of experience certainly has played a big factor in 2023.


Triston McKenzie went down with an injury just days before the regular season began and Aaron Civale a few starts in was injured leaving two big holes in the rotation to fill. Then Zach Plesac was rocked early and often, forcing a move to be made for him to find himself in the minors.


As a result three rookies have filled out the five spots in the rotation. Battenfield, Allen, and Bibee (along with Gaddis) have pitched well for the most part. Bibee has been dominant at times while Allen has been consistently solid. Battenfield and Gaddis have had some decent starts mixed in some rough outings.


However with a very young rotation, a bullpen is more relied on to get more outs. With little to no offensive support and more innings needed to pitch, the bullpen has mightily struggled to hold leads late in games (more on the bullpen down below).


Currently the rotation is the only strength of the team but the lack of experience could further add to what ails the Guardians as the season wears on.


Bullpen Blues

Nothing is more inconsistent in baseball from year to year than a team's bullpen. Case in point--the 2023 Cleveland Guardians bullpen.


Last year it was ranked as one of the best in all of baseball with the Sam Hentges emerging as a dominant lefty out of pen, Trevor Stephan proving to be a reliable setup man along with James Karinchak, and Emmanuel Clase posting 42 saves as the closer with a 1.36 ERA.


The backend of the bullpen has cost the team numerous wins of late, as Clase now has 5 blown saves already---one more than all of last year. Karinchak has been rocked for a 4.79 ERA, 4 losses, and 6 homers in 23 appearances.


While Stephan's ERA is a respectable 2.28, he's been hit hard with 4 homers already which is more than he allowed all of 2022. And Hentges was sidelined with an injury that cost him over a month and has struggled with his command in the early going in his first 5 appearances of 2023.


Clearly the offensive woes have directly affected the bullpen because they have no margin for error holding a 1-2 run lead or trailing by a few runs knowing every mistake will most likely cost the team a victory.



Pitch Clock

The newly introduced pitch clock is having a big impact on the games. The time of games across the league is over 30 minutes faster than it was in 2022. Most games now last only 2 and a half hours long; sometimes ever quicker.


It's made for a big adjustment for all the players but especially for the bullpen. This is evident in how much of a struggle it's been for James Karinchak and Emmanuel Clase this season.


Both were extremely slow to throw each pitch taking their time to set in. This however allowed them to give maximum effort on each pitch increasing velocity.


Also it's much harder to keep runners from stealing bases with the new rules making it quite easy put more pressure on the bullpen arms.


No doubt these changes have had a big negative affect on the team's performance so far in 2023.


Balanced Schedule


For the first time ever this season, all teams are scheduled to play one another at least once during the 162 game campaign. This means that the Guardians are facing up against every team in the National League in interleague play.


This is bad news because the American League Central in recent years has been terrible. Cleveland boosted its win total facing the likes of the White Sox, Tigers, Twins, and Royals 19 times each; which was nearly half of their schedule.


Now Cleveland is only facing their Central division foes in 4 different series, 13 games total. Facing harder competition at a more frequent rate seems to already be going against the Guards.


They're 4-8 against the National League winning just one series. For whatever reason under Francona, the Guardians seem to always struggle in interleague play and this season is no different so far.


One Run Games


The one factor that perhaps tells the story of the season so far more than any other is how many one run games we've played. In 47 games, the Guardians have played in a mind boggling 22 one-run games (posting a record of 9-13). By far the most of any team in baseball! That's nearly one out of every two games!


Digging deeper into the states, they've only had one "blowout" win so far in 2023....and it was the first victory of the season! On March 31st in Seattle the Guardians won 9-4 winning by a margin of 5 runs.


Since then, our biggest margin of victory on the season is just...3 runs! Yep that's not a typo. 3 runs. Cleveland has scored more than 10 runs just once on April 3rd against the horrid Oakland Athletics who are on pace for the worst record in baseball history.


No wonder the 2023 Cleveland Guardians have never really gotten going at all this season. The black hole that is the offense has made the team play tight and unable to compete against the better ballclubs in baseball. It's been baffling to see how bad this team's offense has been through the first two months!



Was Last Season a Fluke?


In many ways it could be said that the 2022 Cleveland Guardians caught lightening in a bottle. Everything seemed to go their way, especially during the 2nd half of the season. Their hustle style of offense caught teams by surprise and all their young players thrived in their first taste of the big leagues.


Now expectations seem to be weighing down the team in 2023. Repeating success in baseball is far harder to do than it is in football, basketball, or hockey as the Guardians young players are quickly finding out in the first two months of this year.


So to answer the question----it might have indeed been a fluke. But this isn't to diminish the potential and talent on the roster currently. Many of the core pieces are there to compete for another playoff run. Sadly, though, it appears as if they're a few key players short to get there in 2023.


Is There Any Hope for the Remainder of 2023?


Yes there is still a glimmer of hope remaining for 2023 for two key reasons. The first is that the American League Central is atrocious this season. The Minnesota Twins currently are in first place barely above .500 with a record of 25-24. Despite playing so poorly, the Guardians are just 3.5 games out of first place as of Wednesday afternoon.


It doesn't appear any team is going to run away with the division, so 85-86 wins might be enough to win the Central division. With the amount of good teams in the American League East and West---this is our only chance of making the playoffs more than likely.


The second reason is one that has been stated over and over again-----under Francona the Guardians always play better in the 2nd half. It was true last season and nearly ever year since Tito became manager.



A June Boom?


Heading into Memorial Day weekend, the 2023 Cleveland Guardians are in need of a spark and a big bounce back month in June. Losing 2 out of 3 in every series seems to be commonplace this season and our offense continues to be sleepwalking in most games.


It'll be a make or break upcoming month for sure----one that could determine the fate of players such as Amed Rosario and Shane Bieber who could be traded at the deadline if Cleveland is out of the playoff picture a month from now.


The bats need to wake up and the bullpen stabilizes soon or it could be a long summer for Cleveland baseball fans. Let's hope history repeats itself and another comeback season towards a Central division title is upon us. If not we could be quickly turning the page to next season.



Sources:

All photos courtesy of Flickr.com

Stats and season info courtesy of https://www.baseball-reference.com/


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