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Take Heart in the Slow Start



April and baseball in Cleveland are a bad mix. I'm aware that this isn't earth shattering news to hear for diehard Cleveland Guardians fans. The weather is often cold and rainy (sometimes with snow as the picture above illustrates) the attendance is dismal at home games early on, and sadly the team itself always seems to get off to a slow, frustrating start.


The 2023 season is following this very familiar script much to the dismay of the Cleveland baseball fanbase. After Tuesday's loss against the hapless Rockies, the Guardians find themselves at a season low 2 games below .500 and 3 games back of the Twins in the American League Central Division race with a record of 11-13. Let's examine the stats on why is this the case:


The Stats Tell the Sad Story


Despite facing some of the worst teams in baseball, Cleveland has lost 3 straight series and 7 of the past 9 games overall. They're batting a disheartening .228 as a team with an American League low 12 homers through 24 games. That's an average of just 1 homerun every 2 games, or 81 through a full season.


On the pitching side as a whole the Guardians hold an ERA of 4.08, which is right in the middle of the American League, ranked 8th of 15 teams. A more alarming stat is that their strikeouts are very low at 184, ranked 13th of 15 teams.


Then there's the fact that through 24 games, Cleveland has had a grand total of 1 blowout win---which happened to be their first of the season in a 9-4 victory over the Seattle Mariners. Over the next 23 games, the Guardians have played 13 one-run contests posting a record of 6-7. As a whole, they've been outscored 91-107.



Why the Slow Start?


There are a number of reasons why the Guardians are off to such a poor start. For starters are well...the starters. Triston McKenzie, the number 2 starter, went down with an injury just before Opening Day and is out until at least late May.


Aaron Civale made 2 starts and looked solid, then went on the 15--Day IL. He's out probably another month as well. So two-fifths of the rotation is out which has already wrecked havoc on the pitching staff.


Shane Bieber is off to a decent start but failing to dominate far inferior lineups in the early going. Zach Plesac has been predictably unpredictable with a few solid starts but some rocky ones in the mix. Rookies Peyton Battenfield and Hunter Gaddis haven't given many innings with so-so results in their outings.


The offense has been dismal through 24 games as the stats above suggest. Josh Bell got off to a horrid start through the first 10 games batting under .100 only recently driving in runs with doubles and a few homeruns. Josh Naylor is struggling mightily at the plate batting an awful .181 with 2 homers and 9 RBI through April 25th.


After a fast start, Andres Gimenez and Steven Kwan have struggled to produce at the plate. Jose Ramirez is even pressing at the plate with just 3 homers and 16 RBI (which leads the team) carrying a batting average of .255.


Many of the Guardian players are notorious slow starters. Amed Rosario and Josh Bell are two such batters who always heat up when the weather does. Cal Quantrill and Shane Bieber also seem to get better as the season progresses on.


Closer Emmanuel Clase in the past two seasons has had shaky early on and lights out in the 2nd half. Naturally all these players are off to lackluster starts in which their performance hasn't matched up with their usual production levels at the plate or on the mound.



Aprils of the Past Weren't a Blast Either


Since Terry Francona took over as manager in 2013 with the Cleveland Indians, now Guardians----the consistent pattern has been slow, frustrating starts with strong finishes in the 2nd half. Here's a look at the team's record each April since 2013 (not including 2020 since there were no games played in April):


April 2013:11-13

April 2014: 10-17

April 2015: 7-14

April 2016: 10-11

April 2017: 14-10

April 2018: 14-11

April 2019: 15-10

April 2021: 12-12

April 2022: 9-12

April 2023: 11-13 (through April 25th)


Note that in ONLY 3 seasons the franchise has posted a winning record in April which was 2017-2019. Last season in which they won 92 games and the Central division title, their record through 24 games was...11-13. The exact same record as this season. This seems to suggest that despite how bleak things look, there is hope.


Second Half Flourishes


Now let's get some good news in examining the record of the second halves of these teams (not including 2020 since it was an abnormal 60 game season):


Second Half 2013: 41-26 .612 winning percentage

Second Half 2014: 38-30 .559 winning percentage

Second Half 2015: 39-34 .534 winning percentage

Second Half 2016: 42-31 .575 winning percentage

Second Half 2017: 55-20 .733 winning percentage

Second Half 2018: 38-28 .582 winning percentage

Second Half 2019: 43-31 .581 winning percentage

Second Half 2021: 35-40 .467 winning percentage

Second Half 2022: 46-26 .639 winning percentage


Some quick notes---in all but two years the team posted a better winning percentage in the second half than first half. In 2016 and 2021.


The 2016 team went on to play in the World Series, the 2021 team wasn't managed by Francona the last two months of the season finishing just under .500 at 80-82. This is the only time the Guardians haven't posted a winning record since 2013.


The incredible 2017 record of 55-20 was boosted by an American League record 22 game winning streak in September that propelled that team to a total of 102 wins. Last year's .639 winning percentage was the second highest in the Francona era (final record was 92-70).


September Surges


In light of this past decade under Terry Francona, the pattern is clear---slow starts don't equal losing, lost seasons. The exceptions are 2014, 2015, and 2021.


The 2014--2015 the teams got off to miserable starts both times posting records 7 games under .500, then barely posting winning records by season's end. 2021 as noted above Francona didn't manage the final two months and the team just finished under .500 at 80-82.


Six times we've made the playoffs since 2013 (including 2020), finishing strong in September. Here's a look at the team's record those years:


September 2013: 21-6 .778 winning percentage

September 2016: 16-11 .593 wining percentage

September 2017: 25-4 .862 winning percentage

September 2018: 14-14 .500 winning percentage

September 2020: 14-11 .560 winning percentage

September 2022: 21-8 .724 winning percentage


As you can see by first glance, generally speaking the month of September results in a strong finish for the Guardians under Francona. Not once in any playoff run did Cleveland play under .500 to conclude the regular season (albeit 2018 was a .500 record).



Keeping Perspective with this Pattern


Putting all the stats and records of the past together it's clear that the sprint out the gate isn't as important as reaching the finish line strong. Time and time again this pattern has occurred, but is there concern for the 2023 Cleveland Guardians in light of their current struggles?


Of course there is. The weight of expectations are new for many of these players who put up impressive rookie seasons of success and now must repeat what they accomplished in 2022.


The extreme lack of power in the lineup is a huge cause of concern; especially since the pitching has been subpar in the early going.


And the team's struggles against left-handed pitching is an issue that continues to plague the franchise as the first month of 2023 indicates that this is a big dilemma which needs addressed.


However, the good news is that's still 5 months to go in the season or about 135 games left on the schedule. The American League Central this season looks to be weak competition with only the Minnesota Twins posing as a threat to take the title from the Guardians.


Young top pitching prospects Logan T. Allen and Tanner Bibee are getting their first taste of the big leagues with highly touted Gavin Williams not far behind. Position prospects such as Bo Naylor and Brayan Rocchio should be making their way to the team sometime this summer as well.


There's plenty of depth in the minors to make a big trade or two at the deadline for a power bat or bullpen piece. McKenize and Civale will return to the team by June. Lefty bullpen arm Sam Hentges is on the verge of rejoining the team. Help is on the way!


Ramirez, Bell, and Rosario have a track record of success as veterans in the big leagues; as does our ace, Shane Bieber. Barring injury they all should produce on the field in 2023.


So I'm choosing the glass half-full perspective to not panic or lose heart with this current team's struggles here in late April. While the Guardians have really struggled out the gate, let's be patient and wait for much brighter, exciting days once the summer and fall arrive.


The ballpark will come to life again, the lineup will eventually get going, and the pitching staff will take off like always. In the end we can only hope it all adds up to another winning, fun, and memorable September followed by an October to remember. Then Cleveland will once more become Believeland!



Sources: All stats courtesy of: https://www.baseball-reference.com/

All pictures courtesy of Flickr.com

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