As the calendar flips to June, the Cleveland Guardians have played just more than a quarter of their season. The weather has conspired to give Cleveland the fewest games played of any MLB team, but hopefully the summer will bring plenty of action for us to enjoy in the coming weeks — but not so much that it sends more players to the IL.
Back at the beginning of May I did a buy/sell of what we saw in April. My results were mostly positive: we’re still seeing the kids play, Amed Rosario is not playing that much left field, and Aaron Civale still seems like he needs to figure things out (and I’d still prefer he do it in Columbus), but Peyton Battenfield has yet to suit up in a Guardians jersey. So, let’s try it again and look forward to the month ahead by picking out a few trends from the first 45 games that might continue.
Buy: Increasing starter velocity
In April, Cleveland starters had the lowest average fastball velocity in the American League, at 91.7 mph. In May, velocity ticked up just a bit, to 92 mph, and Cleveland starters were the second-lowest in the AL. A lot of attention has been focused on Shane Bieber and his lost velocity, and for good reason – as the staff ace, folks expected him to come back and blow hitters away again. As detailed by Luke Hopper at FanGraphs https://blogs.fangraphs.com/whats-going-on-with-shane-bieber/, that’s not happening, and instead Bieber might have to continue finding new ways to use his slider as a weapon rather than going to the fastball as often.
But if Bieber’s velo is not coming back, it doesn’t mean the overall trend for Cleveland starters can’t be positive. Fastball velocity for Cal Quantrill went from 92.5 to 93.5 mph from April to May, Zach Plesac went from 91.5 to 92.2 mph, and Aaron Civale went from 90.3 to 91.1 mph. These changes have already made a noticeable difference, with Plesac’s xBA against on fastballs going from .377 to .299 from April to May. If Plesac can continue to trend toward his career average velocity (93.2 mph), logic seems to dictate that he can continue to produce better outcomes. The same is true for Quantrill, whose xBA against on fastballs decreased from .312 to .235 and xwOBA against on fastballs decreased from .393 to .292 between April and May.
Cleveland’s pitching staff doesn’t look like a conveyor belt of aces this year, but it’s hard to say how much the shortened spring training is still affecting the players. As temperatures rise and arms (hopefully) feel their best, I’m betting that the starting rotation can increase their fastball velocity a tick more and continue to create better outcomes.
Sell: Oscar Mercado’s time in Cleveland
Much like Yu Chang, I can’t help but enjoy Oscar Mercado’s personality. Also like Yu Chang, I’m not finding much to enjoy from Mercado on the field.
In 2022, Mercado has 101 plate appearances and has created -0.4 fWAR through negative contributions on offense, defense, and running the bases. His wOBA and wRC+, while never superlative, have fallen below league average this year. A lot of this comes down to approach. Whereas players like José Ramírez and Myles Straw are exhibiting extraordinary patience to only go after pitches they can do damage on, Mercado is swinging at 57.2% of all pitches, including 40% of pitches outside the zone – his highest rates for his career. He is not making much contact, however, with just a 73% contact rate – the lowest of his career.
When Mercado does connect, he has hit fewer ground balls and line drives and more fly balls than ever this year, but even though his HR/FB rate is at a career-high of 11.1%, his xwOBA (based on launch angle and exit velocity) is just .280. The fact that his walk rate is 3%, the lowest of his career, is also not helping him at all.
With other players in need of big-league playing time, the reasons for retaining Mercado are running thin. We’ve seen Bradley Zimmer, Bobby Bradley, and Chang all sent elsewhere so others could get a fair shot and, though it is sad, it seems Mercado is next on that list.
Buy: Oscar Gonzalez, big-league hitter
One of those players who needs a fair shot? Another Oscar, he of the family Gonzalez.
We’ve got a tiny sample on Gonzalez, 24 plate appearances, but so far he does not seem intimidated by MLB pitching. In his brief time with Cleveland, Gonzalez has a 144 wRC+ on a slash of .360/.360/.480. He’s yet to walk, which is very much in line with his walk rate of 3.7% in the minors, but he has limited his strikeouts well, with just four in those few plate appearances he has so far.
Offense is where Gonzalez has always made his mark, as seen in his .760 OPS in the minors, and clearly he has continued that track in the big leagues. Somehow he has yet to barrel a pitch, but he has a hard-hit rate of 57.1% and the highest maximum exit velocity (113.1 mph) and average exit velocity (95.8 mph) on the team. With such a small sample, the average numbers are sure to go through drastic changes, but the fact that Gonzalez can hit a ball really freakin’ hard is not going to change.
Players like Gonzalez — bat-first sluggers with little defensive value – have not been particularly valuable for Cleveland in the past (see: Bradley, Bobby). But even if his approach goes against what the Guardians’ seem to be emphasizing (Gonzalez has a 56.3% swing rate and 12.5% swinging-strike rate), I feel like the law of averages says at least once Cleveland has to get some value from this skill set. I don’t know if Gonzalez is another Joey Gallo, but I’m willing to buy into what he offers right now.
Sell: Steven Kwan RoY
Welp, the league has the scout on Steven Kwan now and the shine is off the rookie.
After exploding with a slash of .387/.524/.548 and 214 wRC+ through April 20, Kwan has since cratered. From April 21 to May 31, Kwan slashed .196/.279/.283 and his wRC+ is a paltry 67. Some of the skills that helped him to that blistering start have not abandoned Kwan, as he still ranks first in MLB in contact%, first in swinging strike%, and fifth in MLB in swing%, but his luck came back down to earth.
Kwan is not a power hitter, despite some gains in that area last season in the minors. FanGraphs graded him a 30 for raw power, and that seems accurate. Even during his crazy start, his average exit velocity was only 83.7 mph through April 20 — that he could create an xBA of .322 and xwOBA of .430 on that was remarkable and illusory, considering his BABIP over that span was .414. From April 21 to May 31, Kwan’s average exit velocity increased, but only to 84.7 mph, which aligns more closely to his .205 BABIP and .227 xBA, and .279 xwOBA.
Kwan retains his elite eye in the batter’s box, but pitchers are aware of this ability and exploiting it by throwing more breaking pitches in the zone against him. As the percentage of breaking pitches in the zone to Kwan increased from 39.5 to 56.3 between April and May, his xBA against breaking balls fell from .357 to .181. Pitchers made the adjustment to him, now he has to make adjustments against them.
I think he can make the change, but unless it’s a big change, our Rookie of the Year hopes should probably be sold at a loss.