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How the Guardians have gone from postseason longshots to AL Central favorites

Don’t you lie to me and say you expected this

Cleveland Guardians v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images

If I were the betting type, I’d be broke, because if I told you I expected the Guardians to be the betting favorites to win the AL Central on Aug. 15 I would be lying.

But here we are, with Caesars putting odds of +135 on the Guardians taking the AL Central title, with the White Sox at +190 and Twins at +240. All this after an offseason of inactivity, a lethargic trade deadline, and (as of this evening, when Xzavion Curry toes the rubber) 14 different MLB debuts.

Yeah, I never, ever saw this coming.

I want to give credit to the front office for making a plan and sticking with it, but if someone in the front office comments on this with their burner account to say they anticipated this all along I will call shenanigans. It still boggles the mind a bit that we’re here: Cleveland has never been the favorite to top the Central. The team’s division title odds (per FanGraphs) began the season at 7.5%, reached a nadir of 4.8% on May 29, and as recently as Aug. 5 (10 days ago!) were as low as 17.7%. Following a 10-game stretch against the Astros, Tigers, and Blue Jays, in which the Guardians went 7-3 and vaulted past the Twins for sole possession of first place, the team’s odds of winning the division are now 47.9%, whereas the White Sox are 27.8% and Twins are 24.3%.

FanGraphs’ playoff odds graph with Cleveland creating a gap in the AL Central FanGraphs

Having the best odds of winning the division in mid-August doesn’t mean there will be a flag-raising ceremony at Progressive Field, but the team with the highest FanGraphs odds on August 15 has won the AL Central each of the last 8 seasons; the NL East each of the last 8 seasons; the NL West 7 of the last 8 seasons; the NL Central 6 of the last 8 seasons; the AL West 6 of the last 8 seasons; and the AL East 5 of the last 8 seasons. You could take that as a statement on parity in the division or you could take it as a statement on the validity of FanGraphs’ projections. I’m going with the latter.

And while I can’t claim to have predicted this, it is not too difficult to describe how the Guardians got to this point.

Young players have outperformed expectations

With Curry marking the team’s 14th debut this season, it’s obvious that a ton of credit has to go to the way Cleveland’s youth movement has translated minor league accomplishments to the MLB level. Steven Kwan has been the breakout star, with 2.6 fWAR and a 121 wRC+, but his Rookie-of-the-Year-level play is hardly the exception.

Oscar Gonzalez has gone from unheralded to fifth-best hitter on the team by wRC+ (114). He’s put together 0.9 fWAR over 173 plate appearances, which is 17th among qualified rookies in MLB (not to mention his wRC+ is higher than Jeremy Peña and Bobby Witt Jr., though it has come in less than half as many PA). His profile, a boom-or-bust kind of hitter with big power and big strikeout numbers, has limited him somewhat, but his replacement has been equally impressive. Nolan Jones, in particular, looks like a former top prospect, with 0.3 fWAR and a 110 wRC+ in his 87 plate appearances thus far.

Then, of course, there’s Andrés Giménez, who hardly needs description but deserves it anyway. With 4.0 fWAR thus far, he’s the second-most valuable player on the Guardians; however, 4.0 fWAR also makes him the most valuable second baseman in MLB. His combination of remarkable offense and spectacular defense is simply unparalleled at second base. He has created 21.4 runs above average on offense and 4.6 runs above average on defense, which is nearly the inverse of the next-best second baseman, Tommy Edman (5.5 offense/14.3 defense); no other second baseman in the league has more than 15 runs above average on offense and more than three runs above average on defense. Giménez didn’t debut this season, but his reintroduction has seen him enter a class by himself at second and has paid off massively for Cleveland.

Starting pitching has been quietly effective

While Cleveland has, rightfully, earned a reputation as a pitching factory in recent years, the beginning of the 2022 season was nothing special. Guardians starters were exactly middle-of-the-pack in the first half, with fWAR 15th (7.6) and FIP 15th (4.06) among MLB teams. Things have started to look better in recent days, though.

Since the second half started, Cleveland ranks 14th, with 1.9 fWAR, among all starters, but the supporting stats are improving, with FIP decreasing to 3.94, BB/9 decreasing to 2.50 (from 2.59), HR/9 remaining static at 1.15, and K/9 increasing to 8.05 (from 7.67). Perhaps the biggest catalyst for improvement has been Triston McKenzie, who seemed to flip a switch when the calendar hit July. Prior to July, he had an ERA of 4.03, FIP of 4.82, K% of 22.7, BB% of 6.5, and HR/9 of 1.8; since July 1, he’s got an ERA of 1.82, FIP of 3.03, K% of 25.5, BB% of 7, and HR/9 of 0.7. Included in that stretch are completely dominant outings against the Astros (8 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 8 K) and Yankees (7 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 7 K), making him seem like the staff ace.

The incumbent staff ace, however, has been no slouch. Despite some much-discussed issues, Shane Bieber is far and away the team leader with 3.5 fWAR. He’s remained an artist of a pitcher even in the face of diminished velocity, putting up a FIP of 2.80, seventh among all qualified MLB pitchers. And even his velocity has shown signs of returning as he continues to put distance between him and his injury-plagued 2021: in his last start, Bieber registered an average fastball velocity of 93.1 mph, matching his 2019 season average.

Shane Bieber’s average pitch velocity per start in 2022, with four-seam fastball showing a dramatic increase above 93 mph in his most recent start. Baseball Savant / MLB

Meanwhile, Cal Quantrill has looked like a dependable middle-of-the-rotation arm and Zach Plesac has performed better than a 2-10 record would indicate, evidenced by his 4.35 xFIP and 10 starts of at least 5 innings with 2 earned runs or fewer. Likewise, Aaron Civale returned last week from a month off due to injury and struck out a quarter of the batters he faced while walking none, which is an encouraging development.

Catchers have provided more offense recently

A big part of the success of the pitching staff, of course, is due to the job done by the catchers. Cleveland has long prioritized pitching staff management over hitting when it comes to backstops — the last time Cleveland had a catcher log more than 100 PA and a wRC+ greater than 105 was Yan Gomes in 2014 — and relying on Austin Hedges and Luke Maile this season fits the organization MO. As much as fans might have liked either of Hedges or Maile to be replaced at the trade deadline, however, the two have done pretty well in recent games.

Neither Guardians catcher is much of a hitter, but for the season Maile actually has a 90 wRC+, which is 1 point above league average for catchers. Over the last 30 days, Maile is slashing .379/.471/.517 with a wRC+ of 190 and he’s walked 11.8% of plate appearances, which seems downright Bondsian. Hedges can’t match that output, but he’s been respectable in his own right, with a 100 wRC+ and walk rate of 13.6% over the same time span. These are small samples, obviously (just 59 PA for Hedges and 34 PA for Maile), but the effect on the lineup is tangible. Over the last 30 days, Cleveland’s offense ranks 6th in fWAR, compared to 9th over the full season.

I’m still not rushing out to place any bets on the Guardians winning anything of consequence, but I’m not betting on anything anyway. If you’re the betting type, I hope you got your money in early, because the Guardians have squashed the odds — despite what we anticipated.