What better way to celebrate spring training than by laying awake at night and imagining creative strategies your favorite baseball team could use to win more games? I have such ideas for the Guardians to use this season.
Execute hit-and-runs more often
I cannot find the data to tell us how often the Guardians attempted or executed a hit-and-run play in 2023. What I can tell you is that the Guardians led Major League Baseball in 2022 with an 80.8% contact rate. Making contact is obviously a skill the team possesses, while their 28th-ranked .129 ISO isn’t nearly as strong an asset. So, with the restrictions on pickoff rules and the larger bases, and a roster of players with good speed, overall, it makes sense to me to try to get an extra base late in counts by starting the runner at first later in counts. This should help avoid groundout double-plays and increase the team’s chances of going 1st to 3rd on a single.
“If you can’t hit a double, hit a single and steal second” was a common strategy for the Guardians in 2022, now let’s add to it, “If you can’t hit a double, hit a single and execute a hit and run.”
Stop sliding into first base
Sliding into first is, as Eno Sarris wrote at FanGraphs, roughly equal to sprinting through the bag in a best-case scenario. In almost all cases, it slows a runner down and provides a greater risk of injuries.
With that in mind, it is time for Terry Francona, Sandy Alomar, and everyone on the coaching staff to tell Andrés Giménez and anyone else tempted to do it to stop diving into first base. The larger bases give you more room to work with, so the greatest risk of injury, by far, is going to come in diving into first base (which is how I suspect Giménez hurt his hand last September).
Leave no doubt, Tito – tell the boys to stop diving into first base.
Send the runner from third more often
I think Mike Sarbaugh is a great third-base coach because I often think to myself, “Oh, I’m not sure he should have sent that guy,” when a runner gets tagged out at home.
Russell Carleton wrote in 2010 that third-base coaches should be sending runners far more often than they do, as runners were safe after being sent on sacrifice flies around 90% of the time. Carleton argues that the success rate in runners sent from third base on sacrifice flies should be closer to 50% than 100%, otherwise, runs are being left on the board. That’s an aggressive claim, of course, but I’m in agreement that something more in the 75-80% success rate would be more appropriate aggressiveness.
Jim Gentile also recently wrote some interesting articles indicating that third-base coaches have become less aggressive over time in MLB. Jack Olszewski also described in 2021 for FanGraphs how third-base coaches need to be more aggressive in sending runners on sacrifice fly opportunities.
My encouragement for the Guardians would be: Let Sarbaugh cook. My observations indicate that we’ve got an aggressive third-base coach who should keep the pressure on opposing defenses by forcing them to make the throws and relays necessary to get our speedy, aggressive base runners out, especially on sacrifice flies and singles hit with runners on second base.
Please keep this thought in mind in 2023, Guardians fans: If you’re upset that your team’s third base coach seems like he is sending runners too often, he is doing it right.
Change pitchers mid plate appearance in high-leverage spots when appropriate
I have long been a proponent of a relief pitching method affectionately called “the Strategy” by the hosts of Effectively Wild. One of those hosts, Ben Lindbergh, described the concept for the Ringer as essentially that managers should be willing to switch pitchers mid-plate appearance in crucial situations to allow for a more advantageous matchup.
Imagine with me this scenario … in a 4-3 game, Tito goes to Shane Bieber to start the sixth inning. He gets an out but then gives up a double. No worries, he strikes out the next batter. But then, after getting ahead in the count 0-2 in the next plate appearance, the hitter begins fouling off pitches and Bieber has now thrown 100 pitches. Francona has pitchers in his bullpen more than capable of getting a third strike. Pull Bieber in that 0-2 count and bring in James Karinchak, Trevor Stephan, Enyel De Los Santos, and Sam Hentges … pick your poison … to finish the inning off. There are many situations in which this strategy would work (maybe it helps you prevent a runner from stealing when they’ve had a chance to time up your current pitcher, maybe it helps you get better odds of getting a groundball), but it’s rarely done simply because of concerns of conventions and comfort.
To heck with those concerns! Get your bullpen arms warm a little earlier than you want to in close games and then leverage these great arms into getting more outs in big spots, I say.
Overpay (if need be) for a veteran to fill a roster hole in July
This last suggestion is an appeal to the Cleveland front office: I really hope that if the team has an obvious roster hole in July — as they did in lacking a right-handed slugger to play 1B/DH last summer — Antonetti and Chernoff will do whatever it takes to fill that hole, even if it requires them to trade a little more in talent than what they are normally comfortable doing. The Guardians have a great farm system and they have a team that should be making the playoffs for the next 3-4 years. Their star player, José Ramírez, is here for a good while on a team-friendly deal. Now is not the time to worry so much about retaining cost-controlled, young talent that the team misses an opportunity to significantly upgrade the major league roster if such an upgrade is needed.
When it’s all said and done, as MLB tries to improve the game by breaking conventions in implementing new rules, I hope the Guardians can respond in kind by improving their competitive odds by breaking conventions with some innovative or unexpected strategic maneuvers in 2023.