Five games in, one trip through the rotation, a sample size of next to nothing — the only thing we can confidently say at this point is the Guardians are winning the World Series.
Well, confidence may vary from person to person with that one. But with such a small amount of data to work with the only thing we can do is flag some things to watch. So here are a few trends I’ve noticed from the Guardians’ first five games.
Shane Bieber was effective last year despite not having the same fastball velocity he had prior to his 2021 injury. In his first 2023 start, he was down a bit again but not much, averaging 90.9 mph, which is just off his 2022 average of 91.3 mph. The chill of Seattle might have held down the number a bit, but regardless of the circumstances, Bieber’s velo is always on the mind.
Though he’s only thrown 36 pitches, Emmanuel Clase’s velocity is showing something. The difference between his 2022 and 2023 averages is 1.6 mph (99.5 vs. 97.9), but it’s part of a longer trend. After his cutter hit a monthly average high of 100 mph in June, it slowly crept down to a nadir of 99.1 in August before a slight uptick in September. Perhaps importantly, his slider velocity went through a similar swoon in the back half of 2022. Throwing 97.9 mph is still really fast, but Clase is definitely on the watch list.
I don’t know if there’s a correlation between pitch selection and velocity, but I did notice some trends regarding selection among Guardians’ starters. Bieber’s cutter was a pitch he went to 15.8% of the time in 2022, but against the Mariners he threw the current more than any other pitch, accounting for 34.5% of his 87 pitches thrown. Was this a match-up call or a new wrinkle? One clue comes from Aaron Civale’s stellar outing, in which he also threw a higher percentage of cutters (45%) than his average from a year ago (34.8%). This certainly points toward the team identifying cutters as a Mariner weakness, but Bieber’s cutter had an xwOBA against of .368 last year and Civale’s was .182, so there is the possibility that these two have improved this pitch over the off-season.
Notable among Cal Quantrill’s offerings is their disappearance. In 2021 he threw six pitches at least 100 times, in 2022 he completely dropped his slider, and in his first outing of 2023 he simplified further and threw only his sinker, cutter, and changeup. Last year, Quantrill’s four-seam had an xwOBA against of .522, so dropping that pitch seems wise; however, his curveball was never hit as hard, so dropping it and having zero breaking pitches among his arsenal would be an odd decision. Zach Plesac also threw just three different pitches against the A’s on Monday, but given the brevity of his outing (and the lack of success) the less said the better. We’ll see next time through whether their repertoires have indeed been shrunk.
With relievers, movement might be more variable from game to game, but Eli Morgan’s 28 four-seam fastballs seem notable because they are moving less (13.1 inches of drop vs. 15.1 in 2022) and riding more, which makes them more deceptive. Likewise, Enyel De Los Santos has only thrown six changeups, but those he has thrown have 18.7 inches of horizontal break, 22% more break versus the average changeup, and a 2.4-inch increase over 2022.
Steven Kwan is out of control. His swing rate is up eight points (45.6% vs. 37.7%), his swinging strike rate has nearly doubled (6.1 vs. 3.1%), and his walk-per-strikeout rate has been quartered (0.25 vs. 1.03)! It’s only 25 plate appearances, but I think we can all agree he’s completely lost it. Or maybe not, since his called strike rate is down (19.3% vs. 24.5%), his zone contact rate has improved to perfect (100% vs. 95.4%), and he’s on pace to drive in 210 runs. Maybe the answer lies somewhere in between, but any increased aggressiveness from Kwan is worth monitoring.
Like Kwan, José Ramírez is also whiffing more (7.3% vs. 6.2%) and swinging more in general (53.5% vs. 46.1%), but his zone contact rate remains perfect as well. More interestingly, Ramírez has 20 balls in play so far and has pulled 60% of them. On those hits, he’s managed an expected batting average of .219 but an actual average of .318 and an expected slugging of .291 but an actual slugging of .500. Is this small sample variation or an effect of changes to the shift?
Blocking sucks, walking rules, I think that’s Mike Zunino’s motto. Let’s not talk about his blocking stats so far, but let’s do talk about his 17.6% walk rate, which is greater than three times higher than 2022 (4.9%) and twice his career average (7%). Could be that he’s a quick study of the Guardians Way, as his overall swing rate is down a bit (47.2% vs. 49.7%) and his outside-the-zone swing rate is down a lot (24.4% vs. 33.1%) compared to his career averages.
Amed Rosario is not far off his average swing rate (56% vs. 52.1%), but he’s way above his swinging strike rate (19.6% vs. 11.9%). Perhaps as a result of seeing more sliders than average (35.2% vs. 24.6%), he’s struck out six times in 25 plate appearances and is yet to walk.
Josh Bell, on the other hand, is walking much more than his average (25% vs. 12%), but is similarly struggling with whiffs (15.2% vs. 9.9%) in part because of a similarly increased diet of sliders (28.3% vs. 13.3%). When Bell has made contact he has struggled as well, with 38.5% of his contact registering as soft (versus a career average of 16.5%). Bell, though, is vastly underperforming his expectations, with his average and slugging at a paltry .059 but his expected average and slugging more robust .240 and .312, respectively.
All of these numbers, of course, are to be taken with a grain of salt. Should they continue to trend this way, however, they’ll be more like that nice finishing salt rather than table salt, and we’ll have to take them a little more seriously.