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The Guardians have a hard hitting problem

If they can’t find hitters that can barrel the ball, the contention window will not be open again this year

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MLB: Cleveland Guardians at Boston Red Sox Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

The Guardians’ offense is atrocious. There’s no other way to say it.

The team is currently 28th in fWAR (0.4), 27th in wRC+ (82), 28th in ISO (.116), and 28th in wOBA (.289). Some of these rankings are a product of bad luck, which you can infer from the team ranking 28th with a .274 BABIP, 9th with a .253 xBA, and 20th with a .312 xwOBA.

Luck is pretty important for a team like the Guardians and their slap-hitting style. Luck is also not something you can coach, or plan for, or build a roster around. Power-hitting, and to a lesser extent just hitting the ball with authority, is also something that is really hard to coach into a player. FanGraphs’ Ben Clemens found as much in a detailed analysis, in which he concluded “exit velocity changers are rare: only 4% of hitters saw their 95th-percentile exit velocities change by at least one standard deviation from one year to the next.” While players see their average exit velocity fluctuate, those 95th-percentile numbers indicate how dangerous a player can be at his best.

Guardians hitters are clearly far from their best thus far in 2023, but relying on so many slap-hitting players rather than players with good top-end power is planning for at least decent luck. Last year the team was dead last in both barrel rate and hard-hit percentage, but was 13th in BABIP at .294. That 20-point swing in BABIP is turning out to be a really big deal.

Among all 30 teams, the Guardians rank 29th in hard hit percentage, at 26.3%, and 30th in barrel rate, at 4.9%. To break that down further, of the 4,327 pitches Guardians batters have seen this year, 34 have been barreled, which is 0.8%. The league-leading Rays have barreled 2.1% of the pitches they’ve seen, which is more than double what Cleveland has tallied. Putting that in even more context, in raw numbers the Guardians have 12 fewer barreled balls than the next AL Central team (Detroit, who has 46) and fewer than half as many as the Twins, who have the most in the AL Central and ninth-most among MLB teams (69).

Not everyone on the roster can be a power hitter, but even light-hitting guys can and do barrel the baseball from time to time. Lane Thomas has the lowest average exit velocity (84.4 mph) of any player with at least 100 PA this year, he also has more barrels (2) than Andrés Giménez (1), Steven Kwan, or Myles Straw (0). These are the extreme soft-hitting outliers for the Guardians, and some combination of acceptance of their skills and patience, while they correct is certainly the correct course. The same is true at the other end of the spectrum, where patience is certainly wise while Josh Naylor narrows the gap between his average and xBA (.213 vs. .290).

But if luck is not on the Guardians' side like it was last year and the hard hits aren’t falling or maybe not coming at all, how long is patience the right course for someone like Straw or Oscar Gonzalez? Many people point to Memorial Day as the right time to determine whether a team is a contender or not, but if Cleveland continues on this offensive path until then it seems unlikely they’ll be able to make up the ground necessary to compete even in the weak AL Central.

The Guardians have a good front office, a smart manager in Terry Francona, and a lot of young and impressive players in the system. Though we’ve been clamoring for years now to see the team consolidate some of that talent to improve the roster, it really seems like put or shut up time now. The window might have peeked open last year, but without some help, it’s going to shut again before the next wave can make a run at contention in 2024 or ‘25.