Patience is a virtue. None of us have it, especially not on Twitter, but we know it is anyway. The Cleveland Guardians decision-makers, however, appear to have it in spades.
At 20-26, the Guardians continue apace, nearing the unofficial deadline of Memorial Day when contenders supposedly separate themselves from the pack with hardly a hint of panic setting in. Sure, the club has moved a few position players up and down the highway between Columbus and Cleveland and a few promising pitchers have gotten their chance, but none of the team’s moves really seem like they will move the needle much. Except for demoting Zach Plesac, all of the team’s pitching moves have been borne of injury necessity; likewise, Bo Naylor got a token opportunity as the 27th man but seems likely to find himself in Columbus again despite Guardians’ catchers posting a -50 wRC+ in the month of May.
So, is patience really a virtue?
Record through 46 games
- 2023: 20-26 (third in AL Central, 4.5 games back)
- 2022: 22-24 (third in AL Central, 5 games back)
If this was the sole metric that mattered, the Guardians’ patience would surely be justified. At the same point last year, the team was in almost exactly the same place: a slow start leading to copious hand-wringing and a spot in the middle of the pack among the worst division in baseball. It’s a familiar refrain, too: in 2021 the Guards were 26-20 at this point, better but still trailing the White Sox; in 2019 they were 25-21 and 5.5 games back of the Twins; in 2018 they were in first place, but with a record of just 23-23.
As the cliche goes, it’s not how you start but how you finish, and with the exception of 2021 the Guardians have finished quite well each year, winning the division in ‘18 and ‘22 and winning 93 games in ‘19. Those years have to count for something, of course, but I’m not certain how much those years actually resemble the one we’re currently living.
Expected offense through 46 games
- 2023: .308 xwOBA (25th in MLB)
- 2022: .307 xwOBA (18th in MLB)
The actual numbers here are practically identical, but the context is not. The rule changes put into place for 2023 have changed the offensive landscape. In 2022, the league-average xwOBA through 46 games was .312, but this year it is .323. As defenses learn to adjust to new rules on positioning and pitchers learn to work faster with a pitch clock, hitters are benefitting and offense is up. Where the Guardians could comfortably be a middle-of-the-pack team before, they’re now scraping the bottom of the barrel.
At this point last year, there was no difference between expected and actual numbers for Cleveland: the team’s wOBA was a mirror of xwOBA at .307. This year some hope exists in the 25-point gap between the Guardians’ .283 wOBA and .308 xwOBA, but with league-average wOBA at .318, even getting back to even would leave the team in the bottom third of MLB offenses.
Offense through 46 games
- 2023: 77 wRC+ (30th in MLB)
- 2022: 100 wRC+ (16th in MLB)
I don’t really need to recap how bad the Guardians offense has been this year, because it would be insulting to your intelligence and your eyes. However, the contrast between this year and last is particularly instructive, in my opinion, because even though last year was not very inspiring, it was at least more effective.
The best-case scenario of the 2023 offense, one that catches up to its expected numbers, still seems likely to reward an 8-inning, 2-run outing from Shane Bieber with a loss or to force Emmanuel Clase into close games at an alarming rate (he leads all relievers with 24 appearances). This is because we know what this team’s offensive profile is in many ways.
Amed Rosario has two-and-a-half seasons of play in Cleveland at 97 wRC+, which is fine, but how much more patience can you have when you’ve stockpiled middle infield prospects like they’ll be currency after civilization collapses? Myles Straw has compiled more than 1,000 PA as a Guardian and has a 77 wRC+, which is certainly enough of a sample to realize that his defense is not redeeming enough to write his name on the lineup in Sharpie daily. Even if Mike Zunino’s 70 wRC+ through 100 PA was something the team was willing to tolerate when it signed him, his -9 blocks above average (worst among 63 qualified MLB catchers) would seem poor enough to merit considering his contract a sunk cost at this point.
Certainly, these numbers have been discussed among members of the Guardians front office, and perhaps they’ve even asked the same questions. We have no way of knowing, especially from a group so tight-lipped, what the internal processes are and how decisions get made. But we see the end result, and we see a pretty significant lack of movement. The result is wondering whether patience is really a virtue, or if the Guardians have turned it into a fault.