The alarm bells are going off for Guardians fans who expected a playoff contender in 2023. Is there any emergency response squad ready to respond?
I can go through a lot of numbers to describe for you how bad the Cleveland Guardians’ hitters have been in 2023. The Guardians are worst in wOBA and wRC+ in MLB. The Guardians and the Reds are last in hard-hit rate. The Guardians are, again, alone in last place for total home runs and for barrel rate. There really isn’t a statistic that indicates anything other than that Cleveland is a team that hits the ball as softly as a major league team can hit the ball.
This might be enough for some fans to conclude that the team is hopeless, that the organization’s philosophy and process for developing hitters is a failure, and that Cleveland should fire the front office, fire the coaching staff, and trade every veteran not named José Ramírez. If that’s where you are today, I can’t blame you for feeling like that. I’d also encourage you that things are rarely as bad as they can possibly be.
The Guardians have several established hitters who are not as bad as they have been and several young players who are not as bad as they appear to be now. I think it is highly unlikely that they will end 2023 with the entire team, except Myles Straw (hitting comfortably within his soft-hitting norms), putting up career lows in offensive numbers.
We’re not even through a fourth of the MLB season yet.
With that sage advice offered, I’d like to provide some ideas about how the Guardians might be able to begin to turn things around. Why? Not because I think anyone is going to listen to me, but because I find it more productive mentally to brainstorm potential solutions than to dwell on present failures.
The Guardians should be more aggressive in swinging in counts where strikes are likely
The Guardians have the second-highest walk rate in baseball in 3-0 counts. That’s great, right? Right? Well, they also have the fifth-lowest hard-hit rate and the sixth-lowest pull rate in 3-0 counts. To go along with this, on first pitches, the Guardians have the lowest hard-hit and pull rates in MLB. They have the lowest wRC+ in MLB through 0-1 counts and have seen the 11th most 0-1 counts in baseball. It’s a small suggestion, but I recall World Baseball Classic announcers describing how when players would get to 3-0 counts and Charlie Manuel was coaching third base, he would make the sign of a telescope to send the message “send this pitch to the moon.”
I feel like the entire team needs a huge shot of unreasonable confidence. Stop trying to go deep in counts. Stop trying to slap the ball around or poke the ball to opposite fields. Remember that you are in the majors to hit the baseball and hit it hard. Take advantage of counts in which you are likely to get a strike and pull the heck out of some more pitches, smack them as hard as you can, and things are going to get better.
Oscar Gonzalez probably needs to go to Columbus for a bit.
(Editor’s note: Between the submission of this article and its publication, Oscar Gonzalez was optioned for Tyler Freeman. Leaving this section in because Quincy called it. —Matt)
I love Oscar Gonzalez. He won my heart, as well as the heart of many other Guardians fans, with his incredible run to end 2022, including multiple walk-off hits in the postseason. I think he’s got a real shot to thread the Luis Robert Jr./Tim Anderson needle of being an effective hitter while chasing way too much. But, Gonzalez is absolutely lost. Whether because he tried to implement a new approach (as rumored by Tom Hamilton in spring training) of seeing more pitches, or because he has such a narrow path to success with his hitting profile that being off rhythm in the slightest sends him spiraling, I think it’s time for him to see if he can get things right in Triple-A.
Is Will Brennan excelling? No. No Guardians hitter is excelling. Brennan, however, plays good defense and has a better average exit velocity, higher hard-hit rate, and very slightly lower chase rate. I’d also be fine giving Richie Palacios some at-bats, but his arm probably isn’t up for right field. Until George Valera is ready, I think the best bet is to hope for consistent at-bats for Brennan to turn things around.
Additionally, completely a perception call, but poor Gonzalez really seems to wear it when he is struggling while Brennan gives off a more upbeat demeanor when things aren’t going well. I’d like to see if hammering some Triple-A pitching could get Oscar back to having fun and feeling good about his swing again so he can help the Guardians.
Give Amed Rosario an IL stint for his back
Amed Rosario missed a series with a bad back. I’ve got to believe that back continues to bother him. It was a real shame that Brayan Rocchio, a 22-year-old middle-infielder with a 132 wRC+ in Columbus before hitting a home run on Friday night, was unable to play during his debut week.
Let’s give Rocchio a full 10 days to see what he can show at the major-league level while letting Amed quiet any barking from his back. Let Rocchio’s presence push Arias and Gimenez into putting up better at-bats. Alternatively, I’d take 10 days of Tyler Freeman, also, whose 158 wRC+ in Columbus looks spicy, and, whom I believe, is equivalent to Amed in many ways, just with far fewer strikeouts.
Get some more offense from that 13th position player
If we’re going to carry David Fry and not play him, they might as well exchange him with Bo Naylor and have him DH when he doesn’t catch. Either Bo Naylor can catch major league pitching and translate some of his 124 wRC+ to the big league experience, or the team needs to start packaging their prospects for a long-term solution at the catching position.
Alternatively, Tito should give Fry at-bats every time the team sees a left-handed pitcher, or, if Tito doesn’t like the cut of Fry’s jib for some unknown reason, the Guardians should swap him with Zack Collins for a similar, lefty-masher role. The team doesn’t have the margin to carry multiple players with zero offensive upside right now, or one player who might have upside but Tito won’t get in a game. Tito needs to use the pieces the front office gives him, despite their inadequacies.
Mix up the batting order
I’m not telling you there’s a perfect solution right now, as both Bell and Gimenez, who could be options for Amed’s spot, for example, have higher groundball rates than Amed at the moment. But, I do think that some serious lineup shakeup involving every player. Call up Freeman and bat him first, move Jose to 2nd, Kwan to third, Zunino to cleanup, Gimenez to fifth as a vote of confidence, Bell to sixth, Josh Naylor to seventh, Straw to eighth, and let Brennan try to flip the lineup over for a while. It’s the kind of thing that can shake player’s out of ruts and make them view the game differently. Could it make things worse? Not really. Things can’t get much worse right now than they are, offensively, unless teams start throwing no-hitters.
Tell Andrés Giménez to stop attempting sacrifice bunts and stop diving into first
It doesn’t help, it reeks of desperation, and Tito has the authority to make him stop. The whole team is doing silly, desperate stuff (see: José trying to score from second on an infield hit) and they need to take a deep breath and stop.
Begin shopping for a real upgrade in right field/designated hitter
The major-league options here are slim. Travis Sawchik has mentioned a potential fit between the Cardinals, who have many hard-hitting batters but few exciting young pitching prospects, and the Guardians, who have many exciting young pitching prospects and few hard-hitting batters. It’s time to start putting together the framework on a deal like that, whether with the Cardinals for Tyler O’Neill, Lars Nootbaar, Dylan Carlson or, heck, Jordan Walker, let’s get crazy. It’s time to see if the Angels might be open to moving Jo Adell or Taylor Ward for the right pitcher in return. It’s time to check on Peyton Burdick of Miami, Nelson Velazquez of the Cubs, and Brent Rooker of the A’s. These deals aren’t coming together until July, if at all, but what the Guardians need most, now, is abundantly clear.
They need power, preferably right-handed power, and they need not to be so stubborn about how they go about looking to acquire it in the months ahead. Admittedly, it’s impossible to have too much pitching, but it’s probably time to consider trading one quality, young arm (and a middle-infielder, hopefully) to get some real-time pop in the organization.
Remind Guardians hitters that hitting a baseball is fun
It’s fun to smack baseballs a long way. It’s so much fun. Let’s just go up there and see if you can do it, fellas, slap-hitting, bloop troop reputation be darned. Swinging for the fences and making a lot of hard contact will be the last thing the next soft-tossing righty or lefty some team throws at us will expect.
There are never any easy solutions out of a hitting slump, but I, for one, feel better having given finding those potential answers a try. Now, let’s see if the Guardians can make me feel better next time I watch a game.