Have you ever asked yourself, “Why do Myles Straw and Amed Rosario start almost every game for the Cleveland Guardians in 2023?” Well, if you have and have come up wanting more answers, this is the blog post for you.
Entering play on July 19, among qualified major league hitters since Opening Day of the 2021 season, Myles Straw was third worst with a 79 wRC+. He has not hit a home run since 8/26/2021. Amed Rosario was 41st worst with a 97 wRC+. Yet, Amed Rosario has the 21st most plate appearances among qualified hitters during that time, and Straw has the 36th most during the same period.
As a comparison, Michael Taylor is a similarly skilled defender as Straw who has produced a similar number of fWAR (4.7 for Straw, 4.5 for Taylor) in that stretch with an 83 wRC+, yet has accrued 343 fewer plate appearances than Straw has. Likewise, in parallel with Rosario, Josh Harrison has struggled to produce positive defensive value as an infielder during that time and also put up a 97 wRC+, yet has had 558 fewer plate appearances than Amed has.
Speaking of defensive value, Rosario is behind only Kyle Schwarber since 2021 in outs above average with -24 OAA and he’s sixth worst in defensive runs saved with -20. He’s eighth among shortstops in that time with 2.6 UZR/150 but that metric looks like the clear outlier. Straw, meanwhile, has 19 OAA, 24 DRS and 7.6 UZR/150 since 2021, so his defensive value is clear.
Important context to this discussion is that the 2023 Guardians are not lacking adequate options to split time with Straw and Rosario. Will Brennan and Steven Kwan are capable centerfielders, and David Fry, Gabriel Arias, and Oscar Gonzalez (in Columbus) have shown themselves, at one point or another, to be reasonably viable options in the corner outfield spots. Similarly, Tyler Freeman, Gabriel Arias, and Brayan Rocchio (in Columbus) are shortstop prospects in need of major league repetitions and Freeman and Arias have shown themselves capable of producing at the plate also. So, why do Straw and Rosario continue to get the lion’s share of the plate appearances and starts? Here are some possible explanations:
Answer 1: Straw and Rosario are full-time starters because of contract considerations
Amed Rosario is making $7.8 million in 2023, and Myles Straw is making $5 million in the second year of a seven-year contract. This is more money than their potential replacements are making, combined. It is possible that ownership or the front office have set the expectation that the players making the most money should consistently get the most opportunities to earn that pay.
Answer 2: Straw and Rosario are seen as established vets and benching them disrupts team dynamics in a way that the Guardians fear will affect onfield performance more negatively than the two players’ respective offensive and defensive struggles
So, this answer incorporates a couple of concepts — managers generally trust veterans to get the job done, so Tito may prefer to start Rosario and Straw whenever possible because he knows what he’s going to get from them. I will say that I do not buy for a minute that Tito is starting players against the front office’s wishes. Zack Meisel repeatedly states on the excellent Selby is Godcast that Antonetti and Chernoff regularly meet with Tito to discuss the lineup and managerial decisions. So, I think the organization probably places a little more value on team chemistry and loyalty than people like myself who are looking at a stat sheet, first and foremost. Rosario and Straw also go hard on every play, hustling on the bases without fail.
Secondly, I suppose it is fair to wonder how José Ramírez being close to Straw and, especially, to Rosario factors into things. I don’t believe that any player is making roster decisions on any team, but the face of the franchise/team leader believing in his teammates could potentially make things awkward if his trusted field companions are benched for half or more of his games. So, that’s; again; a chemistry concern.
Answer 3: Straw’s defensive value outweighs his offensive struggles and Rosario’s offensive value outweigh his defensive struggles
While Straw’s defensive stats don’t look great for 2023, I’m assuming, for the sake of argument, that this is small sample size and those stats will normalize. However, the very fact that he hasn’t had enough outfield chances to make up for some bad plays shows how limited a centerfielder’s defensive value is. The Guardians have to be convinced that the presence of a player who rightly won the Gold Glove in 2022 for the majority of their innings outweighs the negative value of having a bat 30-35% below average in the lineup. It’s hard for me to see how that can be true.
For his career, Rosario is pretty clearly a league-average hitter. Perhaps the Guardians aren’t convinced that any of their other shortstop options are capable of producing league-average numbers. If that is the case, they need to fire their draft decision-makers and hitting development team who have been working with oodles of shortstops all on the verge of the majors now for the past five years.
I do think this final answer is probably the Occam’s Razor option ... but the problem is that the logic of the answer has an internal conflict. If Straw is so valuable defensively that he has to play, then why isn’t Amed’s defensive liability seen as a justification for him not playing? If Amed’s offensive abilities outweigh his poor glovework, why doesn’t Straw’s noodle bat take him out of center more often? It’s no wonder questions about their playing time are the most common ones I talk about with engaged Guardians fans.
I don’t think trade showcasing is a legitimate reason for these lineup decisions ... teams know who Rosario and Straw are as players. I also don’t think there are some secret hitting or fielding metrics that dramatically conflict with what is publicly available to us or, for that matter, visible to our eyes.
So, what conclusions can we draw? I think I can reasonably conclude that Straw is playing because the team has concluded the value he adds with his glove justifies his weak bat. For what it’s worth. ZiPS projects Straw to be a 77 wRC+ bat the rest of this season, and to put up 80 wRC+ in both 2024 and 2025. I think that maybe elite centerfield defense could justify playing a hitter like that every day, but the Guardians will need more production from right field, especially, to justify it. I’m also assuming that Kwan and Brennan are essentially average center-field defenders because if either is good-great defensively, there is no justification for continuing to start Straw.
For Rosario, my only conclusion is vibes. The team believes that Amed Rosario sets an example of hard work, hustle and dedication that is crucial to team chemistry (team chemistry that sees them sitting below .500 in late July, to be clear). Never mind that his 125 wRC+ against LHP since Opening Day 2021 and 86 wRC+ against RHP make a clear case for a platoon and that he could easily be replaced in late innings to avoid botched double-plays like the one that allowed the Pirates to take a late inning lead in the finale of the recent three game series. The amount of disruption in team chemistry would be too much for the fragile Guardians team to handle if Amed Rosario spent more time offering his services as a cheerleader and lefty-mashing specialist.
Hopefully, the trade deadline will clear some of these questions up for us, but, until then, join us next time on another episode of Unsolved Mysteries when we ask, why David Fry can’t be the primary backup catcher over Cam Gallagher?