It’s the age-old battle of the Cleveland pitching factory and computer calculations with the chances of breaking a 75-year title drought hanging in the balance.
Before the holidays, I took a look at what ZiPS had to say about Guardians hitters. As usual, I would like to offer the usual caveat that projections aren’t the end-all, be-all, nor are they intended to be. They simply offer reasonable estimates of potential performance based on past precedents, underlying metrics, and 2023 performance levels. As such, good projections offer fans (and teams) insights into where the team has to improve (either through internal development/adjustment or external additions).
Recently, ZiPS creator Dan Szymborski offered the projections for the 2024 Guardians and some commentary on FanGraphs. He also provided numbers to show the accuracy of ZiPS in the past in a post on Twitter:
How did ZiPS work in 2023? Here are the percent of players (min. 300 PA or 40 IP) who exceeded their Nth percentile projections for ERA+ and OPS+ in 2023. I'm very pleased, though always want to improve. pic.twitter.com/eLFpkWjWdz— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) November 30, 2023
Richard @_R3I3, from Guardians’ Twitter, pointed out that out of (as of this article) 17 team projections released so far, the Guardians’ rank around 4th, overall, matching Szymborski’s observation that ZiPS is high on the Guardians, in general:
So this is a bit crude but here is Cleveland’s ranks in fWAR among the 15 total teams that have ZIPS projections so far (at least according to the sneak peak graphics)— Richard (@_R3I3) December 20, 2023
Position players: 4th
Overall: 4th https://t.co/3hPasQ8QNL
The Guardians have 18 pitchers projected to be above average in ERA+, including 6 starters and 12 relievers. The best of the bunch are Emmanuel Clase (146 ERA+), Shane Bieber (119), Triston McKenzie (118), Sam Hentges (116), James Karinchak (112), Nick Enright (112), and Tanner Bibee (110). The strength of the Guardians’ pitching, as you can probably tell in even this crude analysis, already, is a plethora of strong relief options.
It’s always enjoyable to look at the 80th percentile projections to see whom ZiPS sees as pitchers with a fair amount of upside and here the projected Guardians rotation getting ERA’s all well below 4 sounds excellent to me (McKenzie- 3.06, Bieber - 3.05, Bibee - 3.35, Allen - 3.57, and Williams 3.63). ZiPS sees a lot of upside in minor-league invitee Jamie Barria (projected for a 101 ERA+ and an 80th percentile ERA of 3.58), Joey Cantillo (80th percentile ERA of 3.83), Eli Morgan (80th percentile ERA of 3.36), James Karinchak (80th percentile ERA of 2.93), Franco Aleman (80th percentile ERA of 3.23), Nic Enright (80th percentile ERA of 3.07), and Cade Smith (80th percentile ERA of 3.43). Will Dion’s (4.06 ERA) and Jack Leftwich’s (3.99 ERA) 80th percentile projections also offer some reasonable optimism that they can join Xzavion Curry and Ben Lively (80th percentile projection of 4.05 and 3.85 ERA’s, respectively) as useful rotation depth. I think I’d like to see the Guardians keep Barria stretched out as a starter for a while to shore up the starting pitcher corps where they could probably still use (and may yet acquire in minor league deals) an arm or two. I would like to see Hunter Gaddis moved to the bullpen, however, as being projected for 20 out of 25 appearances as starts isn’t helping his ERA+ projection of 4.84.
The projections make clear that trading Bieber without a plan to replace his innings with a somewhat comparable pitcher doesn’t seem to be a wise plan for the current roster. The Guardians might get a healthy Daniel Espino at some point this year, and I might grow back a full head of hair from my twenties. If Espino doesn’t come back strong in 2024, they have a lot more options that look like potential #5 starters than they do potential #2 starters waiting in the wings (I don’t see even one). In listening to Guardians beat reporters, I still expect Bieber to be dealt this month, continuing Cleveland’s trend to move on from starting pitchers before their final year of control (and saving money). If it happens, I’d expect the Guardians to get a young controllable starter in a separate deal or (less likely) have a one-year, pollow free agent deal lined up for say a Sean Manaea, James Paxton, or Alex Wood.
If the Guardians’ goal is to reallocate player talent resources from pitching to slugging outfielders, the better choice is probably to see if they can get a haul from someone for Emmanuel Clase. This isn’t me saying the Guardians SHOULD trade Clase. A 146 ERA+ is an incredibly valuable number and totally reasonable for the Guardians’ 25 year-old closer. But, in looking at ZiPS, I feel more confident of the current bullpen collection of compensating for Clase’s loss than I do the current collection of pitchers to sustain the loss of Shane Bieber. Maybe they would need Scott Barlow to reach his 80th percentile ERA of 2.65 but even his 118 ERA+ would be a solid number for a playoff contender’s closer. Also, I think it’s fair to wonder if Clase, who took as long between pitches as any player in MLB in 2022, will be permanently affected by the pitch clock. I hope not, but it is possible and may lower his performance.
Some Guardians’ fans may be slightly concerned that ZiPS is only projecting Tanner Bibee for 2.5 fWAR, Logan Allen for 1.9 and Gavin Williams for 1.8. Part of those numbers reflect (justified) skepticism of the number of innings each will be able to throw (148, 130 and 130, respectively). Bibee did have a 3.88 xERA, a 4.22 xFIP and gave up a 38.8% hard-hit rate with a low home run to fly ball rate of 8%. I think it’s reasonable for computers to be skeptical that his 2.98 ERA was sustainable. I also think it’s perfectly reasonable for Guardians’ fans who watched Bibee compete to be optimistic that with another year of experience and the additional help of good catching minds like Stephen Vogt, Craig Albernaz and Austin Hedges, he will be able to increase his 2023 K-rate of 8.94 per 9. Similarly, Allen’s 4.28 xFIP and 4.36 xERA and hard-hit rate of 39% and Williams’ 4.53 xFIP, 4.16 xFIP and 38.6 hard-hit rate with only a 9.2% HR/FB rate are numbers that indicate that both pitchers need to improve at missing bats and limiting hard contact. And, again, I think Guardians fans can be reasonably confident, having watched both pitchers compete and being aware of the record of the team with getting the most out of pitchers that these young hurlers have a good chance at beating the computers. However, it’s likely wise to temper expectations and not expect a three-way Cy Young race among the sophomores.
I enjoy looking at ZiPS player comps, where, again, we can see some exciting potential comparisons if respective players reach the heights of the potential they have flashed. Sign me up for Triston McKenzie as Mike Mussina (3 inches taller and 25 pounds lighter), Tanner Bibee as Johnny Cueto, Logan Allen as Joe Shaute, and Gavin Williams as Jaret Wright who stays healthy (which isn’t how ZiPS is comping him, of course), and Jack Leftwich as Miles Mikolas would actually be a pretty excellent #5 starter. The projections are rightly skeptical of Doug Nikhazy, until he lowers that 6.44 BB/9 he put up in Akron. Lowering a 5.21 BB/9 rate for Joey Cantillo would also do a lot toward helping his projected ability to help the 2024 team if need be.
One place I feel the computers may be offering some optimism that has the potential to not age well is with James Karinchak. The computers seem to be expecting that the career high 12.5% barrel-rate he surrendered in 2023 is a bit of an outlier. He’s not expected to be the 2.92 xERA he was in 2022, but I think we would all settle for a 112 ERA+ from the volatile reliever. However, his 1% decline in spin rate and inability to consistently locate his curveball had a dramatic effect on his fastball in 2023, lowering its run value from +12 in 2022 to -6 in 2023. Maybe it’s reasonable to expect that he will find the ability to split the difference between those numbers, but I would take the under on the 112 ERA+ from observing Karinchak’s struggles to command the baseball throughout the 2023 season following the institution of the pitch clock and restrictions on applying sunscreen to the ball.
Overall, ZiPS paints a rosy picture for the 2024 Guardians' pitching, especially if the starters (ahem, McKenzie and Bieber) can remain relatively healthy. Adding some additional rotation depth would be a wise move, and as the market shakes out, the Guardians will probably at least add a vet or two on a minor-league deal. But, even given just the current options on the 40-man, it's fair for Guardians fans to be optimistic about the team's chances of doing a good job limiting run-scoring opportunities for the opposition in 2024.