Concern at the Corner: A Dive Into the Guardians’ Hitting Woes

What is Holding the Cleveland Offense Back?

It’s been a disappointing season so far for the Cleveland Guardians, as they sit 25-31, 4.5 games behind the first-place Minnesota Twins in the AL Central, going into the weekend (though they have a chance to cut into that deficit this weekend as they play the Twins in Minnesota).

That’s a far cry from their 92-70 mark in 2022 when they won the Central Division crown easily by 11 games.

The Guardians were widely predicted to be the favorite in the AL Central this spring by most media outlets, so to see the Guardians not just in third place, but under .500, is a shocking development to say the least.

When looking at their struggles this season, there are multiple reasons why the club has been so disappointing through the first 55 games. Shane Bieber is not only struggling with a 3.72 ERA and only a 16.9 percent K rate, but he seems to also destined to be on the trade block, which is not a good sign for a team with playoff aspirations.

Furthermore, Emmanuel Clase looks like a shell of his 2022 self. While his ERA is palatable at 3.33 and does have 17 saves in 27 innings, he is only sporting a 17.7 percent K rate and K-BB percentage of 13.3 percent, both considerable dropoffs from a season ago (28.4 percent K rate and 24.7 K-BB percentage in 2022.

Even though Bieber and Clase are two examples on the pitching end that stick out and are contributing to the Guardians’ early-season struggles, the main issue seems to be the Guardians’ hitting, which has been lackluster, to say the least.

Going into Thursday, the Guardians rank 27th in OBP, 29th in OPS as well as runs scored, and 30th in home runs, according to Fangraphs. With a rotation and bullpen that isn’t as strong as it was a season ago, Cleveland will need to see a boost in their offensive production if they want to get back into the postseason hunt this summer.

However, is a turnaround possible, especially from their key hitters?

And if so, what is holding them back offensively this year in comparison to a season ago?


BAPIP Regression Affecting Overall Production


The Guardians as a team were not an offensive juggernaut last season by any means, despite their 92 wins.

As a club, they only produced a 99 wRC+, which tied them for 16th in the league in that category in 2022 with the Orioles and the White Sox. This season though, that wRC+ as a team is down to 80, which is dead last in the league, as of Thursday.

A big issue of the Guardians this year is that their BABIP this season has regressed significantly from a season ago.

In the table below, notice not only the difference between Cleveland’s 2022 and 2023 BABIP, and how both numbers affect the unit’s other averages in their respective seasons.

2022 to 2023 Guardians Team Averages

Not only are the batting averages and wOBA down from a season ago, but the power metrics are also down, as evidenced by the 11-point drop in ISO and the 32-point drop in slugging from 2022. The 18-point difference in BABIP is definitely a significant factor in the regression of those other categories, especially when one looks at the group’s strikeout and walk number differences between 2022 and 2023.

The Guardians are actually walking more and posting a better BB/K ratio than a season ago. However, it has not led to a significant improvement in OBP or wRC+, which can also be seen in the table below:

2022 to 2023 Guardians BB & K Data

Despite the 0.05 improvement in BB/K ratio (which actually ranks 5th in the Majors as of Thursday), the Guardians are down 14 points in OBP and 19 points in wRC+ from 2022. That is not necessarily a recipe for offensive or overall success.

So why is BABIP so important when looking at the Guardians’ offensive struggles this season?

Well, it’s significant because the Guardians have not been a team over the past two years who have hit the ball consistently hard or with much power.

When taking a look at their exit velocity, barrel, and hard-hit rate data, it is easy to notice that 2023’s numbers look very similar to what the Guardians produced in those categories a season ago.

2022 to 2023 Guardians Statcast Data

Granted, the max exit velocity on batted balls is significantly down by 4.2 MPH. However, the other differences in average exit velocity, launch angle, barrel rate, and hard-hit rate are honestly insignificant, even if they are slight declines from a season ago (with the exception of average exit velocity which is almost a tick up).

The Guardians are still doing the same thing they did a season ago in terms of plate approach and batted-ball quality. It’s just that they’re finding fewer balls finding holes for base hits in 2023, which is demonstrated in the regression in BABIP.

That wasn’t necessarily to be expected with the rule changes, but it’s been a trend so far for this underachieving Guardians offense through the first two months of play.


Who Have Been the Main Culprits?


When it comes to Guardians hitters leading the pack on a hitting end, it’s not surprising to see hitters like José Ramírez and Steven Kwan sit at the top of most major metrics.

What is interesting to note is that the Guardians hitters who have shown the best plate approach in terms of walks and strikeouts have actually produced the best numbers, typically, on a wOBA basis this year. That said, low BABIP marks for those high BB/K ratio hitters have also seemed to suppress their wOBA numbers from being more impressive after the first two months of play, as evidenced in the following table:

2023 Guardians Hitters-BB, K, BABIP, ISO, wOBA

Ramirez and Kwan are both posting BB/K ratios of 1.00 or higher, and Bell and Straw are both posting ratios over 0.50, which is pretty solid.

However, only Ramirez is posting a wOBA over the .310 league average from that group. That demonstrates how Straw, Bell, and Kwan have been affected by BABIP regression to start out this season.

The only other hitter who has been above league average on a wOBA end this season so far has been Josh Naylor, who is posting a .315 mark in 184 plate appearances. However, Naylor benefits from a team-high .192 ISO, and he has been a streaky hitter who has been on a tear in his past few games, including yesterday in Baltimore.

While his ISO is the best mark of Guardians hitters this season (including Ramirez), it still has only helped him be a barely above-league-average hitter thus far.

Furthermore, when it comes to Guardians hitters who have lackluster plate discipline, their free-swinging approaches, combined with lackluster BABIP numbers have contributed to porous performances at the plate. This includes Andrés Giménez (.289 wOBA), Amed Rosario (.268 wOBA), and Oscar Gonzalez (.218 wOBA).

All three hitters were expected to not just be mainstays in the Guardians lineup this year, but also be contributors on a fantasy end as well. Unfortunately, Gimenez and Rosario have struggled to find consistency, and Gonzalez is currently in Triple-A after only 75 plate appearances this season.

Now let’s take a look at what those hitters have produced on a batted-ball end this year, and what their exit velocity, hard-hit, and barrel rates look like (and how that translates on an xwOBA end):

2023 Guardians Individual Hitters-Statcast

Now, xwOBA and Statcast metrics paint a positive outlook for some Guardians hitters.

Rosario, Bell, Naylor, Ramirez, and Gabriel Arias are all posting solid hard-hit rates this season. Consequently, their xwOBA marks are much higher than what wOBA is demonstrating through roughly two months of play. That is a good sign that positive regression could be coming soon for that group of Guardians hitters (and perhaps the lineup as a whole).

On the other hand, it becomes a little worrisome with hitters like Kwan and Gimenez, who are not producing much hard contact at all.

Kwan’s xwOBA is higher than his current wOBA, which is a positive sign that he could be on the upswing offensively. Even then though, he’s just barely above league average even with some batted-ball regression, and his hitter performance PLV rolling chart this season is not quite as impressive as his one from a season ago.

In 2022, Kwan’s runs added per 100 pitches percentiles were regularly hovering between the 75th and 90th range. This season? That chart has been mostly below the MLB average, which is disappointing to see from a player who finished third in last year’s American League Rookie of the Year race.

As for Gimenez, his case is a lot more dire.

Not only is his BB/K ratio low at 0.24, but he also possesses the lowest average exit velocity on the team, as well as the second-lowest hard-hit rate (only Straw is lower). It’s one thing to be free-swinging. However, not having any pop either is not going to produce a lot of future success.

Furthermore, Gimenez’s decision value and hitter performance PLV rolling charts don’t offer much hope that he’s trending in the right direction anytime soon.

While Guardians fans and fantasy managers who roster Ramirez, Rosario, Bell, and Naylor should still be optimistic about those four hitters going forward, Kwan and Gimenez may be in the opposite camp, with Gimenez really being in worrisome territory right now with his outlook beyond 2023.

And that is sad to see considering his breakout last season earned him a spot in the Midsummer Classic.


Final Thoughts


The Guardians continue to be one of the better teams in the league at making contact and putting the ball in play. As of Thursday, they currently rank fourth in baseball in contact rate with a 79.4 percent mark, and they have the sixth-lowest swinging strike rate in baseball at 10 percent.

That said, they do have the third-highest O-Swing percentage in baseball at 34.6 percent.

So while they are good at making contact, the club’s over-eager approach hasn’t necessarily led to a lot of “ideal” swings, which further contributes to their lackluster BABIP numbers to begin the season.

When looking at Guardians hitters on an individual basis this year, only four hitters are below the league average O-Swing percentage of 31.5 percent. Those hitters are Kwan, Straw, Tyler Freeman, and Ramirez (though Josh Bell is only 2 percent away).

2023 Guardians Swing and Contact Rates

In an interview with Zack Meisel of the Athletic on May 10th, hitting coach Chris Valaika did mention that the lineup still consists of many young hitters. Even though they got a lot of experience last season, Valaika mentioned the group is still taking their lumps and learning how to make adjustments.

As youthful as we were last year, having 500 to 600 at-bats in the big leagues doesn’t make you a veteran right away. So we’re taking some of those lumps and having to make adjustments on the fly. I think this is, in the long run, going to be a good thing for us. We’re going to learn from it and be able to come out the other side.

“As Guardians’ offensive funk lingers, no hitter is immune and the questions mount” by Zack Meisel; The Athletic

Over the past three games (two against the Orioles and one against the Twins), the Guardians have scored 23 runs, which shows that their offense is starting to heat up as baseball starts the month of June.

Last season, June was the month where things turned around offensively for Cleveland, especially for Gimenez, who was the Guardians’ best overall hitter in June of 2022.

2022 Guardians Hitters-June Splits


Unfortunately, the team is only 1-2 over that three-game stretch, which demonstrates that other issues persist beyond the Guardians’ hitting woes. The bullpen is certainly not trending in the right direction, especially after blowing a three-run lead against the division-leading Minnesota Twins on Thursday.

That said, it will be interesting to see if the Guardians’ BABIP and overall hitting issues will improve as the weather heats up in June. It did a season ago, and for fantasy managers who roster hitters like Rosario and Gimenez, last June could be a sign of hope that better days are ahead for those two, and Guardians hitters as a whole.

The hitting will need to turn around quickly though, especially in a tough month where they face foes like the Twins, Red Sox, Astros, Padres, Diamondbacks, and Brewers, who all still have playoff aspirations.

If the hitting stagnates, the Guardians could not only find themselves out of the postseason race by the Fourth of July, even in a weak AL Central division but could also find themselves big-time sellers at the Trade Deadline.


Graphic adapted by Aaron Polcare (@bearydoesgfx on Twitter)

Kevin O'Brien

Kevin O'Brien is a high school educator and baseball blogger based in the Kansas City metro area. In addition to writing for Pitcher List, he writes about the Kansas City Royals at his own blog, the Royals Reporter, which can be found at royalsreporter.com.

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