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Fair or Foul — Where will the Guardians be come the Summer?

Making predictions on where the Guardians will stand when June and the Summer weather rolls in

Welcome all to the first edition of Fair or Foul, an article that I will do once every other month that will be full of predictions about the Guardos as we move forward in the season. This time, I will take a look at an aspect of every position group (starters, relievers, infielders, outfielders, hot dog venders, etc.) and make a prediction on what it will look like or where a player will be when the first of June rolls around.

We’re 16 games into the Guardians season, and there are some good trends, some bad trends, and some flat out weird trends that will leave you thinking you’ve never watched baseball before. That’s just another day being a Guardians fan though. The bullpen has been great, but are they due to regress? The starting pitching has been bad — is there light at the end of the tunnel? Is Estevan Florial going to save the outfield? Okay, I’ll pump the brakes. With that being said, let’s dive into some fun takes, and come June, we’ll decide if they were fair or foul.


The Guardians bullpen will carry this team to first place in the Central going into June

The Cleveland Guardians bullpen has been nothing short of phenomenal 15 games into the season. I touched on this group a couple weeks ago, and they continue to trend upward as a trustable, very good unit. A group made up of a dozen different stories, some of this bunch was thrown together last second and have been the brightest spots of the season.

Cade Smith was an undrafted free agent in 2020, and he’s come in this season and wowed out of the gate. When he’s been hit, it’s been hit hard, but it’s the “when” factor here that’s made him so hard to get to for batters. Concerns that a lot of the loud contact will eventually lead to runs (12 of the 18 balls put in play against Smith have come off the bat at 100+ miles per hour) came to fruition against Boston, snapping his 9.1 inning scoreless streak, but Smith is running a 40.5% whiff rate, a top 2% mark in all of baseball, to go with his 34.1% strikeout rate. Smith’s fastball currently sits atop the run value leaderboards among any pitch thrown by relievers this season at +5. Run value is the run impact of an event situationally based on the runners on base, outs, and ball and strike count, and his fastball is aces right now. Nasty stuff. Hopefully the loud contact starts to get quieter for him, but the promise is more than enough to buy into.

Then there’s Hunter Gaddis. Gaddis threw a 99.5 mph fastball that dotted the outside corner against Aaron Judge on Sunday, and my jaw hit the floor.

He then proceeded to make the former MVP and AL single season home run record holder look overmatched, striking out Judge on four pitches. The single biggest surprise of this bullpen has undoubtedly been Gaddis. He is running a 37.9% strikeout rate while not allowing a hit since his April 1st outing against Seattle, and he’s still not fully worked in his changeup as much as he can consistently.

Tyler Beede has been called upon to get some big outs in big spots already though he likely will fall into more of a middle leverage type of arm, and Eli Morgan has responded well to his brutal outings to start the season with five consecutive strong appearances. Then there’s the Sandman. Nick Sandlin is going to be a high leverage machine this season, and despite his hiccup against the Yankees in game one of the double header, he had been incredibly strong up to that point. Sandlin is the king of weak contact, and his newly-found split-finger changeup has only bolstered that, generating a ton of chases from batters thus far.

Emmanuel Clase has been great thus far despite still not being able to shake his demons against the Yankees, though he can’t pitch and play right field at the same time. Clase is beginning to look like the Clase of old. As it gets warmer, the spin rate on his cutter is approaching those upper 2600 marks, pushing 2700 where he used to sit during his best days. Clase is also striking out 26.1% of batters he faces, a much more respectable number than his 21.2% last season. The next step for Clase is staying out of the heart of the zone more with his slider. Right now, his slider is getting hit at a career worst 91.4 mph average exit velocity, and his rate of sliders that are finding the heart of the plate per baseballsavant’s attack zones (are we calling this the “heart” rate?) is at a career high 32.3%. For context, he’s never had a season where it’s been higher than 26%. I anticipate Clase figuring out his location issues as this, again, is a similar issue that he’s dealt with early on in each of the past two seasons.

This bullpen is the glue of the team right now, and they’ve had to be. The Boston blow-up was less of a regression to norm and more of just how overworked this unit has been early on, but for the most part, they’ve answered the call. Should they continue to excel at the rate they have been, I don’t see a team in the AL Central that can comfortably pass the Guardians rolling into June. With Sam Hentges not being available to start the season and Trevor Stephan being out for the entirety of the year, it was going to be about who would step up and help the starting rotation, and the bullpen on the whole has stepped up. However, now, it’s about who will step up in the starting rotation with all of its injuries to preserve these bullpen arms.

Starting Rotation

Triston McKenzie will be shut down

From a full analytical breakdown to a full doom post, and unfortunately, I don’t think this is much of a bold prediction. Triston McKenzie is giving every Guardians fan déjà vu from what we went through with Shane Bieber. Following Sticks’ sprained UCL last season, he opted to rehab his injury rather than surgery, similar to Bieber. From there, we saw Bieber try and find ways to pitch without pain, heavily hampering his stuff and velocity, ultimately making his effectiveness a shell of what it once was.

With Triston, he’s just not in a good place right now, with both his stuff and mechanics, and it’s squarely embodied by his four-seam fastball. His fastball velocity this season is down under 91 mph after averaging over 92 every season prior, and his spin rate on his heater is well under 2200 RPMs after never being below 2250 for an entire season. Stop me if you’ve heard this before. With his fastball being so heavily relied upon (63.3% usage in ‘23), he’s not been able to use it to set up his curve and slider the same way this season, and it’s gotten him hit very hard.

Right now, the league’s xwOBA against Triston’s fastball is .474 per Statcast, the third worst of any pitcher in baseball. His whiff rate on his fastball has gone from 19.6% in 2022 to 8.3% this season. It’s not that he’s been bad, it’s that something is wrong. Every pitch looks like he’s fighting himself for the correct delivery. He should not be pitching right now, and it’s only a matter of time until they shut him down and have him get surgery.


Gabriel Arias becomes the solidified everyday starter at shortstop

As I’m typing this, Arias just drove in another run in Boston with an RBI double. With more consistent playing time, he’s starting to figure it out at the plate, and it’s all in the hands. His hands are much more relaxed this year versus last, and it’s allowed Arias to be more compact in his load, and it’s improved his bat speed.

Early returns are exactly that, and small sample sizes can be skewed rather easily by one result, but Arias’ immediate improvements are showing exactly why he had been seen as the future shortstop of this club. As it stands now, Arias’ wRC+ is up 84 points from last season at 158, and his sweet spot rate is up from 31.0% in 2023 to 42.9% this season, and his 90th percentile exit velocity is up much closer to league average this season.

For those who don’t know, the sweet spot is broken down to batted balls hit between 8 and 32 degrees of launch. This season, batted balls hit within that threshold have amounted to a batting average of .575 with a wOBA of .672. The barrel rate per batted ball events comes in at a staggering 18.4%. For comparison, batted balls hit at a launch angle of less than 8 degrees of launch average out to a .244 batting average, .230 wOBA, and 0% barrel per BBE% while batted balls hit with over 32 degrees of launch end up at an .085 average, .126 wOBA, and 4.1 barrel per BBE%. So yeah, that sweet spot is important to find as a hitter, and Arias has been much more proficient in doing so.

Couple him hitting the ball harder with more quality spray, and the results are falling into place for him. his .313 batting average is high considering his historic strikeout profile, and I don’t think he ever becomes a high walk rate guy either, so seeing his batted ball profile mold into shape thus far is extremely promising, and his power penchant coupled with his plus-plus arm makes him a more formidable starting shortstop than Brayan Rocchio moving into the Summer.


We still won’t have any real answers in right field

Color me a pessimist, but I do not anticipate the recent good play of Estevan Florial to stabilize into any kind of normal play. I don’t really anticipate him becoming something he’s never been which is an everyday outfielder, and that’s perfectly fine. I also don’t believe our answer is on the roster for that spot. Between the elongated slumps between Brennan, Florial, and Laureano and overall poor batted ball data from all three of them that we’ve seen from them both this season already and in the past year, it’s going to continue to be the weaker part of this lineup.

Will we see new faces? Daniel Schneemann and Petey Halpin have been off to great starts this season while Johnathan Rodriguez has been on the cusp since last season, so it’s never out of the question for them to rotate in a fresh face out there.

Well, that’s that! This isn’t anything too bold, but it’s also early in the season. Even still, I’m very excited to revisit this in June and deliver a verdict of whether my prediction was fair or foul. I have a feeling when we do this again in June, the bolder predictions will flow in freer largely because we’ll have a clearer picture of what this team’s identity is.