The Cleveland Guardians entered Tuesday one game ahead of the Minnesota Twins atop of the American League Central. It wasn't supposed to be like this. Back in the spring, a third-place finish was a commonplace projection for the Guardians, who are as prone to winter hibernation as bears. Yet the Guardians have had at least a share of first place dating back to Aug. 9, and it seems reasonable to expect them to continue to be in the running until the season ends.
To some extent, these Guardians are following a tried-and-true formula for Cleveland baseball. Superstar third baseman José Ramírez is having another outstanding season, one that should earn him Most Valuable Player Award consideration for the sixth time in seven seasons. The Guardians are renowned for their ability to identify and develop pitching, especially starters, and lo and behold: they entered the weekend as one of just three AL teams who had three pitchers with 20-plus starts and 110 or better ERA+ thanks to the work of Shane Bieber, Cal Quantrill, and Triston McKenzie.
These Guardians aren't simply playing the hits, however. Below, we've highlighted three other factors that have Cleveland thinking about postseason baseball.
1. Giménez's ascent and other surprises
For as good as Ramírez has been this season, you can make an argument that he has not been the Guardians' best-performing infielder. That distinction may instead belong to second baseman Andrés Giménez, who has contributed an estimated half win more this season, according to the calculations at Baseball Reference.
The Guardians netted Giménez as part of the Francisco Lindor trade, a deal we panned at the time because of how Cleveland's owner undercut the front office's leverage. We wrote at the time that Giménez had a good glove, but we expressed skepticism that his bat would allow him to reach star levels. Well, so much for that.
Giménez has rebounded from a putrid season at the plate in 2021 to bat .299/.367/.480 (143 OPS+) in his first 119 contests this year. He's hitting the ball harder and at an optimized angle more often this season than last, though he remains below-average in both respects. He's buoyed his line in part by notching a combined 16 infield and bunt hits, according to FanGraphs, including this gift from above:
Giménez isn't the only youngster worth highlighting in the Guardians lineup. They've received above-average production from two largely unsung rookie outfielders, in Steven Kwan (our preseason breakout pick for the Guardians) and Óscar González. Kwan almost never swings and misses, while González swings consistently and has made a habit out of yanking pitches on the outer corner to left field.
Giménez and Kwan, in particular, have also contributed in another area that helps to explain Cleveland's success this season.
2. Top-notch defense
As mentioned above, Giménez was known for his defense. He's lived up to the billing in that respect, amassing 14 Outs Above Average so far this season. That ties him for being the 13th most valuable individual defender in the majors, according to Statcast.
Giménez isn't the only good glove in Cleveland's lineup. The Guardians have three others (Kwan, Myles Straw, and Owen Miller) in the top 40 for OAA. As a team, they rank fourth in the majors and second in the AL, behind only the Houston Astros.
Public-facing defensive metrics are notoriously unreliable, making it more smart than not to question their precision. Still, there's tangible evidence supporting the notion that the Guardians are good with the leather: they're tied for the fourth-lowest batting average on balls in play against.
Of course, some of the credit for that statistic is owed to the Guardians' pitchers -- the big three mentioned in the introduction, and their largely anonymous bullpen.
3. Quality relief
We'll close the same way the Guardians do most nights: by turning to their bullpen, which ranks eighth in ERA. They're also tied for the fifth-fewest meltdowns, a FanGraphs measure that gauges how often a bullpen blows a game using win probability. In other words, their relievers rarely cost them in a big way.
Closer Emmanuel Clase is the face of the unit. He has an electric cutter and he's struck out 52 more batters than he's walked in 56 innings. Clase for his career now has a 1.38 ERA (311 ERA+) in 149 big-league innings. You can understand why, despite an 80-game PED-related suspension in 2020, the Guardians rushed to lock him into a long-term extension that could keep him in town through the 2028 season.
Here's how Clase lines up with the Guardians' eight most-used relievers this season:
Clase's dominance isn't a new or surprising development, but the Guardians have received ample mileage from unexpected sources. Converted starters Eli Morgan and Sam Hentges have established themselves as worthwhile relievers (though Morgan, a changeup artist, has an inflated ERA due to his home-run proneness). Former Rule 5 draft pick Trevor Stephan and minor-league free-agent signing Enyel De Los Santos have offered a substantive return on the Guardians' meager investments in them. Even Nick Sandlin has overcome a spotty strikeout-to-walk ratio to post a shiny ERA.
Then there's James Karinchak, who continues to author an unusual career arc. He was dominant in 2020 and during the first half of 2021, but he fell apart in the second half last year, leading some analysts to wonder how much the sticky stuff crackdown impacted his game. Karinchak's spin rates have rebounded this season, and in his first 25 innings this season he's back to striking out 41 percent of the batters he's faced.
Add it all together, and the Guardians have had a deep, productive bullpen this season. It may not be what anyone anticipated in the spring, but that's the norm in Cleveland.