HomeTrending MLB NewsThe Guardians Have Been Red Hot in Steven Kwan’s Absence

The Guardians Have Been Red Hot in Steven Kwan’s Absence

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David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

When Steven Kwan left the Guardians’ May 4 victory after straining his left hamstring, the Guardians owned the American League’s second-best record (21-12) as well as a 1.5-game lead in the AL Central. While Kwan was their most productive hitter at the time, they’ve thrived in his absence, going 15-6 thanks in part to a nine-game winning streak that ended at the hands of the Rockies on Monday. All of that has netted them the league’s second-best record (36-18)… and a 2.5-game lead in the Central. Baseball is a funny game sometimes.

The Guardians haven’t gained as much ground as you might expect given that the Royals ran off an eight-game winning streak that began on the same day as Cleveland’s streak and have gone 14-7 in Kwan’s absence; meanwhile, the Yankees have gone 15-5 to supplant the Orioles (12-7) as the team with the league’s best record. Still, the streak did create some daylight between the Guardians and the Twins, who were tied for second in the division with the Royals but have since gone 10-11 to fall to 6.5 games back.

A soft schedule probably didn’t hurt the Guardians, either. After winning the rubber game of their three-game series with the Angels sans Kwan, they took two of three from the Tigers, lost three of four to the White Sox (oops), then took two of three from the Rangers before sweeping consecutive three-game series from the Twins, Mets, and Angels. Collectively those teams have a weighted winning percentage of .418, with the Twins (.547 via a 29-24 record) the only ones at or above .500.

Kwan’s injury is a convenient inflection point for analysis. If it’s still somewhat arbitrary, it does offer a window into the Guardians’ overall performance, as well as how they’ve maintained a .714 winning percentage without him.

For starters, a quick look shows that the offense has maintained its productivity, cranking out an even five runs per game, while the run prevention has improved slightly:

Guardians Before and After Steven Kwan’s Injury

SplitWLWin%RS/GRA/GPythW%BaseRuns RS/GBaseruns RA/GBaseW%
Through May 42112.6364.973.76.625
Since May 5156.7145.003.52.656

Overall, the Guardians are second in the AL in scoring and third in run prevention. In both stretches, they’ve outplayed their Pythagenpat-projected winning percentages, doing so over the more recent one in part because they’ve gone 5-1 in one-run games, compared to 5-5 prior; that said, they’ve also gone 5-0 in games decided by five or more runs lately, compared to 5-4 in the games before the injury. While I don’t have the relevant splits by date, what’s even more interesting, as hinted at in the table, is the extent to which they’ve significantly outdone their BaseRuns-projected scoring and run prevention rates — their expected runs based on hits, walks and the various types of outs. In fact, their 0.62 runs per game gap between their actual and projected scoring is the largest of the 30 teams, as is their -0.47 runs per game gap between actual and projected run prevention. So while they’re two wins ahead of their Pythagenpat-projected record (tied for third in the majors), they’re a honking eight wins ahead of their BaseRuns-projected record, which not only leads the majors but is double the four-win gap of the second-ranked Rays.

All of that points to strong situational work by the Guardians, with or without Kwan, and the closer we look, the more it’s apparent that the team has stepped up during the 26-year-old left fielder’s absence. Here’s a look at the offense, which has been off the charts in that regard:

Guardians Offense Situational wRC+ Splits

SplitEmptyOnRISPOverall
Through May 494116132104
Since May 571152172103

That’s pretty incredible! The team has missed Kwan’s table-setting ability in the form of his .407 on-base percentage, though as someone pointed out to me — I can’t recall if it was in the comments, a chat, or on Twitter, sorry — he’s been pretty ineffective when leading off games (which he had done for 31 of the team’s 32 before injury), hitting .226/.250/.323 (64 wRC+) in the first inning. With him out, the Guardians offense has been the AL’s least effective with nobody on base, hitting .195/.269/.315, but with men on base, they’re batting .275/.364/.533 for the league’s second-best wRC+, while with men in scoring position, they’re raking at a .312/.413/.567 clip, producing the majors’ top wRC+ by 11 points. Looking back, those lofty performances are consistent with the pattern of the Guardians’ offense while Kwan was available, but taken to a greater degree — and yet their overall production is about the same.

One big driver of the offense in Kwan’s absence has been a rampage by José Ramírez. He’s hitting .323/.389/.768 (223 wRC+) with 10 homers in the 21 games since the injury, a heater that’s been overshadowed by those of Aaron Judge (320 wRC+) and Kyle Tucker (229 wRC+) within the same span. That said, Ramírez doesn’t even own the highest wRC+ on his own team over that stretch, a distinction that belongs to David Fry, who has hit .366/.527/.756 (255 wRC+) since Kwan’s injury, albeit in 55 plate appearances to Ramírez’s 90. Fry, a superutilityman of sorts, has made seven starts in left field during Kwan’s absence, as well as three at first base and two behind the plate, and he’s hitting an absurdly hot .344/.488/.591 (204 wRC+) in 123 PA overall while making starts at five positions (12 at catcher, 10 apiece in left and at DH, eight at first and three at third). Colleague Leo Morgenstern wrote about him here, pointing out that he leads the team in WAR at both catcher and DH and is third with 1.6 WAR overall.

Still, only two other players have produced a 100 wRC+ or better in Kwan’s absence, namely Andrés Giménez (113 wRC+) and Tyler Freeman (131 wRC+). What’s more, the two biggest beneficiaries in terms of playing time since the injury, Kyle Manzardo and Estevan Florial, have barely hit a lick. The 23-year-old Manzardo, a former Top 100 prospect who was called up to take Kwan’s roster spot and serve as the primary designated hitter, has hit just .200/.245/.320 (62 WRC+) while striking out 30.2% of the time and walking just 3.8%. His 28.7% chase rate and 11.8% swinging strike rate are both well beyond his numbers at Triple-A Columbus, and it’s not like he’s hit the ball hard but gotten unlucky given his .256 xSLG. It isn’t difficult to imagine that he’d have received a return ticket to Columbus already if the team weren’t winning. The 26-year-old Florial, who was getting the plurality of the DH work before Kwan went down and has taken a team-high nine starts in left field since, has hit for just a 52 wRC+ in Kwan’s absence and an 82 wRC+ (.173/.263/.367) overall while striking out 36.9% of the time.

Indeed, if the past three-plus weeks has told the Guardians anything it’s that the league-average-ish performances of Florial and Will Brennan over the season’s first six weeks were mirages. Without Kwan, this is a team with a weak offensive outfield, with Freeman — whose three-hit, two-double performance on Monday boosted his line to .228/.324/.370 (103 wRC+) — and the limited contributions from Fry the only average-or-better performances amid all the options. Cleveland’s only other full-time player with a wRC+ of 100 or better is Josh Naylor, who’s been slumping lately but hitting .229/.315/.479 (119 wRC+) with 13 homers overall.

As for the pitching staff, it has performed better situationally with men on base and in scoring position than with the bases empty both before Kwan’s injury and since, though the pattern isn’t quite as neat as that of the offense:

Guardians Pitching Situational wRC+ Splits

SplitEmptyOnRISPOverall
Through May 4122729098
Since May 5107869698

Guardians starters actually have the league’s third-worst FIP since Kwan’s injury (4.85) but the fourth-best ERA (3.69), and overall, both their 3.98 ERA (ninth) and 4.52 FIP (13th) are rather unexceptional. To be fair, they received just two starts from ace Shane Bieber before he underwent Tommy John surgery in April, but his 0.8 WAR is somehow still tied for the team lead among the starters. Tanner Bibee (3.99 ERA, 3.81 FIP, 0.8 WAR) has been reasonably effective — more so over his last four starts — while the well-traveled Ben Lively owns the rotation’s lowest ERA (2.80), second-lowest FIP (4.18), and the only other positive WAR (0.4). The rest of the bunch — regulars Logan Allen, Triston McKenzie, and the now-injured Carlos Carrasco, plus fill-in Xzavion Curry — has been replacement-level or worse.

What’s keeping the Guardians’ run prevention under control with or without Kwan is the majors’ best bullpen; both their 2.54 ERA and 2.69 FIP are the lowest by substantial margins. Neither closer Emmanuel Clase nor setup man Hunter Gaddis has allowed a run since Kwan went down, while setup man Cade Smith has allowed just one in 7.2 innings. Of their six relievers with at least 20 innings overall, five (righties Clase, Gaddis, Smith, and Nick Sandlin, plus lefty Tim Herrin) have ERAs of 2.19 or lower, with Clase (0.32 ) and Herrin (0.82) below 1.00. All six (including righty Scott Barlow) have FIPs of 3.26 or lower, with Clase (1.56) and Smith (1.25) below 2.00. Clase hasn’t allowed a homer in his 27.1 innings and has walked just 2% of hitters while converting 17 of 20 save opportunities; the Guardians won all three of the games in which he blew a save and are 26-2 when he comes out of the gate.

Particularly given that the Guardians were projected for a .496 winning percentage at the outset of the season — and that’s before losing their ace — all of this points to a team that has played well over its head thus far and has benefited from a soft schedule at a crucial time. The good news is that Kwan is on the mend, having begun a rehab assignment at High-A Lake County this weekend; he’ll move to Columbus on Tuesday and could be back in the majors by the weekend. The Guardians have done a great job of weathering his absence, and we’ll soon see if they can continue rolling once they get their leadoff hitter back.

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