If you picked the Cleveland Guardians to win the AL Central back before the 2022 season began, congratulations. You probably just won a lot of money.
It would be an understatement to say the Guardians weren’t the division favorites back in April. Ahead of the season, The Athletic asked over 30 staff members to make predictions for the upcoming year of baseball. Most picked the White Sox to win the Central. A handful chose the Tigers, while a few selected the Twins. None thought Cleveland would win the division crown.
The MLB teams at Sports Illustrated, The Ringer, CBS Sports, and USA Today completed similar exercises. Not a single writer picked the Guardians to win the AL Central – no one even picked them to make the postseason.
Yet here we are, as the season winds down, and Cleveland has clinched the division title with over a week to spare. No other division winner exceeded expectations quite like the Guardians. No other playoff team is as much of a surprise. So how did Cleveland get here? It’s time to take a closer look.
Guardians Breakout Stars
José Ramírez and Shane Bieber are the core of the Cleveland Guardians. That much was true heading into the season and has remained true throughout. But the reason the Guardians were able to outperform all preseason expectations is because of the contributions they got from so many other players.
Andrés Giménez. Steven Kwan. Emmanuel Clase. Triston McKenzie. Josh Naylor. Oscar Gonzalez. Trevor Stephan. Sam Hentges. James Karinchak. The list goes on.
Giménez broke out as a star in his first full major league season, hitting .303 with a 145 wRC+ while playing terrific defense up the middle of the infield. Kwan has been similarly fantastic, hitting .298 with a 124 wRC+. He has a strong glove in left field too. These two young players transforming from top prospects into stars is the number one factor that turned Cleveland from a middling ball club into a contender.
Other position players, such as Naylor and Gonzalez, have also significantly outperformed expectations and proven to be solid contributors alongside Ramírez, Giménez, and Kwan in the Guardians lineup.
On the pitching side of things, Cleveland has had an equal number of surprise contributors. Not only has Emmanuel Clase continued to prove himself as one of the very best relievers in baseball, but Trevor Stephan, Sam Hentges, and James Karinchak have all broken out as bullpen studs.
Finally, there is the Triston McKenzie of it all. The former top pitching prospect built off of a mediocre rookie season in 2021 and became a perfect number two starter to slot in behind Bieber. He ranks sixth in the American League in innings pitched this season and ninth in ERA. The Guardians are 18-10 in his starts.
With Ramírez and Bieber leading the charge and so many young contributors surrounding them, Cleveland has become a much better team than most anyone thought they would be.
Collapse All Around Them
While the Guardians have a team full of talented players, they have also benefitted tremendously from the failures of those around them.
Many expected the Tigers to emerge from their rebuild as surprise contenders this season. Instead, they have been one of the absolute worst teams in baseball. The Royals weren’t expected to do much, but they could have been a .500 team if everything broke right. Instead, they’re just a couple games ahead of the Tigers in the basement of the American League.
Then there are the White Sox and the Twins. The White Sox were the heavy favorite for the division crown heading into the season, while the Twins were in a good position to give them some trouble. Now, both teams sit below .500.
Chicago has been ravaged by injuries and several of their most important players have severely underperformed. The Twins have been similarly plagued with injuries, but their biggest flaw is in the rotation. Frankly, their front office failed to put together a postseason-caliber pitching staff.
As the Tigers and Royals have floundered and the White Sox and Twins have disappointed, the Guardians have taken advantage. Against the AL Central, Cleveland is 43-27 (.614). Against all other opponents, they are 43-40 (.518).
A September to Remember
A few months into the season, it was already apparent that Cleveland was going to be a far better team than expected. Even so, the AL Central remained a three-team race five months into the season. On September 8, the Guardians held a 1.5-game lead over both the Twins and the White Sox for the division crown.
Since then, however, Cleveland has gone on an incredible run to steal the division away from the preseason favorites. In their past eighteen games, they have lost just twice. Twice.
That’s a 16-2 record, or a 144-win pace over a full season. They have scored 101 runs, more than any team in baseball, and given up just 64. They clinched the division with ten days left in the regular season. If they can keep up this hot streak, the Guardians will ride a wave of momentum into the first round of the postseason.
Over the course of the 2022 season, Cleveland has gone from an afterthought, to a pleasant surprise to a serious contender. How far will their momentum take them? It’s hard to say. But no matter what happens from here on out, it’s impossible to deny that the Guardians have surpassed all expectations – and more.