What is Behind the Cleveland Guardians’ Fast Start to 2024?

The Cleveland Guardians are atop the AL Central thanks to a hot stretch of play kicking off the year. What's behind the strong start?

CLEVELAND, OHIO - APRIL 20: Outfielders Ramón Laureano #10, Steven Kwan #38, and Tyler Freeman #2 of the Cleveland Guardians celebrate after the Guardians defeated the Oakland Athletics at Progressive Field on April 20, 2024, in Cleveland, Ohio. The Guardians defeated the Athletics 6-3. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Opening up the 2024 MLB season, the American League Central felt like one of the divisions that’d be wide open. There’s no team clearly above the rest. Last year, the Cleveland Guardians were the division champs and they’ve been tabbed as the favorites to repeat mostly because, well, somebody has to finish first.

The White Sox are stuck in the basement and aren’t going anywhere. However, the Twins, Tigers and Royals represent three wild cards that have the ability to play spoiler. But so far, everything’s coming up Guardians.

That’s not to say that the Royals aren’t to be taken seriously, though. They have held their own to kick off the new year and are just three games back of Cleveland entering Monday’s action.

We’re here to talk about the Guardians, though, who own the best record in all of baseball. A lot of things have been clicking for them out of the gates. The offense has been firing on all cylinders and their bullpen is … suddenly the best in baseball? Let’s take a closer look at what’s going right for them to start the season.

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What’s Behind the Guardians’ Fast Start in 2024?

Under-the-Radar Lineup Production

Steven Kwan has been great atop the lineup for the Guardians, he is hitting .358/.378/.474 with a cool .851 OPS and 151 OPS+, suggesting he’s 51% above league-average at the plate. He joins the likes of Josh Naylor and Andres Gimenez as Cleveland’s best hitters so far.

Naylor, 27, has hit well in each of the past two seasons but he seems primed to take his game to the next level. Through 21 games this year, he’s got six home runs and 20 RBI with a 1.017 OPS and shockingly high 196 OPS+. That may not be sustainable, but he’s already showing some All-Star-caliber stuff.

Gimenez, 25, has already been an All-Star and has two Gold Gloves to his name. His major offensive breakout came in 2022 (.297 AVG, 69 RBI, 141 OPS+) but he’s been finding ways to get on base – leading the majors in hit by pitches – and has been highly productive, even if he’s going through a power outage at the moment.

There are also some lesser-known contributors that are stepping up, though. Tyler Freeman and Estevan Florial are both off to hot starts while oft-used bench pieces like Gabriel Arias and David Fry have been swinging hot sticks as well.

What makes this run all the more impressive is the fact that Jose Ramirez, the team’s MVP and face of the franchise, has yet to show up offensively. The five-time All-Star has just a .239 average and .655 OPS through 21 games. Once he gets going, it’ll be a massive boost for the Guardians’ lineup, so it’s nice to see them staying afloat without his production.

Best Bullpen in Baseball

The Guardians’ bullpen has been, in a word, dominant. The group is second in the AL in ERA, first in the AL and second in the league in fWAR and best in baseball in FIP. They are striking out a ton of batters, aren’t walking many and are the best in baseball at limiting home runs.

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Emmanuel Clase is once again the leader of the ‘pen. He’s got 11 appearances and has six saves with a smooth 0.82 ERA. His strikeout numbers are down a bit, but it doesn’t matter if he continues to be a run-prevention machine.

Behind him, though? There’s a lot of unheralded names that are turning themselves into positive contributors.

Hunter Gaddis, a starting pitching prospect who’s trying his hand as a reliever, has 11 scoreless appearances under his belt so far. He’s struck out 15 batters in 10.2 innings while walking just three. He’s been an oft-used weapon for Cleveland.

Ditto for a pair of 27-year olds in Tim Herrin and Nick Sandlin. Herrin, a southpaw, has a 0.79 ERA in 11 outings, striking out 11 and walking five through 11.1 innings. Hitters have managed a batting average of just .079 off of him to kick off the year.

Sandlin, a right-hander, has a 1.69 ERA with 15 punchouts and three walks through 10.2 innings and 12 outings. Similarly to Herrin, Sandlin has been unhittable. Opponents have hit just .132 against him this year, which is on par with the .174 career BAA he’s allowed.

Do They Have Enough in Their Rotation?

The two best starting pitching performances by a Guardians starter this year have both come from the same hurler: Shane Bieber. The pending free agent entered the year as a potential trade chip but a season-ending injury has hurt his value and the state of the Guardians’ roster.

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In his place, the club is going to have to roll with promising lefty Logan Allen and right-hander Tanner Bibee. The 25-year olds are both young and will be anchors in this rotation for years to come, but the 2024 season is going to be a test for both. Will their presences be enough to keep this group afloat? That remains to be seen.

Triston McKenzie is currently pitching through a torn ligament in his right elbow. He chose to go a rehab route instead of a surgery that’d take him out of action for the long run. In McKenzie’s four starts, he’s either been rock solid or hard to watch. He’s got two starts of five (or more) innings with one run or less given up. On the flip side, he has two outings of four (or less) innings with at least four runs allowed.

Behind McKenzie, it gets even more concerning. The final two spots in the Guardians’ rotation are made up of 37-year-old Carlos Carrasco and 32-year-old journeyman Ben Lively.

Carrasco has performed admirably through four starts, owning the best ERA and ERA+ of the bunch, but who knows how long he’ll be able to keep this up? He’s nearing the end of a long, successful career and while it’s a heartwarming story to see him return to where it all started, he shouldn’t be counted on. The last time he was an above-average pitcher was all the way back in 2020.

Unless prospect Xzavion Curry, who has one five scoreless-inning start under his belt this year, can emerge as a legitimate rotation candidate, this is a Guardians club in need of another starter.

Come the deadline, a multitude of pitchers could be had as rental acquisitions. Look for the likes of Ross Stripling, Alex Wood, Wade Miley or Jack Flaherty to be names of interest for the Guardians.

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