Deep trouble: Punchless Guardians being 'tested' by inept offense that has team in worrisome slump
CLEVELAND (AP) — Terry Francona said the quiet part out loud.
After the Cleveland Guardians were shut out for the sixth time this season, Francona, the winningest manager in club history, was discussing White Sox pitcher Michael Kopech's tendency to give up home runs when Francona underscored one of his own team's biggest weaknesses.
“I know he’s given up a lot of home runs,” Francona said. “That's not something we do very well.”
If it were only that.
One of baseball's best stories last season, the Guardians have fallen on hard times with troubling signs a recovery might not be forthcoming.
Most of the mojo that led the game's youngest squad to a 92-70 record and an unexpected AL Central title in 2022 has disappeared.
Cleveland is ranked last or near last in virtually every offensive category, and the Guardians have dropped seven games under .500 for the first time since Aug. 25, 2015, on their way to an 81-80 finish.
“We’re all getting tested and I believe we’re tough enough to fight through this, and we’re going to find out because we are getting tested,” Francona said after the Guardians were blanked 6-0 by the White Sox on Wednesday. "All of us.”
A year ago, the Guardians maximized at-bats with a patient approach that helped offset an overall lack of offensive power. They ran the bases efficiently, applying pressure on teams with a relentlessness that's been in short supply so far in 2023.
Statistically speaking, Cleveland is abysmal by nearly every measure.
Out of MLB's 30 teams, the Guardians are last in runs (169), homers (30), and slugging percentage (.340). Broadened to include some of the game's trendier metrics, it's not any prettier as the Guardians are dead last in barrel rate, hard-hit rate and weighted on-base percentage.
The 30 homers in 49 games are the club's fewest since hitting 26 over the same span in 1991, when Cleveland went 57-105.
From top to bottom in the Guardians' lineup there are holes — some wider and deeper than others.
Leadoff hitter Steven Kwan, who set the tone for Cleveland as a rookie last season, seems to be having a sophomore slump. He's batting .254 — 44 points below his 2022 average — and not having the same impact at the plate while continuing to play at a Gold Glove level in left field.
Andrés Giménez and Amed Rosario have been in funks, though both have had positive moments of late. José Ramírez has been his usual solid self, but has yet to go on one of those tears where he carries the team.
Josh Bell, the team's biggest offseason pickup who was supposed to provide Cleveland's offense with some needed punch while protecting Ramírez, has been a major disappointment with just three homers.
And then there's Cleveland's catchers, Mike Zunino (.170) and Cam Gallagher (.098), who are batting a combined .145 with 63 strikeouts in 145 at-bats.
The offensive incompetence — Cleveland has scored three runs or fewer in 31 games — has further stressed a pitching staff that has held up pretty well, considering that starters Triston McKenzie and Aaron Civale have been on the injured list and Francona has had to count on rookies Logan Allen, Tanner Bibee and Hunter Gaddis.
The bullpen has been mostly solid, although Emmanuel Clase leads the majors in both saves (16) and blown saves (5), underscoring Cleveland's miniscule margin for error.
The Guardians have played 22 one-run games, going 9-13. They were 28-17 in one-run games last season.
"We need to clean up some things,” starter Cal Quantrill said following Wednesday's loss. “We need to run the bases better. We need to not walk leadoff hitters like I did today. We need to score when we have opportunities to score, and we need to make sure we’re giving ourselves a chance to hand it over to a very good 'pen with a lead.
“It’s the little things for us, and I don’t think we’ve done a very good job with them — myself included.”
There's plenty of blame to be shared for the sluggish start with players, coaches, Francona and Cleveland's front office all owning a portion of culpability.
If there is a silver lining, it's that Cleveland doesn't play in AL East, where they would already be trailing by 14 1/2 games.
A turnaround isn't out of the questions, but it better happen soon or the Guardians will be faced with bigger decisions.
In the meantime, Francona will lean on wisdom gained through experience.
"Work hard, pay attention to detail, all the things we’ve talked about since the first thing of spring training,” Francona said. “When it gets hard, that’s when you really find out. We’re going to have to dig deep.”
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