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Why are the Cleveland Guardians so good?
Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images

Why are the Cleveland Guardians so good?

Inside the success of MLB's most surprising team.

As the 2023 trade deadline approached, the Cleveland Guardians made several puzzling trades.

The Guardians, led then by future hall-of-fame manager Terry “Tito” Francona, sat just two games behind the division-leading Minnesota Twins and had a 53-54 record. They were less than a month removed from being in first place in the division and were on the Twins’ heels for the month of July. Thus, when the team and its fans learned that the front office traded away Aaron Civale, Amed Rosario, and Josh Bell, reactions both inside and outside the locker room ranged from head scratching to vocal displeasure. Not only did the front office send away the team’s best starting pitcher that season in Civale, one of the locker room leaders in Rosario, and switch hitting first baseman Bell, it failed to receive any immediate help to win the division. The return for those three was struggling pitcher Noah Syndergaard (who would be released by the end of August), Jean Segura (who was never placed on the roster — the Guardians just ate the last year of his contract), and prospects Kahlil Watson and Kyle Manzardo, neither of whom had ever appeared in a major league game.

The message sent by the front office was clear: The Guardians were punting on 2023 and that was that.

The reception among players on the team was so contentious that the day after the trades, General Manager Mike Chernoff and team President Chris Antonetti flew to meet the team on a road trip in Houston to discuss the trades. Standing in front of the remaining players immediately after getting no hits in a 3-2 loss, Antonetti offered his players a blunt assessment: “We are playing for the future.” On top of that, Antonetti stated, “Sometimes, we make decisions that aren’t easy. In fact, if you just look at the composition of our team right now, a lot of those guys are here because of some difficult decisions we’ve made in the past. And for us to be a successful organization, sometimes we have to make those difficult decisions.”

The gutted team eventually finished third in the division with a 76-86 record — the only losing record in the ten years of Francona’s managing and their worst division finish since 2015. The 2023 season would be Francona’s last, as he retired for health reasons. In addition to rebuilding a roster, the front office now had to rebuild its coaching staff.

Fast forward to a little of the way through the 2024 season, and the Guardians are rocking a 43-22 record, fourth best in all of baseball behind the Yankees, Phillies, and Orioles. Surely, the cagey front office had been playing four-dimensional chess, and the future it was playing for had arrived, right? The team hired an experienced manager to deal with rookies and veterans to maximize production, right? The prospects traded for were Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez reincarnated, and the '90s Indians were back, right? The pitching factory had produced another Cy Young starter in the tradition of C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Corey Kluber, and Shane Bieber, right? At least Shane Bieber was back healthy and dominant in a contract year, right?

The answer to all these questions is a resounding, "No." This has led many in the baseball world to wonder aloud, “What in the world is the explanation for this?” The Dodgers were supposed to be dominant this year. Everyone expected the Yankees to be good, and many predicted this would be a great year for the Phillies. But no one saw the Guardians coming, to the point that when the team sprinted out of the gates, everyone assumed the team was a mere flash in the pan. However, as the team kept winning, the articles across all sports news slowly shifted from asking, “Why is Cleveland on a hot start?” to “Why are the Guardians so good?”

No one has been able to exactly say why, but an examination of a few pieces of evidence can allow us to put together the puzzle in a digestible way.

Front office

Following the frustrating 2023 deadline, the Guardians' front office continued making puzzling movies through the 2023 offseason. The front office failed to sign (or didn’t pursue) free agents who could provide an impact bat. Instead, Chernoff and Antonetti pursued free agent Austin Hedges, who was on Cleveland's roster in 2022 and enjoyed a World Series with the Texas Rangers in 2023. While Hedges is a known clubhouse leader, his offensive production is light — with the exception of 2018, Hedges had never before posted a wRC+ north of 50. If you don't keep up with the newfangled sabermetric stats, just know that a wRC+ of 50 is very not good. Plus, the Guardians already had a young catcher with a lot of promise in Bo Naylor. So, signing a backup catcher/coach/cheerleader didn't get anyone who follows the team excited.

The team also signed starting pitcher Ben Lively, who had flamed out of three different MLB organizations and spent significant portions of the last five years pitching in South Korea. They also signed Royals' former relief pitcher Scott Barlow. They further depleted the team's major league rotation by trading away Cal Quantrill for minor league catcher Kody Huff. Going into spring training, Cleveland had only five positions locked down with everyday starters – LF Steven Kwan, C Bo Naylor, 1B Josh Naylor, 2B Andres Gimenez, and 3B Jose Ramirez. The rest of the roster positions would be filled by, as Antonetti put it, “young players [who show they] can succeed in the big leagues.”

The rotation had a more veteran presence, but about half of the bullpen was wide open. The active roster had several moving pieces that would require keen observation and deep baseball knowledge to use effectively. Enter the Guardians' rookie manager Stephen Vogt, who last played in the majors in 2022, and who managed less than four total wins above replacement over a 10-year career.

Whatever Vogt's shortcomings as a major league player, he has emerged as the first and foremost reason for Cleveland’s success this year. Vogt has been successful as a manager this year because he is able to relate to every one of his players. As Vogt himself said, “I’ve been traded, I’ve been released, I’ve been sent down, I’ve been an All-Star, I’ve been the team MVP.” His ability to know exactly what every player is thinking gives him a perspective not every manager has. And his delivery of his message is something his players not only appreciate but have embraced and turned into winning. "It's like he has been doing this for 10 years,'' said Hedges, when asked in Spring Training. "His first speech to the team this spring was incredible. The energy in the room is amazing.''

Two examples of Vogt’s leadership stand out. On May 19, Tanner Bibee had battled against the Twins for six and two-thirds innings. Ninety pitches into the outing, he had just walked a Twins batter on four pitches. Vogt emerged from the dugout and walked to the mound. Hedges and Gimenez started telling Bibee, “Great job, way to compete,” as they, along with everyone watching, expected Vogt to call in fireballer Cade Smith to stop any Twins comeback.

Except Vogt didn’t ask for the ball. He looked at Bibee and said, “You’re not leaving this mound. You’re gonna strike this [blank]er out.” Bibee, 2023’s runner-up for Rookie of the Year, struck out Twins batter Carlos Santana with a 97-mph fastball for his 95th pitch. "I really appreciate him letting me stay out there and finish that," Bibee said. "I really do believe that was my game. I'm happy I executed that last pitch."

Another example: After a hot spring, prospect Kyle Manzardo (acquired in the Civale trade at the 2023 deadline) was finally called up to replace injured Steven Kwan in early May. Vogt’s strategy was to let him get 30-40 at bats and then see what needed to be adjusted. Manzardo, with a scouting profile that said he was a solid contact hitter with a good eye who might reach 20-25 home runs per year, started 4-29 with 10 strikeouts. Since that start, Manzardo has gone 14-57 with nine doubles. He has hit more doubles since May 10 than any other major league batter in that time period. He is tied for 52nd in the AL with doubles after having played in only 27 games, equal to exactly one-sixth of an MLB season, while everyone ahead of him has played twice as many games.

Contrast Vogt's treatment of Manzardo with the Orioles' handling of Jackson Holliday, the number one prospect in all of baseball. The Orioles called up Holliday after he obliterated pitching at every level of the minors from 2022-2024. Holliday went 2-34 in his first ten games and then the Orioles sent him back down to the minors. It is worth noting that the Orioles, who had the second best record in baseball last year, were expected to contend for the title again this year, which may have prevented them from tolerating the early struggles that frequently attend hitters who eventually become stars.


The 2023 Guardians finished dead last in the league in home runs, and it wasn’t close. Hitting just 124 runs in 162 games, the Guardians had a severe power problem. By way of comparison, the next-worst team, the woeful and rebuilding Washington Nationals, managed 151 home runs. As a result, many expected some sort of free agent signing to bolster home-run production, but for the low-budget Guardians, a free-agent power bat was not in the cards. What did happen, however, is that Guardians hitting coach Chris Valaika altered his approach. Previously, the Guardians had been a contact-first offensive approach — avoiding strikeouts at the expense of power but put the ball in play. Valaika has now shifted the focus so that the Guardians are not just looking for pitches to hit but pitches they can do damage with. As Guardians announcer Rick Manning said, “Sometimes the best pitch you see is the first one.” Valakia has coached each player to identify those pitches to capitalize on, and when they see one, swing away — and swing for the fences.

Compare Steven Kwan from 2023 to the Steven Kwan of 2024. He stated he spent the 2023 off-season learning how to miss balls in order to mentally be ok with striking out. Weird to hear from a major league hitter to be sure, but the exercise was designed to train him to be able to adapt to a more aggressive yet disciplined approach. He wanted more aggression but had to train his body and mind not to get discouraged about striking out. As a result, he has swung at less balls out of the zone, while hitting pitches in the zone harder. In fact, his hard hit percentage has increased by two points while his swing rate at pitches outside the zone has decreased by 4%. The end result might not be seen as earth-shattering since Kwan has four home runs in 39 games; however, Kwan only hit five home runs all of last year.

Meanwhile, the rest of Kwan's numbers speak for themselves. Kwan's wRC+ last year was 100, meaning that he was exactly a league-average hitter. This year, his wRC+ is an astounding 191, which would make him the second-best offensive player in all of baseball behind only Aaron Judge, if he had just a handful of additional plate appearances under his belt. And while he mentally prepared himself to strike out more, the change in his approach has actually resulted in him striking out less, as his strikeout percent has dropped from a respectable 10.4% in 2023 to a miniscule 7.1% in 2024.

Another revelation for the Guardians this year has been utility player David Fry. Fry came into the season expected to be a platoon player who would face left-handed starters and provide defensive flexiblity due to his ability to play virtually every defensive position on the diamond. However, Fry has hit his way into a role as an everyday starter. His outstanding pitch selection has led him to a .451 on-base percentage, which would be tops in the league if he had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. Fry isn't just dinking and dunking and walking his way to first base, either — Fry is selectively looking for pitches to drive and currently sports a very respectable .574 slugging percentage, better than Royals' sensation Bobby Witt Jr. and good for seventh in the American League (if, again, Fry had enough plate appearances to qualify). Fry is likely not the second coming of Barry Bonds, but at least for 2024, he is showing that when pitchers throw him strikes, he will drive the ball hard.

Outside of Kwan and Fry, most Guardians hitters got off to slow starts but are now warming up. Tyler Freeman, who has been serviceable defensively in center field despite never playing the position prior to 2024, has hit at a 109 wRC+ clip since May 1, which would put him in the top 10 of all major league CFers. Left fielder Will Brennan, who has been hitting balls hard (30.9% hard contact rate), has an unlucky .243 BABIP. Expect his run production to increase as that starts to normalize.

The adjusted approach by Valaika now has the Guardians tied for 11th in the league in home runs and on pace to hit 180 home runs — a projected home run increase of almost 50%. However, they have not abandoned their high contact smart base-running ways for the sake of power. They rank eighth in the league for on-base percentage and seventh in the league in stolen bases. Their offense has transformed from slap-hitting single goblins into batters who use every tool in the box to, as Manning says, “Get ‘em on, get 'em over, get ‘em home.”


Entering 2024, the Guardians starting rotation was the one bright spot and a universally acclaimed team strength. Cy Young award winner Shane Bieber, returning from injury, was entering a contract year. Bibee, 2023’s runner-up in the AL Rookie of the Year award, and Triston McKenzie are both solid middle rotation starters who many believed could be transformed into aces. The team also boasted a number of young, talented fireballers including Logan Allen, Ben Lively, Gavin Williams, and prospect Xzavion Curry, who add both depth and major league experience to give the Guardians a chance in every game. Long-time mainstay Carlos Carrasco also returned to the team after a disappointing three-year stint with the expensive train wreck Mets.

The rotation, however, has not lived up to its hype. Bieber made just two starts before announcing he must undergo Tommy John surgery. Williams has been injured since mid-Spring Training and has yet to make an appearance in a major league game. Curry has spent most of his time in Columbus or on the injured list.

In fact, Cleveland ranks 26th in innings pitched by starters. The starters are not lasting long and are giving up runs when they do. The Guardians starters rank 18th in ERA, 26th in Fielding Independent Pitching, and dead last in Wins Above Replacement (2.1). They have racked up only 16 quality starts this season. They have pitched past the end of the fifth inning 19 times, only three times since May 10.

The Guardians' bullpen, on the other hand, has been the best in baseball this season, with production that puts them on par with the greatest bullpens of all time. Cleveland leads the league in bullpen WAR, FIP, ERA, LOB%, HR/9, and BB/9 among others. They are tied for second in strikeouts per nine innings. The bullpen’s strength has made Vogt’s life easier. Emmanuel Clase is as dominant a closer we’ve seen in baseball since Mariano Rivera. The bridge from the starter’s exit to Clase is led by Cade Smith, Sam Hentges (who leads the league in FIP since 2022), Nick Sandlin, Hunter Gaddis, Tim Herrin, Scott Barlow, and Pedro Avila. The phrase most often heard about the bullpen is “shortened game.” The strength of the bullpen limits opposing offenses to scoring in the first five innings, while the Guardians have the full nine innings to score their runs.


It is impossible to say if Chernoff and Antonetti truly foresaw a season as magical as this when they spoke in that dismal Houston locker room last year. I also am a lifelong Cleveland fan, so I am always waiting for the other shoe to drop. In 2011, the then-Indians started insanely hot and sat at 51-44 on July 18 as first in the division. They would only manage 29 more victories the rest of the way as they finished 80-82, 15 games behind the division winner. This year, however, such a collapse seems unlikely to happen, but it also seems unlikely that the Guardians will keep up their pace and win 105 games.

The truth likely lies somewhere in between — but somewhere in between 80 and 105 games is way more than anyone had a right to expect from this year's Guardians team. Vogt has the entire team behind his back and has spread the playing time evenly to keep every one engaged. The players, when they get their opportunity, look for ways to do damage, and once the runs are scored, no team is able to come from behind to win a game in the late innings. This formula may or may not be the one the front office cooked up with its 2023 deadline moves, but we can all agree that the future it planned for is now.

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Greg Groninger

Greg Groninger

Greg is a healthcare attorney from Nashville, TN. He enjoys writing about baseball, movies, and religion.