MLB playoff race features Guardians as most interesting team

MLB playoff race features Guardians as most interesting team

The Guardians are either the future of baseball or a first-round postseason exit waiting to happen. Or both.

Cleveland is the most interesting team in the playoffs. It will try to win postseason baseball games in a way that has been almost impossible the past five years: with almost no power.

The Guardians rely on such quaint notions as putting the ball in play, hitting singles, running the bases well, playing defense and throwing strikes without elite velocity. They are a baseball aficionado’s team. That may be all well and good next year when the field opens up with a ban on shifts, stolen bases become easier and a pitch clock corrects the adagio pace of modern pitching (max effort/long recovery/max effort/repeat).

This postseason? Recent history tells us the Guardians’ style has no chance of succeeding. Cleveland has hit 126 home runs this year. No team since 2017 has won a postseason round without hitting 200 homers (full seasons only). The Guardians are determined in their own small ways to end this trend:

Postseason Teams With Less Than 200 Home Runs

Years No. of Teams Rounds Won World Series Won

2013–16

30 of 40 (75%)

31

4 of 4

2017–21*

7 of 40 (18%)

0 of 4

*Excludes 2020

Sad as this is to blow up our traditional vision of postseason baseball, nothing determines who wins in October more than home runs—not small ball. Since 2017, teams have a .241 winning percentage when they don’t homer (26–82, or about only five such wins per year), and a .712 winning percentage when they hit a second home run (109–44, or four times as many such victories). Teams last year were 2–17 without going yard.

The Braves struck out 10.1 times per game last postseason—more than their opponents—but won the title because they out-homered opponents, 23–13. Small ball loses. Brute force wins.

The Guardians will try to win with a style of play that once ruled—before analytics put the emphasis on power and parades of power relievers squashed multi-hit rallies. In the first 21 years of the wild-card era, teams without power won championships often. Here is how the postseason teams with the fewest home runs fared in those two decades:

Fewest HRs by Postseason Team, 1995–2016 (Full Seasons Only)

Rank Team HR W–L Outcome

1.

2014 Royals

95

12–3

Won World Series

2.

2012 Giants

103

11–5

Won World Series

3.

2014 Cardinals

105

4–5

Lost NLCS

4.

2007 Angels

123

0–3

Lost ALDS

5.

2013 Cardinals

125

9–8

Lost World Series

T-6.

2016 Giants

130

2–4

Lost NLDS

T-6.

2005 Padres

130

0–3

Lost NLDS

Totals

811

38–31 (.551)

Now let’s run the same exercise with the low-power teams since 2017:

Fewest HRs by Postseason Team, 2017–21 (Full Seasons Only)

Rank Team HR W–L Outcome

1.

2018 Cubs

167

0–1

Lost Wild Card

2.

2017 Red Sox

168

1–3

Lost ALDS

3.

2018 Braves

175

1–3

Lost NLDS

4.

2021 White Sox

190

1–3

Lost ALDS

5.

2017 Rockies

192

0–1

Lost Wild Card

6.

2021 Brewers

194

1–3

Lost NLDS

7.

2021 Cardinals

198

0–1

Lost Wild Card

Totals

1,284

4–15 (.211)

In four full seasons since 2017, no team with fewer than 200 home runs has won a playoff series. In the previous four postseasons, 16 teams without 200 homers won 31 series, including all four World Series.

Just how bad is the Guardians’ offense? Among all postseason teams in history, this bad at three of the nine spots in the lineup:

  • Their catchers are hitting .179, the worst average at the position for a playoff team (full seasons only).
  • Their center fielders have hit zero home runs—only the 1912 Red Sox did so—and slug .264, far below the previous low of .299 by the 1973 Mets.
  • Their DHs slug .305, the worst ever, and have a .275 OBP. Only the 1993 White Sox were worse (.253).

Cleveland won the AL Central by playing airtight, fun-to-watch, old school baseball. It also helped that the entirety of the division underperformed, which made for an easy schedule for the Guardians. Cleveland is 22–27 against winning teams. The four worst teams in baseball, the NationalsA’sPirates and Reds, have beaten more winning teams than the Guardians. Cleveland ranks 16th in runs, 20th in OPS, 21st in slugging and 29th in home runs.

The Guardians made it work with solid fundamental team play. They won 30 games without a home run, the first team to win that many in seven years.

Their bullpen doesn’t give away games. The Cleveland ‘pen is 43–18 with a 3.07 ERA, a tribute to its depth and the maneuvers of manager Terry Francona. Only the 2018 A’s had a bullpen that had so many wins and so few losses.

Starters Shane Bieber, Triston McKenzie and Cal Quantrill are durable strike-throwers that fit the Cleveland philosophy of favoring athletic pitchers who repeat their delivery without chasing power. Only the BrewersDiamondbacksTwins and Cubs have a lower average fastball velocity than the Guardians (93.2 mph). But the Guardians are the fifth-best team at throwing strikes.

The offense, despite its lack of power, is just resourceful enough. Their win last Thursday over the Rays told you everything you need to know about their preferred slim path to victories. Down 1–0 in the eighth, Will Brennan, one of 17 Guardians who debuted this year, grounded a single through the right side. Miles Straw, their homerless center fielder, dropped a textbook sacrifice bunt. Steven Kwan sliced a double to the opposite field to tie the game. Amed Rosario grounded out, pushing Kwan to third. And after Tampa Bay smartly walked José Ramírez, Cleveland’s best power threat, Óscar González pushed an opposite ground ball infield single to score Kwan. The Guardians won, 2–1, against their possible first-round opponent.

Sep 29, 2022; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Guardians center fielder Myles Straw (7) bunts in the eighth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Progressive Field.

Straw lays down a crucial sacrifice bunt in last Thursday’s 2–1 win over the Rays.

For those scoring at home, that was two runs on three hits—all by players who made their MLB debuts this year, all without hitting the ball 160 feet. It was a rally filled with ground balls, anathema to the modern hitter.

If you love fundamental baseball, the Guardians are an easy team to admire. Baseball is at its best when a diversity of styles can win games. Baseball probably was never more popular and culturally hip than in the 1980s, when World Series ratings reached record highs and Hollywood cranked out baseball blockbusters.

It was a diverse game then in which teams acquired stylistic personalities, some that often reflected their manager, such as Billyball, Whiteyball and Harvey’s Wallbangers. The Cardinals won the World Series one year, 1982, with the fewest home runs, and the Orioles won it the next with the most. Half the champions that decade finished in the top 10 in home runs and half of them finished outside the top 10.

Today’s game is an industry-wide pursuit of home runs. It is harder to get a hit in today’s game than it has been in the past half century. In this environment the odds favor swinging for two home runs over stringing together those elusive hits. The current top two seeds in each league, the AstrosYankeesDodgers and Braves, are four of the top five home-run hitting teams.

Major League Baseball is trying to change the dull homogeneity of the game. The pitch clock, bigger bases and ban on shifts have twin purposes: not just to move the game along, but also to reintroduce a variety of ways to win ballgames, such as rewarding speed, athleticism and risk-taking.

The Guardians have arrived a year ahead of that mission to prove that a team can win in the postseason without power. Recent history suggests they have no chance. But to watch them zig while the rest of baseball zags—and knowing how expertly and cleanly they play this retro game—gives an aficionado hope it just might be possible.

More MLB coverage:
‘Let’s F—ing Party’: The Mariners Finally End Their 21-Year Playoff Drought
How Austin Riley Became the Cornerstone of the Braves’ Core
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