Guardians succeeding via relentless contact

32 minutes ago

This story was excerpted from Mandy Bell’s Guardians Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

It is both by design and coincidence that the Guardians have landed on the “correct” approach for the 2022 MLB offensive environment, to date.

First, what do we mean by “correct?”

Well, the Guardians, despite some recent struggles in the run column, are putting the ball in play more than any other team. Their 80.6 percent contact rate (the percentage of swings on which contact is made) is about 2 percent better than the next-closest club, and their 19.7 percent strikeout rate is best in the American League and fourth best in MLB.

“When you can keep getting guys on base,” first baseman Josh Naylor said, “it puts pressure on the pitcher.”

With Naylor’s return from injury, the arrival of Steven Kwan, a full season of Myles Straw and the breakout of Owen Miller — to say nothing of the continued bat-to-ball excellence of the great Jos? Ram?rez — fueling an improvement in the club’s contact rate, the Guards are generating consistent balls in play at a time when power numbers across the sport have been depressed.

MLB made subtle changes to the manufacturing process of its baseballs and standardized the use of humidors at all 30 stadiums in 2022 in an effort to create more consistency in how the ball travels from park to park. Thus far, this has contributed to a reduction in home run rate, from one homer for every 27.2 at-bats in 2021 to one per 33.6 at-bats in 2022. So, the teams that used to happily trade high strikeout rates for a bunch of dingers in the past have not been similarly rewarded so far this season.

“Homers are awesome, and hitting home runs is great,” said Naylor, who hit a couple of memorable ones in Chicago earlier this month. “But getting guys on base consistently causes chaos and a little bit of frustration on the other side, because now they have to adjust their game plan. I think the game is more psychological than it is physical.”

Chris Valaika, who is in his first year as Cleveland’s hitting coach after serving as the assistant hitting coach with the Cubs in 2021, has made this psychology a focal point.

“[We knew] we had to be different from Day One,” Valaika said. “Controlling the zone, hitting the ball the other way and taking pride in doing a lot of the little things the right way.”

But such an approach can’t be instantly implemented at the big league level. It starts with what is valued in drafting, scouting and development. Power can mature, and ways to improve a player’s power can be taught. Yet, pitch recognition and the quick wrists of a player like Kwan are skills that are more innate, ones the Guardians have prioritized in player procurement.

“They never told me to try to lift the ball or hit home runs,” Kwan said. “They really just pound in to do your job and those around you will do their job, and, if everybody does their job, we’ll have success.”

As we’ve seen in recent days, the Guards’ offense will have and has had its ruts. Such is the nature of the game. But on measure, Cleveland’s approach has been much more successful than expected, with the club ranking fourth in the AL in runs per game (4.49).

“We have to be stubborn with our plan,” Valaika said, “regardless of who we’re facing.”