AL Wild Card Series Preview: Guardians vs. Rays

Steven Kwan
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Of the 12 teams in the playoffs in 2022, only one was projected by both ZiPS and FanGraphs in the preseason as a sub-.500 team: the Cleveland Guardians. But this lone Cinderella in a sea of mean stepsisters toppled the White Sox handily this year, pulling away from the pack late to finish with an 11-game cushion in the AL Central. As the league’s No. 3 seed by virtue of winning the division, Cleveland now hosts the Tampa Bay Rays in the three-game Wild Card Series.

Broadly speaking, there are broad similarities between the Guardians and the Rays. Both play in smaller markets and, depending on how you look at the issue, have a payroll attitude somewhere on the spectrum from admirably thrifty to Ebenezer Scrooge on tax deadline day. However they got there, these teams embraced modern analytics early on, long before it was de rigeur in baseball, and have seen advantages. The Rays were the league doormat during the early, very non-sabermetric days of the franchise, but after an abrupt change in direction, they have the fourth-most wins in baseball over the last 15 years. The Guardians are not far behind.

Win-Loss Record, 2008-2022
Team W L Pct
Los Angeles Dodgers 1358 970 .583
New York Yankees 1337 991 .574
St. Louis Cardinals 1289 1037 .554
Tampa Bay Rays 1267 1062 .544
Boston Red Sox 1256 1072 .540
Atlanta Braves 1225 1101 .527
Cleveland Guardians 1208 1118 .519
Milwaukee Brewers 1204 1125 .517
San Francisco Giants 1198 1130 .515
Los Angeles Angels 1195 1133 .513
Houston Astros 1179 1148 .507
Chicago Cubs 1176 1150 .506
Oakland A’s 1171 1156 .503
Toronto Blue Jays 1170 1158 .503
Philadelphia Phillies 1169 1159 .502
Texas Rangers 1159 1170 .498
New York Mets 1156 1172 .497
Washington Nationals 1143 1183 .491
Minnesota Twins 1127 1203 .484
Chicago White Sox 1120 1208 .481
Seattle Mariners 1111 1217 .477
Detroit Tigers 1108 1216 .477
Cincinnati Reds 1103 1225 .474
Arizona Diamondbacks 1096 1232 .471
Colorado Rockies 1086 1242 .466
San Diego Padres 1082 1246 .465
Pittsburgh Pirates 1063 1262 .457
Kansas City Royals 1063 1265 .457
Baltimore Orioles 1047 1280 .450
Florida Marlins 1045 1280 .449

Despite both teams regularly making the playoffs, they’ve only met in the postseason once before, in the 2013 AL Wild Card Game. Things didn’t go Cleveland’s way then, as Alex Cobb and Tampa’s bullpen combined for a shutout, causing a quick exit from October. Now Cleveland has a three-game series to get its revenge.

So, why were the projection systems so down on Cleveland going into the season? While I can’t presume to speak for Steamer, the main grumbles that ZiPS had involved the lack of star potential in the outfield, an offensive famine behind the plate, and an uninspiring back of the rotation. Looking at the hits and misses in the projections is probably the quickest way to see where the Guardians made up the shortfall. The projected WAR is adjusted to be the same playing time as the actual WAR, so we’re comparing apples to apples rather than apples to hand grenades.

All told, 10 players beat their pro-rate ZiPS WAR projections by at least half a win.

ZiPS Projection Beaters, 2022 Guardians
Player Actual WAR Projected WAR Difference
Andrés Giménez 6.0 3.3 2.7
Trevor Stephan 1.7 0.3 1.4
Steven Kwan 4.3 2.9 1.4
Triston McKenzie 3.6 2.4 1.2
Oscar Gonzalez 1.6 0.4 1.2
Sam Hentges 1.1 0.1 1.0
Josh Naylor 1.6 0.8 0.8
Emmanuel Clase 2.4 1.7 0.7
Aaron Civale 1.3 0.6 0.7
Enyel De Los Santos 1.0 0.5 0.5

ZiPS liked Kwan, but he comfortably beat even an optimistic projection and would be a serious Rookie of the Year contender in a season without Julio Rodríguez and Adley Rutschman wreaking havoc around the league. Along with Gonzalez’s solid year, the Guardians’ outfield combined for a wRC+ of 99, their best performance since those mid-2010s outfields that featured peak Michael Brantley. McKenzie was one of my breakout pitcher picks prior to the season and worked out marvelously as he cut his walk rate back down to where the peripherals suggested. (If you follow that link, I’d greatly appreciate it if you avoided the Yusei Kikuchi section! Ouch.) The only preseason problem place that didn’t get a considerable boost was catcher, though with the usual caveat that gauging defensive value there is a controversial subject.

And then there’s Giménez. Projected for a perfectly acceptable three WAR in 557 plate appearances, he had a legitimate superstar-level season and is set up for continued success along these lines. It’s pretty fortunate for the organization that he took his challenge of replacing Francisco Lindor so literally!

ZiPS still prefers the back of Tampa Bay’s rotation and bullpen and, in a five-game or seven-game series, sees the Rays as a solid favorite over Cleveland, 58%–42%. But in a three-game series, ZiPS sees the results tighter — nearly a coin flip, as depth is less of an issue.

ZiPS Projection – Guardians vs. Rays
Team Win in Two Win in Three Victory
Guardians 24.7% 22.5% 47.2%
Rays 25.1% 27.7% 52.8%

Game One looks like the pivotal one. The Guardians struggled against lefties all season, finishing with a wRC+ 20 points higher against righties; only the Marlins had a larger platoon split in that direction. Franmil Reyes, one of the team’s few unmitigated disappointments this season, had a lot to do with this, as the disappearance of his bat took away one of the team’s best lefty-killers. This problem did subside as the season went on and the eventual roster took shape, with Cleveland’s offense going from a wRC+ of 75 against lefties in the first half to 94 over the second half. (The Rays are likely to throw two lefties at them as of press time, so I’ve projected them starting Jeffrey Springs in Game 3.)

This is where Shane McClanahan’s health should be a significant concern for the Rays. Since missing time with a shoulder impingement, he’s been much less effective, with his strikeout rate practically disappearing. The velocity’s still there, but hitters have suddenly started to make contact against him, with a significant change between contact rate before the injury (67%) and since (80%). If these struggles continue, a half-run dropoff in McClanahan’s RA is enough to make the game a pure 50/50 affair (50.1% Cleveland, 49.9% Tampa Bay).

The platoon differentials may also come into play for Tampa Bay’s lineup. Rays hitters had a smaller split in 2022 than Cleveland’s, with a nine-point advantage against lefties in wRC+. But the projections actually suggest that this difference should be larger, with the Rays missing, for one reason or another, some of the left-handed hitting they had earlier in the season. Brandon Lowe had a reverse platoon split in a small sample, but if healthy, he still projects as the best hitter against righties in the organization. (“If healthy” is a big qualifier, though, given that he was placed on the injured list three separate times during the season and missed the last three weeks of the year with lower back discomfort.) The Guardians seem likely to have only two southpaws on the postseason roster at best: Hentges and (maybe) Kirk McCarty.

ZiPS Platoon Projections – Rays Hitters
Name OPS vs. L OPS vs. R
Brandon Lowe .757 .813
Yandy Díaz .826 .803
Wander Franco .816 .801
Randy Arozarena .835 .779
Ji-Man Choi .665 .758
Isaac Paredes .783 .755
David Peralta .655 .752
Christian Bethancourt .746 .746
Harold Ramírez .778 .740
Jonathan Aranda .693 .731
Manuel Margot .751 .709
Jose Siri .708 .682
Vidal Bruján .643 .655
Taylor Walls .636 .636
René Pinto .690 .632

Not having Lowe available knocks about four percentage points off Tampa Bay’s chances in this matchup.

The Rays did get a late-season boon to compensate them for this loss with the return of Tyler Glasnow. His velocity picked up right where he left off before his Tommy John surgery, and he even arrived with enough time to spare to get two tune-up starts in the majors at the end of the season. The likely McClanahan-Glasnow-Springs rotation in the Wild Card round reflects one of the more exploitable weaknesses of Cleveland’s lineup. The Guardians had the second-worst offense in baseball against fastballs in 2022 at 40 runs below league average and combined for a .383 slugging percentage on heaters. Both those numbers edged out only the Tigers, who fielded a lineup that usually looked like a group of Little Leaguers having a pickup game against Randy Johnson.

Despite the successes that Cleveland and Tampa Bay have had over the last decade, both still lack that one crowning achievement: a World Series championship. The Rays were bested in both of their Fall Classic appearances, and the Guardians have been waiting for a title since 1948. Crapshoot or not, flags fly forever. By the end of Sunday, we’ll know who will end 2022 with disappointingly unfinished business.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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Left of Centerfield
4 months ago

Baseball Reference has Cleveland with the 4th highest OF WAR this season. Which is shocking considering what was expected of them. And look at some of the players who got them there:

Kwan – an unheralded prospect who broke out last year and made some (but not all) top 100 prospect lists

Oscar Gonzalez – Was released by Cleveland at the end of last year because of their 40 man roster crunch. But no one picked him up so he resigned with Cleveland. Wasn’t mentioned at all in Cleveland’s prospect writeup this year but ended up as one of their best hitters.

Will Brennan – Kwan-type who also received no mention in Cleveland’s prospect writeup. Had a breakout season at AA and AAA this year. Was called up at the end of the year and put up 155 wRC+ in 45 PAs.

And then there’s Alex Call who got released because Cleveland had no room for him. He was another guy who received no mention on Cleveland’s prospect writeup. He got picked up by the Nationals and ended up with a 113 wRC+ in 131 PAs.

Granted not everyone worked out. Will Benson and Richie Palacios struggled with inconsistent playing time. And Nolan Jones got off to a good start and then struggled.

Still, it’s strange to see Cleveland with one of the best OFs in baseball. And it’s basically made up of players who came out of nowhere.

4 months ago

You make a good point: one of the enduring baseball truisms was that Cleveland had no outfield and seemed unwilling to do anything about it (in terms of major trades or FA acquisitions), year after year. So maybe it’s not too surprising the good outfield they finally assembled came “out of nowhere” because that’s the only way they would get one. Perhaps they’ve been trying all along to have this happen and it finally did, or perhaps even the Guardians front office is surprised by it also.

Left of Centerfield
4 months ago
Reply to  Joser

I’d say there’s some surprise involved. After all, they released both Gonzalez and Call. And they gave lots of other guys a chance before finally calling up Brennan.

4 months ago

IIRC, Brennan wasn’t on the 40 man.
They had to designate Clement to call him up. That may have held him back.

Last edited 4 months ago by fjtorres
Left of Centerfield
4 months ago
Reply to  fjtorres

Yes, you’re right about that. I forgot Brennan wasn’t on the 40 man. Though they could have released Clement a lot earlier with no negative effect.

4 months ago

Jones and Brennan were on the 40 so they got a chance earlier.

4 months ago

Palacios looks to be likely trade bait or get cut, like Gonzalez last year.

Jones and Benson will get extended tryouts next year as there are still available PA’s in Francona’s system. Ideally the FO wants both to get it together. Jones a bit more because of his power ceiling.

The out of nowhere part, though, only applies to folks who weren’t paying attention to the farm. Kwan and Gonzalez had very good years in ’21 as did Brennan in ’22. The thing is they don’t fit the mold of the “can’t miss” prospects of the recent years. Go back to the 70’s, though, and you’ll find successful comparables.

Somewhere in the past few years Cleveland changed something in the OF draft and development system tbat only produced 4th OF types. Probably by focusing on speed and contact instead of speed and power. (Uh, Bradley Zimmer anyone?)

As to the playoff’s? Other matchups I’ve seen have Cleveland edging out the Rays. I’d go that way if recent Bieber shows up.

We’ll know soon enough.

4 months ago

Gonzalez wasn’t “released”, he was never on the roster and was a minor league free agent