It’s rare when a stadium corporate name hits just the right note, but in Cleveland, Progressive Field sounds—just right. It’s home to the Guardians, a first-year nickname for the Cleveland franchise, and one that has grown on me.
On Sunday morning, available on Peacock to stream, is the Athletics at the Guardians (or, if you prefer, the A’s against the G’s) at Progressive Field. A guardian by definition is “a defender, protector, or keeper.” I love it. I admit that I didn’t at first. I wanted a nickname that was either rooted in history (the Cleveland Spiders) or one that would allow them to keep a certain superstar in the prime of his career (the Cleveland Lindors).
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Cleveland hasn’t won a World Series since 1948, but they came as close as a team could come in 2016 without winning, losing Game 7 of the World Series. In 2017, Cleveland won 102 games.
The Opening Day payroll for Cleveland was $124 million dollars in 2017, $134 million in 2018; and $119 in 2019. But the last three years, the team has operated on a shoestring budget.
In 2020, Cleveland’s Opening Day payroll was 24th highest in MLB. In 2021, the $49.6 million dollar Opening Day payroll was 29th highest (or second lowest). This year, the $68.2 million dollar payroll is 24th highest in the sport.
And yet, manager Terry Francona and the front office have kept the team competitive. The last three seasons, Cleveland has won more games than they’ve lost.
Let’s look at how they’ve done that.
Jose Ramirez is one of the best players in baseball. He signed a club-friendly 7-year, $141 million dollar contract that runs from 2022-28.
Ramirez is among the major league leaders in OPS, SLG, RBI, and extra-base hits. As of Thursday morning, his 54 RBI is tied with Pete Alonso for the major league lead.
And the 29-year old has been one of the top performers since first appearing on the scene in 2014.
And he’s been consistent…except when he wasn’t.
In 2019, Jose Ramirez was healthy, and coming off a terrific season. But when the season started, he couldn’t buy a hit in April. Or May. Or June.
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In 2018, Ramirez played 157 games, and put up 81 extra-base hits (38 doubles, 4 triples, 39 HR). He scored 110 times, and drove in 105. His OPS was .939, and his OPS+ was 151. It was a natural progression, as his OPS in 2017 was .957 and his OPS+ was 145. He actually had 91 extra-base hits in 2017.
But in 2019, this is what Ramirez produced through June 12 (66 games played).
279 Plate Appearances
Oh, sure, Ramirez fouled a pitch off his knee in spring training just before the start of 2019. But he was cleared to play. And that wouldn’t explain that Ramirez’ slump actually began in the second half of the 2018 season.
Jose Ramirez batted just .218 after the 2018 All Star Game, and slashed just .174/.315/.322 in 25 September games.
That means, around the middle of June in 2019, there was real questions as to whether Ramirez was an everyday player, much less a superstar. (By the way, Ramirez and his declining production was a rarity in 2019, when offense was booming).
And just as quick as he declined, he rebounded. Ramirez became one of the top sluggers in baseball. From July 1-August 24 of 2019, Ramirez batted .320 (57-178 AB), 35 extra-base hits in 46 games with 15 HR, 45 RBI. And then he broke his right hamate bone swinging at a pitch in Kansas City. He had surgery to remove the hook of the hamate in his right hand on August 26 with an expected rehab time of about six weeks. He was activated from the Injured List on September 24, just 30 days following surgery.
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Even with that extended, unexplained slump, Ramirez has been one of the very best hitters in baseball for a long time. Beginning with the 2020 season, there are only three qualifiers with a higher wRC+. Those players are Aaron Judge, Bryce Harper, and Juan Soto. Ramirez is ahead of MVPs like Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman.
You can use counting stats (Ramirez leads all major leaguers in RBI since the start of the 2020 season) or advanced stats. Jose Ramirez is just a beast. Since the start of 2020, Ramirez leads all major leaguers with 12.8 WAR.
He always wanted to play for the organization. And the organization didn’t turn their back on him when he slumped in 2019, or when it came time to step up to the plate and offer Ramirez some real cash. The ownership acted as Guardians, protecting the best interests of the organization and fanbase. And Jose gets to remain a Guardian, living and thriving in the city he has been with since signing as an international free agent with Cleveland in November, 2009.
What happened to the 2016 Cleveland team?
Terry Francona had an excellent pitching staff. The 3.84 ERA doesn’t look so great, until you remember it was 2nd in the A.L. and the ERA+ was 118. The staff gave up the fewest number of hits and struck out the most batters among the 15 A.L. teams that year.
Corey Kluber is still an effective starter at 36 years old, now pitching for the Tampa Bay Rays. Kluber won a pair of Cy Young awards for Cleveland, but his final gift to the team was being traded to the Rangers for a young Emmanuel Clase, now the team’s closer. Don’t be blasé about Clase (clas-AY). The 24-year-old has saved 10 games (in 12 save opps), with an ERA of 1.93 and a WHIP of 0.857.
Carlos Carrasco is still an effective starter, now pitching for the New York Mets. Cookie is 7-1 this year. In 2019, he overcame an in-season leukemia diagnosis and found the spirit to get back to a major league mound. In January 2021, he was traded along with Francisco Lindor to the Mets for four young players, including second baseman Andres Gimenez. Gimenez has been a godsend to the Guardians. In 24 Cleveland victories this year, he is batting .410 (34-78 AB) with an OPS of 1.171.
Mike Clevenger made his return from the Injured List last Sunday (right triceps strain) and looked real sharp for the Padres. That was his first outing since May 17. And that was only his third appearance following a long recovery from 2020 Tommy John surgery. Cleveland traded Clevenger to the Padres at the end of August, 2020, acquiring (among others) Josh Naylor and Cal Quantrill. Naylor has played well at first base. And since Quantrill became a regular member of the rotation in the middle of June, 2021, he is 11-4, 3.06 ERA in 30 starts.
For Cleveland’s 2016 staff, Trevor Bauer also played a major role. Bauer was traded to Cincinnati in the middle of 2019, a trade that brought back Franmil Reyes. Reyes hit 30 homers for Cleveland a year ago and is currently on the Injured List with right hamstring tightness. Bauer is currently suspended from baseball for two seasons under MLB’s domestic violence policy, a suspension which he is appealing.
Oh yes, there’s one reliever from that squad that is still on Terry Francona’s team. Bryan Shaw, who left for three years to pitch for Colorado and Seattle, but then signed back with Cleveland as a free agent before the 2021 season. That’s right, the losing pitcher in Game 7 of the World Series is still with the Guardians. (Flashback: Shaw came into Game 7 in the top of the ninth, a 6-6 game, with two runners on base. He got two huge outs, and stood to be the winning pitcher if Cleveland could have scored a run off Aroldis Chapman. They couldn’t do it. And in the top of the 10th, Ben Zobrist had a run scoring double off Shaw).
Now, Shaw’s walk-up music is “I’m Still Standing.” Not the Elton John version, the Taron Egerton rendition.
It’s perfect. Bryan Shaw is a Guardian. Like the lyrics of the song says, “And did you think this fool could never win? Well look at me, I’m a-coming back again…”
You can strip away the best players on the team. You can cut the payroll down to the bottom of the league. The Guardians are still standing.
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Elvis has more hits than Elvis
The Oakland Athletics don’t have many bright spots in 2022, but the play of shortstop Elvis Andrus has to be among them. Andrus, in his 14th season, and second in Oakland, came into 2022 off two bad seasons (OPS of .582, .614). This year, Andrus has an OPS of .675, and an OPS+ of 100. Not bad for a player whose career OPS+ is 86.
If you look at the bright side of things, Andrus is approaching 2,000 career hits (1,906) and 1,000 career runs scored (974). In fact, the only active players with more hits are 42-years old Albert Pujols, 39-years old Miguel Cabrera, 39-years old Yadier Molina, 38-years old Joey Votto, and 41-years old Nelson Cruz. Andrus is only 33.
If you look at the negative, only Pujols, Cabrera, and Molina have made more outs among active players.
I like to look at the positive, so I will say Elvis has more hits than any other Elvis, including Presley and Costello. Elvis Presley’s first hit was “Heartbreak Hotel.” Elvis Andrus’ first hit was a double in 2009 off Cliff Lee, then the reigning Cy Young award winner.
Early in his career, Andrus was asked if he was named after Elvis Presley. The answer is he probably wasn’t. Andrus’ father was named Emilio, and his mother was named Elvia. And all three of Elvis’ siblings have first names beginning with the letter E. His older brothers are Erikson and Erold and his sister is Emily. Andrus said once of his first name that, “I think it was the coolest name starting with an E.”
I beg to differ.
All-star Third baseman Jose Ramirez and the Cleveland Guardians host infielder Jed Lowrie and the Oakland Athletics from Progressive Field on MLB Sunday Leadoff live this Sunday, June 12 at 11:30 a.m. ET on Peacock. This week’s MLB Sunday Leadoff coverage begins with the pregame show at 11 a.m. ET on Peacock. NBC Sports’ Ahmed Fareed is the pre- and postgame host of MLB Sunday Leadoff and also serves as the in-game reporter.
How to Watch:
Sun., June 12
MLB Sunday Leadoff Pregame
Sun., June 12
Athletics vs. Guardians
Mr. Stats Notes: The Rock of Cleveland originally appeared on NBCSports.com