Cleveland Guardians win division, clinch playoff spot, following an exciting season


Courtesy of Jason Miller / Getty Images

The Cleveland Guardians have been having a very successful season, led by All-Star third basemen José Ramirez (pictured).

Shreyas Banerjee, Executive Editor

If you had told people a year ago that the Cleveland Guardians would be the champions of the American League Central Division and make their way to the MLB postseason, they would have been utterly bewildered.

They would first be confused because the Cleveland Guardians were not technically a team at the time. After playing as the Cleveland Indians since 1915, the organization changed its name in 2021 and rebranded following decades of protests surrounding its racist and tokenizing name. 

But second of all, they would be confused because last year’s Cleveland baseball team was wildly mediocre.

The 2021 team failed to qualify for the playoffs, entering the offseason with a losing record of 80-82. Aside from ace pitcher Shane Bieber and All-Star third baseman José Ramírez, the Guardians roster seemed lacking. Ramírez was the only remnant of the 2016 lineup that took Cleveland all the way to the World Series in 2016 before they lost the championship against the Chicago Cubs. Since then, all of his former teammates, such as Francisco Lindor and Carlos Santana, have retired or been traded away, often due to the organization’s unwillingness to pay their star players how much they are worth. Instead, the front office tends to trade away their stars for younger, cheaper players. 

With Ramírez’s contract ending soon and many teams eager to snatch him up, it seemed inevitable that he would be traded away as well. In all likelihood, it was expected that despite the fresh name and rebrand, the Guardians would tread water for another year, dump its one star hitter and continue to acquire more young talent that would also be traded away someday. That all changed just days before the 2022 season began on April 6, when it was announced that Ramírez had signed a contract extension to stay in Cleveland through 2028 for $124 million—the largest in Cleveland baseball history. The total was still far less than what other teams were offering Ramírez, but he decided to turn down millions just to stay in Cleveland. His agent quoted him as saying, “$150 million or $200 million, my life is gonna be the same. I’m happier with $150 million in Cleveland than $200 million somewhere else.” This is quite unusual for ballplayers, but Ramírez has made it clear that Cleveland is his home and that he had a “desire of never wearing another uniform,” making the sacrifice in salary worth it for him. 

And boy, has it paid off for the Guardians. Ramírez is having the best season of his career so far, being ranked No. 3 in the MLB for the number of doubles hit and runs batted in.

With Ramírez leading the way, the Guardians have surprised everyone with their performance this season. Before the season began, they had 10-1 odds of winning the division, according to BetMGM. No one had them picked to win the division, especially over the Chicago White Sox, who had spent $130 million more than the Guardians for their players. 

Yet on Sunday, Sept. 25, the Cleveland Guardians clinched the AL Central after winning 17 of their last 20 games, including 10 wins in 12 games against their division rivals, the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox. They managed to do this as the youngest team in the MLB, with an average player age of 26. They are the first team since the 1986 New York Mets to have made the playoffs while being the youngest team in the league. With no other star players, the team took the mentality of “letting the kids play,” using their deep young talent pool to see which players would fit in their lineup for the long term. Surprisingly, many rookies made their mark—they are the first team in MLB history to win their division while seeing at least 16 rookies make their debut. As a result of the team’s youth, the Guardians feature one of the lowest payrolls in the MLB, but that hasn’t seemed to matter as they dominate teams that spend hundreds of millions more than them.

The season has not been easy on the Guardians, with the team having struggled early in April and May, but it has since blossomed into one of the most competitive teams in the major leagues. This happened under the direction of longtime manager Terry Francona, who defined the team’s identity and shaped the Guardians into a hustling team that would work each at-bat and get as many balls into play as possible, allowing the team to chain together several hits in a row and score runs—an old-school approach that sticks out in an age that focuses more and more on home runs. As a result, the Guardians lead the league in contact rate and strikeout rate. 

While their hits aren’t too powerful—with Cleveland leading the league in infield hits and being far down the list in home run leaders—just by virtue of their approach of hitting the ball as much as possible, inevitably some balls land and the players are able to make it to base. This is helped by the fact that the Guardians run the bases like no other team in the league, featuring the highest number of players that advance from first to third base on singles and the third most stolen bases in the league. With their high contact and aggressive baserunning, the team constantly grinds for each hit and score, allowing them to constantly apply pressure to opposing teams.

This approach is best epitomized by rookie outfielder Steven Kwan, who started the season simply refusing to strike out, becoming the first batter in the league since 2000 to see 116 pitches before swinging and missing while starting their career. Though he started out the season as a low-power hitter, his consistency and ability to reach base made him instantly stand out. His progression through the season has only made him better—in the division-clinching game on Sept. 25 against the Texas Rangers, Kwan hit his first career grand slam, winning the Guardians the game.

Meanwhile, pitching has been especially strong. Along with Bieber continuing to be as hot as ever, this year also saw the transformation of starting pitcher Triston McKenzie into an absolute machine. McKenzie has so far pitched three games with at least 10 strikeouts this season, tying him for first in organization history for such a single-season performance. 

The Guardians have also found in Emmanuel Clase a pitcher who can consistently close out games and whose consistent performances have ensured that the team holds on to slim victories. He refuses to allow opposing hitters to score home runs and, as a result, he leads the entire league in saves.

With José Ramírez locked down for years to come and a promising young roster, the Cleveland Guardians have a bright future ahead of them; but this season isn’t over yet. Now qualifying for the playoffs, the Guardians will host the best-of-three American League (AL) Wild Card Series in Cleveland, where they will face the to-be-determined No. 6 seed of the AL starting Oct. 7. How far they go into the postseason remains to be seen, but Cleveland has not won a World Series since 1948—the longest drought in MLB history—so the city is hungry to see a championship. The Indians couldn’t do it, but now with a new name and new identity, perhaps the Guardians can bring it home.