Maitreyi Anantharaman: Well, well, well.
Barry Petchesky: This inaugural meeting of the Cleveland Guardians Haters Club is called to order. Do we want to give readers a peek behind the blog curtain? Originally, you, a Tigers fan, were going to explain to me, a Yankees fan who had spent roughly zero hours this season thinking about them, why I was about to absolutely hate the Guardians—an objectively correct opinion that you have developed over years’ worth of horrible familiarity. For various reasons we did not get to that blog until now, four games into the ALDS, by which time I have organically developed a seething hatred for them all on my own. Are you proud of me? Or petulant that I dismissed your Guardian-hating all year as irrational?
MA: Horrible confession: After a season of being driven mad by them, I’ve actually been rooting for the Guards a tiny bit, just so another fanbase can feel what I felt too. Of course, being hated means you’re doing something right. You should want other fans to find your team annoying. So I ought to distinguish between my homerish hatred of the Guardians (praying on Steven Kwan’s downfall each night, cursing Austin Hedges each morning) and my more enlightened resentment of their self-mythos, the narrative they’ve fashioned.
BP: Yes. Let’s set out up front that we are not unbiased parties here, and that we expect zero readers to have sympathy for me. But also the Guardians’ brand of baseball sucks mondo ass! Please tell me what the Guardians’ narrative is, to you.
MA: I want to parse that phrase “brand of baseball” in a minute, but the narrative is basically this, that the Guardians win thanks to their contact-heavy, “just put the ball in play,” approach on offense:
BP: So at first glance, that would seem cool and good and fun, right? Everyone loves a slap hitter, and everyone loves an underdog that plays hard and punches above its weight. What’s objectionable here, our soon-to-be-enlightened readers may be asking. I personally stopped asking that after their 17th hit on a little pop flare that dropped untouched in the shallow outfield. I liked Juan Pierre fine but I cannot abide an entire lineup built out of half-a-dozen Juans Pierre, plus Jose Ramirez.
MA: It’s frustrating to watch as a fan of the opposing team, that’s for sure. I thought about recapping the Dropped Third Strike Incident Of August 17 here, but actually it’s too painful. So several months removed from the last Tigers-Guards series, now that I’ve cooled down, the nature of my frustration has changed somewhat. What bothers me now is that the Guardians are a good baseball team, and the people running the Twitter account, at least, don’t seem to understand why. It isn’t really hustle or making contact; by about every good measure, the Guardians offense is below league average. If you make lots of contact, you often make lots of bad contact, too, and Cleveland’s hard-hit rate was the lowest in baseball. Their regular season wRC+ (a stat quantifying total offensive value and then controlling for park factors), for instance, is the lowest of any playoff team. Only one horrible and pathetic team, a team I certainly wouldn’t want to watch religiously, hit fewer home runs.
BP: Right. This series isn’t tied because Myles Straw runs hard out of the box or whatever. This series is tied because the Guardians have allowed just 22 hits over four games. The Guardos’ actual brand of baseball is running out insanely good starting pitchers for as long as they’re under team control and a seemingly endless conveyor belt of effective bullpen arms from some reliever factory somewhere. Which is certainly not an organizational philosophy unique to Cleveland—it’s basically what the Rays have done for more than a decade now, because that’s the most cost-effective way to compete in MLB. But to me the Guardians’ strategy feels even more cynical than that. They have spent the last few years asking themselves, and answering, the question of how little a team can spend and still win the AL Central. Turns out it’s very little.
MA: If you don’t spend much money on the lineup, run prevention is your brand of baseball. It’s not all finding Enyel De Los Santos on the clearance rack, to be sure. Myles Straw’s hustle out of the box may not win games—he was the second-worst qualified hitter in baseball this year—but the fantastic defensive center field he plays does. I’ve loved watching Andrés Giménez at second base. You might have heard me say, um, just one or two unkind things about Steven Kwan this summer, but I gotta hand it to him: He is a terrific left fielder. This tweet made me want to punch some dirt Zach Plesac–style, but it contains a kernel of truth. He is going to win a Gold Glove, and he’ll deserve it.
BP: Kwan is an extremely good fielder and I hope he has terrible diarrhea tonight. Meanwhile I’m sitting there, watching game after game of this…
…and I’m screaming at them to just hit the ball hard, like a normal team. Is this an aesthetic failing on my part, wanting them to win like contenders usually win? Or is there value in what they do, beyond “winning more games than the crudbucket rest of their division”?
MA: It’s a conundrum. The “right way” offense overshadows what is actually excellent about the team. I wonder if Emmanuel Clase reads the tweets about making contact and doing the little things and thinks, What? The only reason this works is because of ME. Small ball didn’t do them much good against the Rays in the Wild Card round, where they scored three runs in two games, all via long ball. The third game of the ALDS was particularly funny; the Guardians outhit the Yankees 15-5 and won just 6-5. Is that the “right way” or a much more difficult and less reliable way? MacGyver himself would admit there are better means to, say, recharge a battery than paper clips, a Swiss Army knife, and a wad of gum.
BP: Emmanuel Clase is probably too busy getting suspended for anabolic steroid use and being acquired for one damn inning of Corey Kluber’s busted shoulder! Sorry, I’m getting heated and personal.
MA: No, one more Emmanuel Clase digression. He’s the coolest. For the rest of my life, I won’t forget him striking out the side to end the All-Star Game. Go AL! But what I was saying is I dislike the moral/aesthetic conflation taking place in the Guardians discourse. The team pitches itself as standing in defiance of three-true-outcomes baseball, of the sport’s soulless and hyperefficient extreme. And that’s only superficially correct. I do get the charm. The Guardians play a fast, idiosyncratic, interesting style. If my fifth-grade teacher had wheeled in the television at lunch and told us we were going to watch old episodes of a show about a guy who recharges batteries with a battery charger he bought, we would have been very sad, I think. But assigning some moral value to it seems all wrong. The offense is enabled by the same hyperefficiency it supposedly rejects, just on the pitching side, where they do indeed pump out elite relievers. They can score so few runs because they allow so few runs. They win generally in spite of their offense and not because of it.
BP: Yeah, I take issue with the implication that a popgun offense, no matter how fundamentally sound, is somehow more principled than hitting home runs—or I guess more specifically, than paying people who hit home runs.
MA: The moralizing also forgets the intermediate pleasures of a double smoked down the line. It’s fun to see a baseball hit hard!
BP: As the fan of a team that employs Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, I agree with your proposal that high exit velo should award a team extra bases, perhaps even runs. Do you think that anyone reading this blog will be convinced by any of our arguments and turn against those spunky Guardians?
MA: No, I think they will call me an East Coast snob or something. To be extremely clear: I am not an East Coast snob, I am a Midwestern psycho, and if you ever call me an East Coast snob, I’ll hold a grudge against you for as long as I live. (Also Cleveland is the greatest place. Free top-notch art museum. Very nice city.)
BP: Never been! But all I’ll say to unattached fans is: If Cleveland wins tonight and gets steamrolled in the next round, gifting the Astros yet another damn pennant, don’t come crying to us.