Inside the Guardians’ scorching start: Polaroids, bat slams and ‘saying the stupidest thing’

CLEVELAND — As Tanner Bibee assessed his changeup on Sunday afternoon, three teammates paused their Mario Kart battle, turned around and jumped and danced in the background of his view of a crowd of reporters. Carlos Carrasco, an affable, 37-year-old tot, snuck up behind Bibee and made faces at the camera.

The Guardians can’t stop winning. For once, April in Cleveland is a breeze. There’s always house music blaring in the clubhouse after games. There’s always a card game or video game or mini-hoop basketball game unfolding.

And every theory a player posits to explain the club’s sizzling start sounds revelatory. They’ve waxed poetic in recent days about togetherness and teamwork and accountability. Since they’re 16-6, the clichés sound profound. They certainly wouldn’t fit coming from, say, the 3-18 White Sox.

The Guardians were projected to flirt with a .500 record and if they stumbled their way into pseudo-contention, they’d have the forgiving AL Central to thank. Instead, in the 124-year history of the franchise, only one Cleveland team has submitted a better 22-game start.

Best starts in franchise history





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There’s more to it than the cheery, PG-rated explanations players have offered.

It’s Josh Naylor and his seismic jolts of energy that rattle the dugout. After bruising a baseball on Saturday night, he struck his own helmet with his bat and then slammed it on the ground like Thor’s hammer. Manager Stephen Vogt approved of the reaction to the home run so long as he didn’t force himself to the concussion list.

“He just blacks out and it’s pure baseball passion,” Steven Kwan said.

Josh Naylor is batting .325 with six home runs and a 1.016 OPS. (Jason Miller / Getty Images)

It’s the leadership of Austin Hedges, a treasured veteran backup catcher who left Cleveland, obtained a World Series ring with the Rangers and returned to the Guardians to share his findings. Hedges always knows what to say, even at his own expense.

“He’ll always be saying the stupidest thing in the world,” Kwan said, “so other people can say stupid things and it’s like, ‘Well, it wasn’t as dumb as what he said.’ People are allowed to blossom and feel safe and feel like a part of something.”

It’s not one secret ingredient fueling the Guardians through the first month of the season. It’s an amalgamation of healthy habits and fixes and improvements.

The other four times the club has started 16-6 include the franchise’s two World Series seasons (1920, 1948). They don’t make documentaries about 22-game starts, but Vogt couldn’t have scripted a better start for his new regime and for a team eager to confirm that their 2023 showing was a fluke, not their 2022 spark.

Maybe they needed to endure last season, one defined by failure and frustration.

On one hand, the Guardians can eliminate that rotten year from their memory banks. They can pretend Josh Bell, Mike Zunino and Kole Calhoun never donned a Cleveland uniform. The trade deadline mutiny in Houston never transpired. A September waiver-wire siege never stoked faint postseason hopes.

But, as Kwan surmised, the reality check is paying dividends. Failure is the best teacher.

“So many people had unsatisfactory years,” Kwan said. “Because we’re competitors, we don’t want to let that happen twice.”

Tacked to a wall near the entrance of the Guardians’ clubhouse is a bulletin board with polaroids of each winner of the team’s championship belt, strapped around the waist or draped over the shoulder of a key contributor to each victory. Tyler Beede, a non-roster invite who needed a strong camp and some injuries and illnesses to the pitching staff to earn an Opening Day spot, spent the $550 to acquire it and snaps each photo. He scribbles the date on each picture beside the autograph of the recipient.

There haven’t been many repeat winners. The Guardians have received production from every inch of their 26-man roster. A pinch-hit home run from Estevan Florial one afternoon and one from Will Brennan the next. A lockdown inning from Nick Sandlin one night and two from Tim Herrin the next. A conveniently timed three-run blast from David Fry here, a couple of rally-thwarting strikeouts from Hunter Gaddis there.

It’s Andrés Giménez inhaling sharply-struck baseballs like a turbo-charged Pac-Man. It’s Kwan resembling, as Naylor assured him, the best leadoff hitter in baseball.

“I’d probably walk him,” said Logan Allen, when asked for a pitcher’s scouting report on the league’s hits leader.

It’s little strokes of fortune, such as Ramón Laureano’s first-inning chopper Saturday night that skipped off third base to travel a wayward path to left field for an RBI double.

The Guardians are capitalizing on every mistake, a relentless pain in the kidneys to every opponent. They run until their legs go numb. They apply pressure to pitchers and fielders. They employ the bothersome brand of baseball that propelled them to the ALDS in 2022.

Even Hedges got in on the action on Saturday. Vogt noticed him straying off first base. The manager turned to bench coach Craig Albernaz and asked what Hedges could possibly be thinking.

“Oh no,” Vogt said as Hedges bolted for second, the manager’s greatest fear realized. Hedges slid in safely.

“OK, yeah!” Vogt shouted.

Vogt has pulled the proper levers as he plays the matchups, keeps everyone fresh and leans on the bats that are humming. He’s not the only coach drawing rave reviews. Vogt and Tyler Freeman can’t stop praising J.T. Maguire for his work in aiding Freeman’s seamless transition to center field. Kai Correa has fielders lining up before batting practice to corral one- and two-hoppers from a machine. Evan Longoria, a three-time Gold Glove Award winner, appreciated the drill so much he used to beg Correa to partner with him in any small ballpark space they could find.

The Guardians rank third in the majors in defensive runs saved, per FanGraphs.

This is far from a finished product, and over the course of 162 games, adversity lurks in every corner.

The Guardians are still waiting on consistency at the plate from the bottom half of the lineup. They’re waiting on a couple of outfielders to seize playing time. They’re waiting on the arrival of Kyle Manzardo, and perhaps, eventually, Chase DeLauter or Juan Brito or Johnathan Rodriguez or Daniel Schneemann. They’re waiting on stability in the rotation. They haven’t had a starting pitcher complete six innings in nearly three weeks. Gavin Williams, who could soon begin a rehab assignment, should help.

It’s not as though 26 players are all performing at untenable levels. This isn’t some juggernaut that ranks fifth in the league in runs per game; it’s a work in progress squeezing out every last drop of production to get to that ranking (5.6 per game). This isn’t another case of the customary Cleveland pitching factory shenanigans unveiling a new batch of capable young starters; this is a staff being forced to stitch together its pitching plan a day or two at a time.

The Guardians rank second in the league in percentage of baserunners who ultimately score. They rank first in reaching on errors. They rank middle of the pack in homers, a welcome leap from the bottom of the leaderboard. Tito’s Bloop Troop has evolved into Vogt’s Balanced Brigade (we’re still workshopping a better nickname).

After a triumphant four days in Boston last week, Hedges cautioned to his teammates that a weekend at home against the A’s — who have played pesky, near-.500 ball against everyone but the Guardians this season — was “a trap series.” They couldn’t exhale or take their foot off the proverbial pedal. They couldn’t deviate from the mindset they have employed for weeks just because they’re winning games.

“That’s the kind of guidance that I don’t think we had last year,” Kwan said. “Maybe we were thinking it, but nobody said it out loud.”

They now know what they were lacking last season, what they weren’t doing well enough, what they took for granted. They have the perspective necessary to ensure they don’t repeat it.

“You’re seeing the fruits of it now,” Kwan said. “But things are easy when you’re winning.”

(Photo of Josh Naylor celebrating his two-run homer on April 20: Jason Miller / Getty Images)

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