The life of a Cleveland Guardians fan is a stressful one.
It’s tough enough when the team faces constant payroll cuts while losing to a different subpar rival each year (thanks, Detroit). But life has been particularly hard lately. Fans must watch as player after player struggles in Cleveland, leaves the team, and thrives elsewhere.
Greg Allen is the perfect example. The former Tribe outfielder played in Cleveland for four seasons. In three of them, he recorded a batting average of .229 or lower. In his final season, which included a trade to San Diego, he ended with an average of .154. Now, he is a difference-maker in the Yankees offense, a speed demon in an otherwise plodding lineup. He even accomplished an obscure feat, becoming the first Yankee with at least two steals, a double, and a triple in his first four games in the Big Apple, according to Katie Sharp of Stathead. Come on!
Sure, the sample is small. Allen has only played five games in New York, though a .417 average through those five games rivals anything he did offensively in Cleveland. But even with a small sample, it hardly matters. Allen’s 0.4 bWAR through five games is equal to Allen’s best cumulative bWAR in any entire season with the Indians.
To outsiders, this is bizarre. How could Allen leave Cleveland and see such an immediate turnaround? To Tribe fans, though, this is an iron law. Ask any Cleveland follower on the street, and they can rattle off players who found greener pastures elsewhere. Some of them are quite notable. Yandy Diaz, a member of the Tampa Bay roster in the most recent World Series, is an Indians castoff, sent away in December of 2018. Gio Urshela, a Yankees player who helped knock the Indians out of the playoffs last year, is another one.
Both Diaz and Urshela were young and struggled to hit in Cleveland. Both are now starting on competitive rosters.
The list goes on. The Indians severed ties with Tyler Naquin, an AL Rookie of the Year finalist in 2016, before this season. He now plays for the Reds, batting fifth with a much-improved average. The Indians took Naquin in the first round of the 2012 draft, so his success elsewhere stings. Jake Bauers, part of the return the Indians received for Yandy Diaz, was, ahem, not very good in Cleveland. He never hit above a .226 average, and he ended 2019 with a -0.9 bWAR. He didn’t even make the Indians roster in 2020. They sent him to Seattle earlier this season, and he hasn’t been great — but even Bauers has increased his batting average from .190 to .248.
The bottom line is simple. All five players – Allen, Diaz, Urshela, Naquin and Bauers – are hitting better after leaving Cleveland. All five saw an increase in offensive WAR during their first season elsewhere.
What gives? It’s hard to say. Could it be the great pitching they faced in the AL Central? This is possible. Allen, Urshela and Diaz all went to the same division, after all. But is AL East pitching that much worse? Is facing Gerrit Cole, which Diaz does multiple times a year, much easier than facing Kenta Maeda?
Many fans offer a different explanation. As the Reddit page for Indians followers will scream at you, they blame the Tribe’s hitting coach, Ty Van Burkleo. He’s been Cleveland’s hitting coach since the 2013 season, so he coached each of these players. Could his presence explain their struggles? It’s difficult for an outsider to say.
In reality, fans can’t really know what causes this pattern. It could be Van Burkleo; it could be pitching; or, it could be some secret the other clubs aren’t telling the Tribe. Heck, it might be as simple as the cold Lake Erie weather. Batters are particularly odd creatures. We shouldn’t act like we know for sure why Indians players regularly succeed elsewhere.
But we sure can be upset about it.
If it were the Dodgers or the Yankees, this wouldn’t be as big of a problem. They have the money to bring in help. But this is Cleveland. Their strategy is to find young studs, keep them under affordable contracts, and hope they can collectively propel the team into the playoffs. Instead, the period since the team’s World Series berth has featured a struggle to maximize the potential of their position-playing youngsters.
To make matters worse, the return for these players has been underwhelming. The team let Naquin leave for nothing. Diaz yielded Bauers and Carlos Santana, the latter of whom produced an all-star season but is a veteran on the Royals now. The Indians sent Urshela to Tampa Bay for cash considerations or a Player To Be Named Later. They received the same compensation for Bauers. The only one involved in a major deal was Greg Allen, whom the Indians sent with Mike Clevinger to San Diego in exchange for a six-player haul. Clevinger was the anchor of the deal, so Allen’s impact was not major.
In short, these trades cost the Tribe two or three young, starting-caliber players. The team hardly improved long-term as a result.
Front offices sometimes make these mistakes. But five in a three-year period is brutal. The Indians now face dwindling odds of making the playoffs. Their chances of seriously contending over the next few years are relatively low, and fans wonder whether the team is good enough to keep stars like Jose Ramirez.
What is the path forward? Hopefully, it will at least include some batting practice.