Embracing Their Strength (or Lack Thereof)

When Mike Trout or Shohei Ohtani hit home runs, they get a Samurai helmet placed on their head as they return to the Angels’ dugout. The San Diego Padres strike a cheesy pose with their conquering homer heroes and snap a dugout Polaroid.

In Milwaukee, the celebrations call for the slugger to travel the length of the Brewers’ dugout while wearing a cheesehead hat, while the Chicago White Sox commemorate the moment with a mobster jacket and hat.

But when the Cleveland Guardians have a player go deep, the only thing that occurs is some good, old-fashioned cheering from the bench.

“No, we don’t celebrate,” designated hitter Josh Bell said, referring to the elaborate and choreographed rituals practiced by more than a third of Major League Baseball teams. “Not yet. There’s no jacket. There’s not some kind of crown.”

Of course, it takes a minute to notice the lack of props because there are so many minutes — or hours, sometimes days — between home runs. With just 48 this season, Cleveland has smacked the fewest in M.L.B. Last year, during the Guardians’ improbable run to a division title and the postseason, they ranked 29th of 30 teams.

“If you don’t hit them, maybe you better celebrate more,” Guardians Manager Terry Francona joked.

On the rare occasions when a Cleveland Guardians player hits a home run — it’s usually José Ramírez, right — the celebrations are mostly high-fives and a little cheering.Credit…Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

At the other extreme are the Tampa Bay Rays, who have broken out this season with an unexpected power surge. Baseball’s first team to 50 wins, Tampa Bay has smashed 120 home runs through Thursday, the second most in the majors, after ranking 25th in 2022.

Cleveland and Tampa Bay are analytically minded teams that follow their own well-executed roster-building formulas. Each has been highly successful: Cleveland has won four of the past seven American League Central titles and is one game out of first place this season (albeit in baseball’s weakest division and with a losing record); Tampa Bay is third in regular season victories in the majors since 2008.

Oddly enough, Tampa Bay’s 2023 power surge relates directly to Cleveland, and last October’s A.L. wild-card round between the teams. In losing both games of the best-of-three series to the Guardians, the Rays mustered only one run in 24 innings. Most excruciating was the second game, when Tampa Bay was eliminated with a 1-0, 15-inning defeat. The Rays went 6 for 49 in that game and struck out 20 times.

“We sat there for four hours and really didn’t have any competitive at-bats,” Chad Mottola, Tampa Bay’s hitting coach, said. “We weren’t even close. They got humbled. I got humbled.”

He added: “We had the same group returning, so it was just one of those things, like, we have to make an adjustment. We can’t just do the same thing.”

Out of that wreckage came a unique drill this spring in which Mottola asked his hitters to run through several sessions each in the batting cage, without swinging, during which they faced a pitching machine hurling a variety of pitches. The idea was to simply focus on identifying pitches and locations.

As each pitch was delivered, the stationary Tampa Bay batter called out pitch type and location. “Fastball, high.” “Curveball, outside.” “Slider, over the plate.”

In Milwaukee, they celebrate home runs by making players wear a cheesehead.Credit…John Fisher/Getty Images
After the Angels celebrated homers with a cowboy hat last year, they switched to a Samurai helmet for 2023.Credit…Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
The San Diego Padres strike a pose after homers, with a Polaroid being taken of the celebratory player with his teammates.Credit…John Bazemore/Associated Press

As each did, digital tracking devices relayed pitch information to the stadium scoreboard. This allowed the hitters to confirm whether they were correct or were wrong.

The Rays never talked about home runs. That wasn’t the point.

“We just wanted the quality of the at-bat to be better,” Mottola said. “We didn’t anticipate the home runs going up. We just wanted to make better decisions on pitches, get deeper into the count if the guy is not giving you drivable pitches. And still, at this point, we are not talking about home runs at all.”

The trickiest part, Mottola said, was when the hitters went back into the cages after the pitch-watching sessions. Batters found their timing was off and their swings had to be recalibrated, even if just by a little. Six or seven Rays batters have continued the program into the season.

Luke Raley, Tampa Bay’s 28-year-old designated hitter, is one of them. Having entered 2023 with just three career homers in 144 plate appearances, Raley had 12 in 188 plate appearances through Wednesday, tied for third on the team with Yandy Díaz and Jose Siri. Isaac Paredes had 13. Randy Arozarena, who had a breakout postseason in 2020, led the team with 14.

“It definitely helps to recognize pitches when you take the swing out of it,” said the brawny Raley, whose family owns a Christmas tree farm in northeast Ohio. Typically, he watches a half-dozen or so pitches as part of his work before taking pregame batting practice on the field.

Overall, this year’s M.L.B. home run rate of 1.15 per game through Wednesday was tied for the seventh-highest ever. The Rays have been slugging so fiercely that, at one point last month, the last three hitters in their order had combined to hit more homers than the entire Guardians team.

Cleveland’s Steven Kwan shows power in batting practice but he and the Guardians’ other two outfielders have combined for only six home runs this season.Credit…David Dermer/Associated Press

Neither the Rays nor the Guardians spend much on free agents, let alone sluggers. Cleveland’s payroll (just under $91 million) ranks 26th in the majors this season and Tampa Bay (just under $80 million) is 27th.

While Tampa Bay left Cleveland last October looking for a new approach, the Guardians, who had won 92 games in the regular season and eventually fell to the Yankees in a division series, continued on a steady path, emphasizing on-base percentage, youth and speed.

They are the majors’ youngest team for a second consecutive season with an average age of 26.4 years. They also are one of the fastest teams in baseball, with three regulars (Amed Rosario, Andrés Gímenez and Myles Straw) being ranked in the top 35 in the majors in sprint speed.

“I think power is grown into,” said Chris Valaika, Cleveland’s hitting coach. “And I think with a lot of our guys, they have the contact and I would rather have that approach right now. Have contact and we can continue to mature. And as these guys settle into their second and third years in the big leagues, maybe have some familiarity with the pitchers that they know when to take those chances to look to slug.”

He added: “Right now, I feel like they’re getting their feet under them. They’re learning how to be big leaguers. In time, I think we’re going to see the power numbers jump from a lot of our guys.”

Cleveland’s regular starting outfield of Will Brennan (4), Steven Kwan (2) and Straw (0) has combined for just six dingers, with Straw being the only qualified M.L.B. batter who has not gone deep this season. When the perennial All-Star third baseman José Ramírez blasted three in one game earlier this month against Boston, it was an eye-opener.

Yandy Díaz came into the season with a career slugging percentage of .411. He was at .515 through Wednesday.Credit…Gregory Bull/Associated Press

“It was sick,” Straw said. “You felt like he was going to get a fourth, too.”

Once, Cleveland’s fans were accustomed to power. Albert Belle flaunted his biceps in the dugout. Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, David Justice and Roberto Alomar all brought thunder in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But these days, the Guardians understand who they are — and who they must be.

“Kwan will be hitting home runs in batting practice, working on things we talk about, opportunities to impact the ball, and José will be behind the cage chirping at him — ‘Hey, play your game. Stay through the middle’,” Valaika said, smiling.

“We all want the slug, obviously. But our guys have also embraced our identity.”

Without power, though, the margin for error is slim.

“Not only weren’t we hitting the ball out of the ballpark earlier, we weren’t hitting for average, either,” Francona said of his team, which tumbled under .500 on April 22 and has been clawing back ever since. “That’s not a good combo. We need to get our hits because we take a lot of pride in running the bases and being aggressive.”

He added: “I respect how our guys play. But three-run homers are welcome, believe me.”

Maybe when they do come, the Guardians will see cause for more celebration. The Rays, who are still new to the home run game, aren’t particularly imaginative in that regard, forming a “Home Run Tunnel” in which they raise their hands above their heads as the bopper runs through it.

“I think that’s what makes us different,” Díaz said in Spanish of the team’s understated celebrations through his interpreter, Manny Navarro. “We don’t need it.”

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