Path to the All-Star Game for 5 Cleveland Guardians


CLEVELAND — At 25, Stephen Vogt was a third-string catcher in A-ball. At 30, he was a major-league All-Star.

So when he scanned the American League clubhouse at the 2015 All-Star Game and gawked at legends like Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, he had one thought: “What am I doing here?”

Vogt assured himself he belonged, but he admits it was a surreal experience. He entered in the fifth inning to catch Chris Archer; the two had come up together in the Rays’ system.

Now in his first year as the Cleveland Guardians’ manager, Vogt is guiding a team that will send five players to the All-Star Game, the highest count of any AL club. It’s the first time Cleveland has had that many since 2018. It’s the eighth time it’s had five or more in the past 60 years.

“Five very, very deserving people,” Vogt said.

After J.C. Mejía labored through a rough 2021 season, the Guardians traded him to the Brewers. No one imagined that the guy they got in return — officially, a player to be named later — would blossom into an All-Star.

Not even Fry.

“Heck no,” Fry said. “Maybe a Triple-A All-Star.”

Mejía has since been busted twice for PEDs. He’s serving a 162-game suspension.

Fry, after a year as a serviceable bench piece, has recorded a .305/.412/.508 slash line. Not only has he been a force at the plate and a right-handed threat lurking behind José Ramírez and Josh Naylor, but Fry’s ability to handle catcher, first base, third base, left field and right field offers Vogt tons of flexibility.

“(He) earned more playing time and was willing to move all over the field to do it,” Vogt said.

Well, there’s one thing. Fry always had a high chase rate in the minors and in his first year in the majors. This season, though, he has made massive improvements on that front, trimming his chase rate from 38.5 percent to 25.0 percent. That explains how his walk rate ranks in the 93rd percentile. He’s forcing pitchers into the strike zone, where he can inflict damage.

“I don’t think it’s really anything I did,” Fry said. “I’ve just gotten more opportunity.”

At the end of May, Fry’s numbers rivaled those of Aaron Judge and Shohei Ohtani at the top of the leaderboard. His peers took notice — they’re the ones who voted him in.

His numbers have cooled a bit over the past month, but the Irving, Texas, native still merited a midseason trip home to play on the grand stage in front of friends and family. He had originally planned to host Steven Kwan, Will Brennan and their girlfriends for some All-Star break pool time.

“I guess now we have to have a game in between,” he said.

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Steven Kwan, LF

There are only 11 major leaguers batting .300 or better. There’s only one batting .325 or better.

That would be Kwan, who is hitting a cool .364. Even if batting average isn’t the end-all, be-all, it’s still jarring to see one player outpacing his peers by such a large margin.

Kwan climbed to the big leagues and to the top of Cleveland’s lineup because of his elite contact ability and handling of the strike zone. Ahead of this season, he made a concerted effort to swing with more authority on pitches he knows he can damage. He adjusted his bat path and raised his launch angle, which explains this:

At-bats per home run, 2022-23: 109.2
At-bats per home run, 2024: 28.1

To get really technical, he ranks in the 98th percentile in launch angle sweet spot percentage (the frequency with which he’s striking the ball at the ideal angle). And he’s done all of this without sacrificing that contact ability. He’s striking out only 8 percent of the time, the second-best rate in baseball.

That’s a lot of fancy jargon to say: Kwan is a natural at the plate, and he’s made tweaks to evolve. One would imagine he’s on the short list of hitters a pitcher least enjoys facing.

Kwan missed four weeks with a hamstring injury, but he was a no-brainer for his first All-Star ticket. Fans in and outside of Cleveland took notice. He’ll start in an outfield with two Yankees behemoths in Aaron Judge and Juan Soto.

Humble as ever, Kwan called the honor “affirming,” but noted it requires plenty of work to maintain such a level of play.

“It shows where the ceiling can be,” Kwan said, “but obviously, with baseball, it’s every day.”

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José Ramírez, 3B

With his next home run, Ramírez will match his season total from 2023. For anyone wondering if he would start to decline in his age-31 season, there’s your answer.

Ramírez had a sluggish first few weeks of the season, but his OPS is pushing 1.000 over the past two months. This is his sixth All-Star nod and his third start, an incredible résumé for a guy who struggled to stick in the majors his first two years.

At that time, no one envisioned Ramírez would morph into one of the most prolific sluggers in team history. But here he is, almost a decade later, blazing a trail that could lead to Cooperstown.

Ramírez sits three home runs away from matching Albert Belle for second in Cleveland history. He needs 98 to tie Jim Thome for the top spot. By the end of the season, he’ll likely have notched his 1,500th hit. And he seems poised for a fifth top-five MVP finish (and a seventh top-10 finish).

As for the annual All-Star nod — ho-hum, no surprise.

“Seeing the respect he commands from other people,” Kwan said, “it’s definitely something I strive for.”

Josh Naylor, 1B

Naylor’s first season with Cleveland ended in a hospital, following a gruesome collision in right field in Minneapolis.

“It wasn’t that bad,” Naylor said. “We all get hurt. You just have to keep going in life.”

Well, sure. But we don’t all suffer severe leg and ankle injuries that require surgery because of an all-out effort on a fly ball in a big-league outfield.

Naylor returned to the field in 2022 and played his first full season in the majors. Last year, he emerged as an imposing figure in the middle of the Guardians’ order, someone who could hit lefties and righties. He was an All-Star snub, though. He carried a .305/.344/.481 slash line into the break, but he wasn’t invited to Seattle for the exhibition.

This year, there’s no such oversight.

“Being an underdog is a blessing,” Naylor said. “It keeps you working hard.”

Naylor has already established a career high with 21 home runs. He’s hitting the ball harder and doing so more often. The Guardians needed more from the power department this season after ranking last in the majors in homers in 2023. They’ve jumped to 10th in homers this year, in large part thanks to Naylor.

“It was difficult as a kid to make it to where I am today,” said Naylor, a native of Mississauga, Ontario. “Not many kids do. It’s a blessing. We don’t get scouted like American kids do or kids from other countries do. It’s difficult coming from Canada.”

Opposing hitters have compiled a .151/.188/.212 slash line against Clase this season.

Hmm, how can we place that in proper context?

The league instituted the universal designated hitter for the 2022 season. So pitchers last batted in 2021, and that year, in 59 plate appearances, then-Reds ace Luis Castillo posted a .163/.180/.204 clip.

In other words, Clase has turned every hitter he’s faced this season into Castillo. Coincidentally, Castillo had to step into the batter’s box last week for the first time in three years because Seattle’s catcher suffered an injury and its backup catcher was serving as DH. Castillo struck out looking on three pitches. He probably wouldn’t have fared any different if facing Clase.

This is Clase’s third consecutive All-Star nod, but he’s different this year. He’s throwing his cutter — that vaunted, 101 mph bowling ball that leaves a hitter’s hands stinging if contact is achieved — 80.8 percent of the time. In previous years, he created a 2-to-1 ratio between his cutter and slider. The new usage rate has made his slider more effective. Hitters are chasing it out of the zone 45.3 percent of the time, as opposed to 32.6 percent of the time last year.

As a result, he owns a 0.85 ERA and has trimmed his hits per nine innings from 8.4 to 4.7. He stands 12 saves shy of passing Cody Allen for the franchise record.

“He had a good year last year,” Vogt said, “but he wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to have a better one.”

Clase tended to a personal matter last year, so he didn’t pitch in the All-Star Game. Two years ago, he mowed down the NL in the ninth to secure the victory, needing only 10 pitches to strike out the side.

He’s headed for his fourth consecutive season of more than 70 appearances, and he invites the workload. He jokingly chirped at his manager in Kansas City last week because he hadn’t pitched in four days. As Vogt told him, he wants Clase out there, too. There’s no more assuring feeling than when he bursts through the bullpen doors to protect a ninth-inning lead.

“Helps my heart rate,” Vogt said. “That’s for sure.”

(Photo of David Fry: Jason Miller / Getty Images)





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