The battle for the Cleveland Indians’ Opening Day third base job is officially over: Lonnie Chisenhall was cut from the roster Tuesday. Chisenhall had the backing of what seemed to be a majority of local analysts (and perhaps even greater support from national columnists) but the team brass ultimately decided to let Jack Hannahan start at the hot corner—at least, for now.
The news is somewhat disappointing. Chisenhall obviously has quite a bit more upside than Hannahan. He’s our third baseman of the future and a year ago was our clear top prospect, so a lack of confidence in his ability is disheartening. It also reflects the setbacks he’s suffered in his development—the whole point of delaying his debut in 2011, we were told, was to ensure that when he got called up he’d be in the majors for good.
Here’s the thing, though: Lonnie Chisenhall isn’t ready for the starting job, and sending him to Triple-A was absolutely the right decision. Heading into spring training, there was one key thing he needed to prove—and he didn’t do it.
Chisenhall had never shown great plate discipline in the minors, but he was solid both at getting on base and at making contact. He has an 8.6 percent walk rate in his minor league career, and that only rose as he worked his way up to higher levels of the Indians’ organization. In 66 games with Triple-A Columbus last year before his MLB debut, his walk rate almost hit 10 percent.
So, too, did he keep his strikeouts under control. He owns a 15.2 percent career walk rate in the minors, and in his first professional season he struck out just 32 times in 305 trips to the plate. He posted an excellent walk-to-strikeout ratio of .56, including a .60 mark at Triple-A; his BB/SO ratio dipped below .5 only once in four MiLB seasons.
Almost every player’s numbers decline when he reaches the majors—if the pressure doesn’t get to him, the superior level of competition will—but most impact adjustments aren’t as dramatic as Chisenhall’s. He pressed at the plate and it showed. His walk rate slipped below 4 percent and he struck out more than six times for each free pass he earned. His pitch selectiveness simply abandoned him, as he chased 39 percent of pitches he saw out of the zone; his impatience would have put him sixth in the league had he gotten enough plate appearances to qualify.
Plate discipline isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for a player to have success in the majors. Chisenhall would likely have made the roster if his glove was as good as Hannahan’s. Even on offense, good hitters don’t always keep their walks high and strikeouts low: Ichiro Suzuki walked less than 5 percent of the time in his stellar 2009 season, and the active leaders in strikeouts are Jim Thome and Alex Rodriguez. But Chisenhall doesn’t possess Ichiro’s elite contact skills or A-Rod’s prodigious power.
Chisenhall’s task this spring was to show that he had regained the composure that he had lost in 2011. But instead he pressed at the plate and his pitch selectiveness seemed to get even worse: he led the team with 16 strikeouts in as many games while taking only one walk. Spring training numbers should obviously be taken with a massive grain of salt, but it was concerning that the biggest weakness of Chisenhall’s game didn’t look any better than it did last year.
The remedy for a player who’s struggling at the plate isn’t to let him fail in games that count, it’s giving him a chance to work on his approach in the minor leagues. Even if the problem is more about his nerves and mindset than physical ability, he isn’t ready for The Show. Letting his confidence build up at Triple-A has to be better than having it shatter in the majors—both for 2012 and his long-term development.
If Cleveland were still in rebuilding mode, giving Chisenhall a chance might be worthwhile. But they’re not. Even if they’re not expected to make the playoffs, the Indians should at least be serious contenders for a postseason berth for most of the year. Hannahan’s surer bat and phenomenal glove make him the best option they have at the hot corner right now.
It’s disappointing on a number of levels that Chisenhall didn’t win the third base job, and there’s no question that the Indians will be better off with him at the hot corner once he’s ready. But that time hasn’t come yet, and the team made the right (if unpopular) choice in sending him down.