It took almost two months, but Lonnie Chisenhall has finally made it back to Cleveland. The Indians put Jack Hannahan on the 15-day disabled list with a strained calf, opening up a spot on the roster and in the lineup for the Tribe’s onetime top prospect and (still) presumed third baseman of the future.
It’s no surprise that Chisenhall got the call; he’s been raking at Triple-A, and despite his demotion at the beginning of the season. But should we expect him to continue tearing the cover off the ball in the majors? Or is he likely to disappoint again, as he did in his 66-game call-up in 2011?
The 23-year-old infielder started 2012 by hitting .321 in 117 plate appearances for Columbus with four home runs, 17 RBI, and an .892 OPS. Jeff Sackmann’s Minor League Equivalency Calculator translates those numbers to a .291 average and an .800 OPS at Progressive Field, and he’d be on pace to hit 18 homers and collect 84 RBI over 162 games—not bad for a player who lost his starting job in spring training. But, great as it would be if he could keep up that pace in the majors, there’s some reason to think that his hot start is unsustainable.
The key to Chisenhall’s success this year has been a sudden power surge. His .220 ISO is the highest of his minor-league career; it’s also the first time he’s topped .172 since 2009, and the he hadn’t shown real above-average pop since High-A ball. Yet Sackmann’s MLE projection has Chisenhall on pace for 84 extra-base hits over a full MLB season.
The question, then, is whether Chisenhall’s improved slugging ability is a genuine improvement in his game or the fluke of a small sample size. It is entirely plausible to expect that a promising prospect in his early 20′s would add some pop, and that he homered in Monday his first MLB at-bat after getting called up was definitely a good sign. Still, we should assume that Chisenhall will regress to his personal power mean to some degree unless and until he keeps it up long enough to demonstrate that it’s not a fluke.
But even if the power is for real, Chisenhall is certain to cool down somewhat because of his unsustainably high .356 BABIP. It’s hardly a stretch to think that a hitter like Chisenhall could maintain an above-average hit rate—especially in the minors, where the opposing fielders generally are not as good as those in the majors—but he has no track record of doing so. The last time his hit rate topped .300 was in High-A and he’s never posted a BABIP over .314 at any level.
Sackmann’s projection assumes a .337 BABIP with Cleveland; a hit rate that high isn’t out of the question, but it’s much higher than we should expect from Chisenhall going forward. Fewer balls dropping for hits will hurt his numbers across the board, no matter what level he’s playing in.
Finally, it’s also worth noting that Chisenhall hasn’t made any noticeable strides in his plate discipline. After showing solid pitch selectiveness on his way up through the minors (his walk rate peaked at just under 10 percent in Triple-A before his call-up last year), he lost his keen eye when he joined the Tribe: he walked just eight times in over 200 plate appearances in 2011 against 49 strikeouts. His BB/K ratio plummeted to 1:16 in spring training, which is why he was sent to Columbus to start the season.
Two months into the year it’s safe to say Chisenhall’s pitch selectiveness is stuck in neutral. Including his first game in Cleveland he has walked just four times in 121 plate appearances—a rate even worse than his 3.6 percent walk rate in the majors last year despite the fact that he’s been facing worse pitching. Meanwhile, his 17.1 percent strikeout rate in Columbus is his highest in the minors since before he reached Double-A.
It’s entirely possible to be a productive MLB hitter without having a Carlos Santana-like mastery of the strike zone. Vladimir Guerrero is (or at least, was) known for his ability to hit pitches way out of the zone like they were hanging over the plate. Ichiro Suzuki has never had a penchant for taking walks, and guys like Pablo Sandoval and Garret Anderson are further proof that you can swing away with big results. Chisenhall’s power and batted-ball success have more than compensated for his plate discipline problems so far, but if he starts to regress there he could be in trouble.
Last year in the majors, Chisenhall hit .255/.284/.415. Based on what he’s shown in Columbus we can probably pencil him in to slug closer to .440 this year, but unless his BABIP holds up he’s not likely to see major improvements in his batting average or OBP. He’ll be a solid fill-in for Jack Hannahan and it’s good to see him in a Cleveland uniform again, but don’t expect him to hit like he has in Triple-A.