Lonnie Chisenhall is one of the most promising young players in the Indians organization. He was universally hailed as the team’s top prospect before his debut last year, and though it took an injury to Jack Hannahan for him to get called back to The Show this year he is seen as the Tribe’s third baseman of the future. Though he’s experience some growing pains in adjusting to the big leagues, after watching him with Cleveland for more than three weeks I can’t help but be reminded of one of the best players of the last 20 years: Vladimir Guerrero.
Let me be clear: I am not saying that Chisenhall is or will ever be as good as Guerrero. Vlad the Impaler is a borderline Hall of Famer, and expecting anyone with less than a year of MLB experience (save perhaps Bryce Harper and Mike Trout) to have a career like that is ridiculous. And even if I did expect him to enjoy multiple years of MVP-caliber production, Chisenhall is neither a cannon-armed right fielder, as Guerrero used to be, nor a positionless DH, as Guerrero is now.
So what do Chisenhall and Guerrero possibly have in common? Aside from possessing perhaps the strongest outfield arm of his generation, Guerrero has been known for three distinct traits throughout his career. The first is tremendous power: he slugged over .550 nine years in a row, and with 449 career home runs he has a (small) chance of joining the 500 club. The second is an unorthodox interpretation with the strike zone (he isn’t picky about what pitches he chases). But most importantly, in his prime Vlad had the incredible ability to hit the junk pitches he swung at—I don’t think any baseball fan old enough to have seen Guerrero in his heyday has any trouble picturing him golfing a pitch an inch from the dirt over the fence for a home run.
Chisenhall didn’t have a real history of embodying any of those traits—at least until this year. After going two years without showing any significantly above-average power at any level, Chisenhall exploded to slug .541 in Triple-A Columbus. And power surge didn’t stop with his promotion. A 2-for-3 performance with a double Wednesday night brought his MLB slugging percentage up to .492, while his ISO and Power Factor stand at .220 and .813, respectively. Combine his numbers from both levels this year and he’s on pace for an eye-popping 76 extra-base hits over a full season.
Like Guerrero, Chisenhall also maintains a fairly lose relationship with the normative strike zone. His pitch selectiveness abandoned him upon impact in the majors last year, and it’s only gotten worse since. It was thanks to his plate discipline that he lost the Indians’ third base job in spring training, and it took him 58 trips to the plate to get his first walk in a Cleveland uniform in 2012. Entering Wednesday, Pitchf/x had him chasing a whopping 49.4 percent of pitches out of the zone. That’s by far the highest O-Swing rate in the majors among hitters with at least 50 plate appearances—for some perspective, no one else is even at 45 percent.
But, as with Vlad the Impaler, swinging at everything hasn’t cost him so far. He’s made contact with an impressive 81.8 percent of bad pitches he’s chased this year; that would rank sixth in the league if he had enough at-bats to qualify. Thanks to his uncanny ability to make contact even with junk pitches Chisenhall has a strikeout rate of just 11.7 percent so far, which works out to less than a punchout every eight plate appearances. That’s the best strikeout rate he’s posted since his days in Low-A ball, and he would rank among the league’s Top 10 if he had enough at-bats.
This isn’t to say that Chisenhall’s free-swinging approach is a good thing. That he is a powerful line drive hitter with a .265 BABIP suggests that his impatience has led to weak contact (though the sample size is too small for his BABIP to be meaningful), and his lack of walks hurts his overall production. But given that he’s going to chase pitches out of the zone, that he can put the bat on the ball is a positive.
There are some important differences between Guerrero and Chisenhall. Guerrero had far more power than Chisenhall has ever shown, and though he often swung at garbage he knew when to hold up, as evidenced by his 13.5 percent walk rate in 2003. What’s more, Chisenhall’s numbers so far don’t look anything like his minor-league history—he’s clearly lost his former pitch selectiveness and it’s entirely possible that a 23-year-old has added power, but we should expect some regression to the mean on both fronts. And, of course, Guerrero was one of the greatest players of his generation and could very well end up in Cooperstown.
Chisenhall isn’t nearly the player Guerrero once was—if he gets even halfway to Vlad’s level the Indians would have to call that a huge success—and until he (re)learns to take ball four his value will always be hindered by his lackluster on-base skills. But, consciously or not, Chisenhall is emulating one of the best players of our time when he swings for the fences on a pitch in the dirt.