Now that the 2013 season is complete, it’s time to take a look back at the team and how each player performed on the field. After focusing on Carlos Santana, Nick Swisher, and Jason Kipnis and Asdrubal Cabrera to lead things off, today we turn our attention towards Lonnie Chisenhall and his sweet swing.
2013 Projection: After being selected with the 29th overall pick in the 2008 draft, Indians fans have heard time and time again about Lonnie Chisenhall, his sweet stroke from the left side of the plate, and how he would become the next great hitter for the Cleveland Indians. After years of waiting, Chisenhall was finally given opportunities to make an impact at the big league level in both 2011 and 2012. Unfortunately, things did not go well on either occasion.
Chisenhall struggled in 2011 during his initial call up and was even worse during 2012. Injuries and a lack of plate discipline and pitch recognition resulted in a yo-yo act between Triple-A Columbus and the big league club in Cleveland. The stated goal on each trip back to the minors was to rebuild confidence, work on pitch selection, and figure out left-handed pitching. Chisenhall had shown he could hit right-handed pitchers with power, but it was southpaws who gave him the most trouble on a consistent basis. In order to become a reliable, every day player, he would have to learn how to hit left-handed pitching.
Heading into 2013, many were projecting a break out year for the 24-year old. With Jack Hannahan out of the equation, the third base job was Chisenhall’s to lose. Some projections, including Bill James, were expecting as many as 18 home runs and 70+ RBI. When he won the job out of Spring Training, hopes were high that he was ready to solidify the middle of the Tribe’s lineup and assume his spot at third base for years to come.
So What Happened?: The same issues that had plagued Chisenhall in 2011 and 2012 reared their ugly head once again. The end result was another lost season for Chisenhall as he made his way back and forth between Cleveland and Columbus. In the end, the Tribe’s Opening Day third baseman and “next great power hitter” played in only 94 out of 162 games for the Indians and put up rather pedestrian numbers.
In the end, Chisenhall finished the 2013 season with a disappointing slash line of .225/.270/.398 and 11 home runs to go along with only 36 RBI. As for solidifying the heart of the Indians lineup, Chisenhall was routinely placed in the eighth or ninth spot and given little to no responsibility from an offensive standpoint. He finished just barely above replacement level at 1.4 WAR despite being below average offensively at 88 OPS+ and 86 wRC+.
Even worse than Chisenhall’s poor offensive output was the fact that he allowed his struggles at the plate to effect his play defensively in the field. As he continued to sink deeper and deeper into offensive hell, Chisenhall stopped making the routine plays. In fact, he stopped making most plays all together. Terry Francona was able to overlook the offensive struggles and allow Chisenhall to work his was out of his slump, but when it began affecting his defense is when we began seeing a steady dose of Mike Aviles at third base. Even Mark Reynolds was considered a better alternative to Chisenhall at one point.
Where do we go from here?: The Indians have to hope that Chisenhall finally has things figured out at the big league level. While he will only be entering his age 25 season in 2014, still young by most accounts, the Indians need him to be their every day third baseman. Otherwise, it may be time to start discussing external options to once again fill the spot on a full-time basis until Chisenhall is ready.
One encouraging sign that things may be getting ready to turn in both the Indians and Chisenhall’s favor is how he closed out the season. For the month of September and their one playoff game in October, he posted a slash line of .270/.325/.595 with three home runs in 40 plate appearances. While the sample size is admittedly small, Chisenhall did begin doing things that point towards positive progression. He was more patient, he started taking walks, and he wasn’t trying to do too much. The most encouraging sign of all, Chisenhall struck out only four times in those 40 plate appearances after striking out 16 times in 66 August plate appearances.
It stands to reason then, barring a monumental shift in their thinking, that the Indians will have Chisnehall in their Opening Day lineup at third base, so long as a left hander is not on the mound. Until Chisenhall proves he can hit left-handed pitching at a respectable level, we will more than likely see a steady dose of Mike Aviles against left-handed starters again in 2014.
Key Moment: In August, Chisenhall hit a home run off of the Angels’ Jered Weaver to put the Tribe up 4-0. It was a seemingly uneventful home run until we realized that the ball was caught by the brother of Wahoo’s on First’s very own, Nick Houghtaling. Nick, who was at his first ever Indians game, can be seen high fiving his brother in the video immediately following the catch.