The Cleveland Indians are in the enviable position of having a solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist- surplus offense. Thus far into the season they are sixth in the league in runs scored and while they pack a -20 run differential, most of that has to do with a defense that has redefined shooting yourself in the foot. Michael Brantley has broken out, David Murphy looks like a genius signing, and even if they aren’t hitting (and sitting on the disabled list right now) both Carlos Santana and Nick Swisher see so many pitches it’s bound to kick in sooner or later. Amid all this is Lonnie Chisenhall, unabashedly the Tribe’s hottest hitter in 2014 and the team can’t find him enough playing time. He’s hitting .369/.424/.532 in what he called the best stretch of 100+ at-bats in his career. That’s saying something, since all he did was destroy pitches in the minors. Surely he’ll cool down at some point, but even going from the inferno he is to a nice warm campfire isn’t enough to warrant demotion or relegation to a bench role. So the question is, what do the Indians do with Lonnie Chisenhall?
So he’s only faced a left-hander sixteen times this season, and a lot of his success to this point is Terry Francona using him judiciously against righties to maximise Lonnie’s skills and make sure he’s comfortable. That’s a big part of managing, is keeping guys comfy. Like a kind of daycare for grown men. Lonnie hasn’t done the best against lefties so far in the majors, he’s got a .612/.714 OPS split three years in. All the talk and written word mentions his problems with lefties. It’s part of his perceived being. But really, how true is it?? He crushed everything in the minors, some of those AB’s had to come against lefties. Are the 682 plate appearances prior to this year, 182 of which were against left-handers, where he was being yo-yoed back and forth from Columbus and Akron while still growing into himself enough to judge a guy’s merits in the big leagues? It’s not to say that he’s suddenly learned how to be Barry Bonds, he’s just learning how to be a major leaguer.
Players struggle against same-handed pitchers because it’s generally accepted they have a harder time picking up the pitch out of the hand. They have a harder time seeing what’s coming and where it’s going. For Lonnie that problem is partially mitigated because his short, quick and powerful swing gives him a shot every time. He doesn’t have a big Adam Dunn looper that takes a few minutes to get through the strike zone, his is more Mauer-ian and results in high contact rates. It takes time for that to translate to hits as you get used to major league pitching, so two months into the season what are we to believe if not what we’ve seen? Granted, you look at the list of left-handed pitching he’s seen this year, the best on there is Jose Quintana or maybe Brian Matusz as a reliever. Francona’s strategic use of Chisenhall is helping him mature as a player, getting him used to what major league left-handed pitching looks like. So he’s got a 1.215 OPS against lefties compared to “just” .915 facing right-handers. It’s amazing and makes little sense based on his history and how splits usually work. There’s got to be some grain of truth to it.
It seems as though a 24 year old who would be near if not at the top in all offensive rate categories if he met the qualifiers has earned at least a chance at having an everyday role. The only question is, where? He can play first, third and DH. Between him, Swisher, Santana, and some other odds and ends, there’s at-bats to be had, but I don’t think he’s going to stick at any one spot. Not yet anyway.
It doesn’t make sense to just platoon Chisenhall with Raburn at DH, that’s a waste of any athletic ability a 24-year old has. Raburn has been near nonexistent at the plate this year anyway, and we’ve all seen Carlos’s struggles at third. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s heard the cry come out that Chisenhall should get the majority of time there. It feels like a bit of recency bias though. After all, it’s not as though he’s aces at third, just a couple games ago he had a couple just dreadful throws and flubs in the field. It could be a repetition thing, he’s just out of practice, but this whole Santana to third thing has to be allowed to run its course. He’s a better hitter than Chisenhall is, at least when he’s right, and since Yan Gomes has catcher on lock at this point Carlos needs to see the field. He’s being given a shot to start somewhere every game with Swisher and Santana both on the shelf for a few days, perhaps he can force himself onto the field with his bat, the thing that got him here in the first place.
This dirty, filthy start to the season is not tenable, that’s plain. Just as his batting average on balls in play was in the tank last year at .243 last year, it’s a bananas .427 this season – that’s just beyond lucky. Combine that with his line drive rate, up at 30.8% which would be tops in the majors if he’d played enough, there’s a lot of room for regression here. All the same, the way Lonnie hits is tailor-made for a high BABIP. His swing creates line drives more than anything and he’s learning to use the whole field, not just pull everything. He’s not walking much, but nobody ever expected him to in the first place. He’s a pure hitter – hitters swing the bat, and it leads to hits or outs. Walks are nice, but it’s not his mindset. His aggressiveness makes him who he is.
Are there 450, 500 at-bats spelling Swisher and Santana and playing DH? Third, first DH, some weird new position they invent just for him, get Lonnie Chisenhall in the lineup five days a week by any means necessary. Where he plays can change, but is Chisenhall’s name on a locker in Progressive Field and in the lineup. He’s proven he’s a major league hitter, now it’s just time to find out where.