While Michael Brantley has been grabbing much of the attention for his breakout year, another young Tribe player has been having arguably as good of a season offensively. Of course I’m speaking of none other than Lonnie Chisenhall, who ranks 1st on the team in AVG, OBP, SLG, OPS, wOBA, and wRC+ (minimum 100 plate appearances). What’s more amazing is that the only reason Chisenhall made this team out of spring training was because of Jason Giambi cracking a rib and ending up on the DL (someone send Edwin Jackson a fruit basket pronto!).
Regardless of how he made the club, Chisenhall has been one of the bright spots offensively for the Tribe. That is of course when Francona has penciled his name into the lineup, which to this point has been almost exclusively in a platoon role. Combine his platoon use with his high batting average on balls in play (BABIP), and one has to wonder whether he is really breaking out as a star or if it’s all been a matter of luck with him. Let’s start first with how “lucky” Lonnie Chisenhall has been this season. While he has hit a team high .361 this year, it’s still his .412 BABIP that many focus on, which has led to the term “lucky” getting thrown out. Has he been lucky? Well yes he has been somewhat as a .412 BABIP would be nearly impossible to maintain; however, he has not been nearly as lucky as that BABIP seems to suggest.
The common (mis)conception with BABIP is that .300 is average; anything above is lucky and anything below is unlucky. That’s not a terrible generalization of the stat, but in reality there’s a lot more to it. Not every player is the same; therefore, not every player should be expected to have the same .300 BABIP. If you want to really determine how “lucky” a batter has been you need to look at how he’s hitting and looking a players ‘expected’ BABIP, or xBABIP, is a way to do this. Now there are a few different calculations for coming up with xBABIP; however, they all have the same general principal. The idea is that a certain percentage of Line Dives, Groundballs, and Fly Balls should on average fall for hits. Line Drives should he hits most of the time, groundballs less of the time, and flyballs way less. So a guy that is a line drive type of hitter should have a higher expected BABIP than a guy that is a fly ball hitter. Even if you’re not a big fan of numbers, I think most would agree this makes sense.
This brings us back to Chisenhall and his lucky season, where he has a .367 xBABIP this year thanks to his very high linedrive rate of 30.8%. Now that may be unstainable long-term and helps explain his elevated BABIP. However, Chisenhall does have a good line drive swing; it’s a trait that scouts have raved about since he was first drafted. His career line drive rate is over 22% now and even prior to this season was nearly 21%. Truth is Chisenhall is making great contact this year and you really don’t need numbers to tell you that. That said, an xBABIP that is 45 points lower than his actual BABIP does mean that Chisenhall has been on the lucky size this year. However, on the other hand, his xBABIP is also 67 points higher than the .300 BABIP number that many believe he should be at. Using his xBABIP to come up with an expected hit total, Chisnehall’s expected batting average is still a very good .324 this year (.375 OBP). Furthermore, if you assume that of his expected hits in play (non-Homeruns) he still singles and doubles at the same rate, then his expected OPS this year is actually still over .850. So while Chisenhall’s breakout year has been aided by some luck, it’s been far from the sole reason for his incredible year thus far. He’s simply swinging the bat better and becoming the hitter the Tribe thought he’d be when they made him a 1st round draft pick.
Now that we’ve got the luck factor out of the way, let’s look at the platoon issue with Chisenhall. It’s a pretty widely held belief among Tribe fans that Lonnie Chisenhall is a platoon lefty who can’t hit left-handed pitching. He’s gotten this platoon tag by hitting just .194 with a .612 OPS vs LHP in his first three big league seasons. Some pretty ugly numbers; however, in those three seasons he only amassed 129 plate appearances against lefties, an average of 43 per season. I am also not saying that the Tribe has handled Chisenhall’s platoon situation poorly to this point. He had obviously struggled and bringing a young-lefty slugger along in a platoon role early in his career is not a bad thing. I bring this up because his numbers versus lefties heading into 2014 were eerily similar to another left-handed hitting slugging third baseman that came up thru the Tribe farm system. I’m of course talking about the one and only Jim Thome. Thome debuted with the Indians back in 1991, yet in 1994 when Jacob’s Field opened he was sitting on the bench with lefty Randy Johnson on the hill while Mark Lewis was in the starting lineup. That’s right Tribe fans; it took parts of four seasons for Thome to finally secure a non-platoon role with the Indians. In those first four seasons Thome hit .193 with a .617 OPS vs LHP in 185 plate appearances, an average of 46 per season. While Thome improved vs LHP later in his career, he still had a giant platoon split as his OPS vs RHP was 1.034 and his OPS vs LHP was .766 for his career (difference of 268 points).
Now is Chisenhall the next Thome? Well no, not even close really as they are simply very different types of hitters. However, I do think Chisenhall can be an everyday player like Thome was (even an All-Star) and that now is the time to remove the platoon tag. He has only 23 plate appearances against lefties this season yet has made the most of them by hitting .500 with a 1.245 OPS. Small sample size of course but not sure what more he can do offensively at this point to warrant more playing time.
Besides, it’s not like the Indians don’t have other hitters in the everyday lineup with similar career platoon struggles. Michael Brantley’s career OPS vs LHP heading into the 2014 season was only .633, a mere 21 points higher than Chisenhall’s career mark. Brantley had 653 plate appearances in his previous five big league seasons. Brantley averaged more plate appearances a season vs LHP (130) than Chisenhall had total in his career, and yet he really wasn’t all that better. That is no knock on Brantley though, merely giving some context to how little chance Chisenhall has been given vs left-handed pitching in his career and how he actually hasn’t been as bad as fans think. In fact, Chisenhall now holds a better career OPS vs LHP than Brantley (.702 vs .660). Hell, Chisenhall’s career OPS vs LHP is actually only 46 points lower than his career OPS vs RHP (.702 vs .748)! This has become more of a when will it happen versus a should it happen debate in regards to Chisenhall as a platoon player. Bottom line, the training wheels need to come off so Tribe fans can fully enjoy his breakout season Chisenhall is having.