May 31, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall (8) celebrates after hitting a two-run home run during the sixth inning against the Colorado Rockies at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The Evolution of Lonnie Chisenhall

If you’ve been following the Indians this season, you’ve probably heard a lot about the great season that Lonnie Chisenhall is putting together.

He’s only just now starting to get national attention because of his game against the Rangers on Monday, in which he went 5-5 with 3 home runs and 9 RBI. But Chisenhall has been on a tear throughout all of 2014.

Chisenhall is currently hitting .385/.429/.615 this season, and his 181 plate appearances are only 17 short of being able to qualify for the league lead in batting average. He’s also added 7 long balls to go with 32 RBI.

Chisenhall’s stats may be somewhat unsustainable, but there’s no doubt that the improvements he’s made are a great sign. (Credit: Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports)

A former top prospect who many were starting to give up on, Chisenhall has finally started to put it all together in the majors. With the terrific season he’s putting together, it’s hard to believe that his struggles had a lot to do with Carlos Santana being named the team’s primary third baseman at the beginning of this season. However, with as well he’s been playing so far, the Indians have done whatever they can to have Chisenhall in the lineup as much as possible. Even though he had never before played first base in his professional career, the Indians have played him there in 11 games so far this season. He’s played well, and the Indians have realized how important it is to have his bat in the lineup, even if it means finding new positions for him to play.

Quite simply, Chisenhall has been terrific in 2014. In the 51 games he’s played in so far this season, Fangraphs has already valued him at 2.0 wins above replacement, while Baseball-Reference pegs him at a nearly identical 1.9 WAR.

This spring, I wrote a season preview on Chisenhall, noting that his chances in Cleveland seemed to have been running out. After mentioning the fact that he needed more playing time to adjust to the majors, I wrote the following:

But if [Chisenhall is] given enough time to adjust his game and to iron out the wrinkles, the potential reward could be tremendous.

Well, Chisenhall has gotten enough playing time to iron out those wrinkles, and what do you know? As of right now, the reward has definitely been tremendous — to say the least. His success in 2014 makes it look even better that the Indians elected not to include him in a potential trade for starter Matt Garza at the Trade Deadline last season.

One of the reasons Chisenhall has played so well this season has been his new ability to hit left-handed pitching. Despite a career line of .248/.282/.436 against southpaws, he’s hitting .520/.556/.680 against them in 28 plate appearances this season. Without a doubt, that’s a small sample size, but that’s exactly how the Indians planned it. The Tribe played him almost exclusively against righties at the beginning of this year, but started to gradually expose him to left-handers as he continued to hit well. After hitting well against southpaws, the Indians have continued to give Lonnie Baseball more opportunities to prove that he’s figured out lefties.

Now, that’s not to say that Chisenhall will be able to keep up the pace he’s been on this season. After all, he has an astronomically high BABIP of .420 — well over 100 points higher than league average — and it’s almost certain that he’ll start to come back down to earth sooner or later. But even that’s not a problem, because Chisenhall is starting to prove that he can be a really good major league hitter. With the adjustments he’s made, even the “back down to earth” version of Chisenhall still looks like an appealing option.

Chisenhall still doesn’t walk a lot (and probably never will), but his strikeout rate is significantly better than it ever has been (it’s only 13.8% in 2014). Strikeouts and walks are not a big part of Chisenhall’s game, as he usually makes a lot of contact. So, while his BABIP suggests regression, Chisenhall has been putting a lot of balls in play and his BABIP isn’t the only thing that’s made his numbers look as good as they’ve been in 2014.

Essentially, he’s making much harder contact this season. That’s part of why his BABIP is so inflated, but it’s an encouraging sign to see. The more contact you make, the better chance you have of getting hits — and that’s exactly what Chisenhall is doing. It’s extremely unlikely that he’ll hit .385 for the rest of the season, but the improvements he’s made at the plate are genuine.

While in the minors, he was praised for his sweet swing and hitting ability. It’s taken longer than expected for those skills to translate to the majors, but they certainly have. Better late than never, I guess.

So, while his critics will say that everything Chisenhall has done this season is a fluke, that doesn’t appear to be true. He’s maturing as a hitter right before our eyes, and he’s doing things at the plate that no one could have imagined he would be.

There’s no telling how good Chisenhall can be, and I can’t wait to find out.

 

 

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