Jun 17, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall (8) hits a solo home run during the fourth inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Does Lonnie Chisenhall's Future Include a Contract Extension?

 

Yesterday I mentioned that the Tribe should look to extend All-Star snub Corey Kluber during this lull in the schedule.  However, he is not the only All-Star snub that the Indians should consider extending at this time.  Lonnie Chisenhall also should have been in the game Tuesday night.  It was a shame that a player that is top 5 in several offensive categories couldn’t find his way on to the All-Star team.  But like Kluber, I can’t help but think maybe this was a good thing for the Tribe.  Chisenhall’s first half break out season has been very fun to watch, but there are still some questions that need to be answered in regards to his both his offense and defense.  So what can the Tribe expect from Chisenhall going forward and should they also look at extending him this All-Star break?

First let’s look at how Chisenhall has performed through the 1st half of the season.  He’s been one of the best hitters in the American League this year no matter what stat you look at.  Here are his current numbers and AL ranks:

AVG:  .328, 4th
OBP:  .392, 4th
SLG:  .515, 10th
OPS:  .908, 8th
OPS+:  156, 5th
oWAR:  3.1, 10th
wRC+:  156, 5th
wOBA:  .396, 7th

Chisenhall has been a stud offensively; the numbers do not lie…or do they?

Unlike Kluber, Chisenhall’s performance leading up to this year didn’t exactly scream “breakout candidate”.  While his 2013 BABIP was extremely low (.243) suggesting he was unlucky, his xBABIP only suggested that he should have been around a .282 hitter with a .324 OBP and .785 OPS.  Very solid numbers but hardly the All-Star caliber numbers we are seeing from Chisenhall this year.  So what gives?

Well for starters his BABIP this year is .367, which is the total opposite of his 2013 season.  67 points higher than the “assumed” normal .300 number suggests he’s been extremely lucky this year in the same way that his .243 BABIP (also 67 points off the “assumed” norm) from last year suggested he was extremely unlucky.  So simple logic here would dictate that Lonnie is really somewhere in between what he was in 2013 and 2014.  However, things may not be quite that simple.

As I talked about in my last Chisenhall article, he has a great line drive rate this year (25.3%) that has helped him to a .345 xBABIP, which is only 21 points off of his actual BABIP.  One could argue that his LD-rate is simply unsustainable; however, it’s not that far off his career mark (22.2%) and nearly identical to what he had in 2011 (25.2%).  Plus, there are several hitters with an even better line drive rate than Chisenhall this year, including two members of the Indians (Michael Brantley and Nick Swisher).  Another thing to consider is that  in 2013 his xBABIP was 30.7% higher than his actual BABIP; however, in 2014 his xBABIP is only 6.8% lower than his actual BABIP.  Which season seems more likely to repeat itself when you consider those two facts?

Prior to 2014, his career xBABIP was actually 14.7% higher than his actual BABIP.  A significant amount, but less than half what it was in 2013.  Consider too that in 2012 his xBABIP was only 8.4% higher than his BABIP.  But even so, let’s assume for a moment that 2014 is pure luck and that Chisenhall will regress to his previous career numbers where his BABIP falls well short of his xBABIP.  Even factoring this in, Lonnie still would project to hit about .274 with a .344 OBP and .790 OPS this season.

Reality is that it’s not simply “luck” that has caused Chisenhall to improve this year; he’s simply hitting much better.  Consider too that Chisenhall is still only 25 years old and heading into the 2014 season had only 682 career plate appearances.  That’s essentially one full big league season, yet those were spread out over three seasons for Chisenhall.

There’s also another huge aspect to Chisenhall’s big season, one that keeps getting overlooked thanks to his higher than average BABIP, and that is his improved walk rate.   Chisenhall’s career walk rate prior to this season was a mere  4.7%, and his career best mark was only 5.3% (2012).  Fact is, Chisenhall showed almost no plate discipline in the previous three big league seasons, and despite the small sample, it was very discouraging.  This year, however, Chisenhall has a much improved 7.7% walk rate.  Now this is still not a great walk rate, but for Chisenhall it’s a huge step forward.  Very few big league hitters can be successful for any stretch with a walk rate under 5%.

While it obviously remains to be seen if Chisenhall is going to be able to maintain this walk rate going forward, it’s not unreasonable to think he can.  His career minor league numbers actually match up pretty well with what he’s doing this year:  8.3% walk rate in nearly 2000 minor league plate appearances.  Now just because a guy had a solid minor league walk rate doesn’t mean he will have a good one in the big leagues, but it does show at least give us an idea of what Chisenhall is capable of going forward.  Combine this rediscovered plate discipline, his great line drive rate, and that sweet swing of his and the Indians may just have a bona-fide star hitter on their hands.

Let’s not forget too that the Indians did like Chisenhall enough to draft him in the 1st round of the 2008 draft.  Sometimes it just takes top prospects a while to find their groove ( Alex Gordon of the Royals is an example).  So now that we’ve been over how “luck” really hasn’t played as big a role in Chisenhall’s breakout season as it first appears, and shown that there are other (potentially sustainable) reasons for his breakout season, we can begin to look at his candidacy for an extension.

Unlike Kluber, Lonnie Chisenhall will be arbitration eligible for the first time this coming offseason.   While being arbitration eligible is nothing out of the ordinary and teams budget for it, in Chisenhall’s case it could present the Tribe with a small issue as they may not have been expecting him to be to be arbitration eligible this soon.  Prior to the season Chisenhall had 2.027 days of big league service time.  Needing only 3 years of service time to be arbitration eligible, one may wonder why anyone would think Chisenhall would not be arbitration eligible after the season…

The answer to that can be found in one very big decision the Indians made over the offseason:  moving Santana to 3B.  While he was not officially given the title of “everyday 3B” by Francona until late in spring training, it seemed pretty clear from early on that if Santana was able to play the position without embarrassing himself, that he’d get the spot and Chisenhall would be heading to AAA.  The resigning of Jason Giambi further helped punch Chisenhall’s ticket to AAA…or so it seemed.  With Giambi around there would be no need for a 2nd DH/PH left-handed hitter on the bench.  This would have all but killed any chance of being arbitration eligible, probably even any chance at being a Super Two guy. The Indians would be able to put off his arbitration clock for another year as Chisenhall had (and still does have) one final option left to use.

However, as “luck” would have it, Giambi ended up on the DL, Chisenhall opened with the big league club, and the rest, as they say, is history.  Now that arbitration awaits Chisenhall and the Indians this winter, the next logical step is an extension.  Like Kluber, the Indians could wait until this winter to open discussions, but like Kluber the more the Indians wait and the more Chisenhall performs, the more expensive he could get.

The Indians signed Michael Brantley this past winter to a 4year, $25M deal.  He was entering his first arbitration year, so this deal bought out all three arbitration years plus his first free agent year.  There’s also a team option for a 5th year.  Brantley was coming off a couple solid, yet unspectacular years.   His numbers from the three years leading up to his deal:

2011:  .309 wOBA, 95 wRC+, 1.3 fWAR
2012:  .322 wOBA, 105 wRC+, 2.6 fWAR
2013:  .320 wOBA, 103 wRC+, 1.7 fWAR

Again, solid numbers but nothing overly impressive.  He was essentially a league average hitter who played below average defense.   Why am I brining up Brantley and his extension in the first place?  Because it may not be far off what the Tribe should offer Chisenhall.  Consider Chisenhall’s numbers the last 3.5 years:

2011:  .303 wOBA, 91 wRC+, 0.7 fWAR
2012:  .322 wOBA, 105 wRC+, -0.1 fWAR
2013:  .293 wOBA, 85 wRC+, 0.5 fWAR
2014:  .396 wOBA, 156 wRC+, 2.0 fWAR

So his total WAR to this point is 3.1, but he still has another half season to go this year.  ZiPS has him projected to have another 0.9 WAR coming this year, which would give him 4.0 WAR heading into arbitration.  Brantley’s total WAR when he signed his extension was 4.4.  Brantley was more of a “steady eddy” type while Chisenhall had the one huge year prior (or huge half year to this point).  Does this mean Chisenhall is worth the same as Brantley?

I don’t really have a definite answer on that.  Brantley is not that good defensively; however, Chisenhall has been downright awful to this point in his career, at least by the numbers.  Brantley also had over twice the number of plate appearances as Chisenhall.  Simply put, Brantley was a better, more well-rounded, and more consistent player when he signed his player than Chisenhall has been to this point.  But the key may be “to this point,” as there’s still a chance Chisenhall does even better than the projections suggest for the 2nd half of the year.   Chisenhall also could easily feel that this season is what he’s going to be doing going forward and wait to til the following winter to prove he isn’t a one hit wonder.  So what would be a fair offer to Chisenhall right now?

Using the Brantley offer as a comparison, I’d offer Chisenhall something along the lines of a 4yr/$24M deal:

$1.5M signing bonus, 2015: $2.5M, 2016: $4.5M, 2017: $6.5M, 2018: $8M, 2019: $11M team option ($1M buyout)

This deal is built similar to the one Brantley agreed to this past winter as it has the same number of years with only slightly less money guaranteed, but with an equally large post arbitration pay day.  Chisenhall may decide to roll the dice and go year to year, hoping to build on 2014 and cash in in a year or so.  But like with Kluber, financial security can be huge for a young player, especially for one who in March probably figured he’d be spending the year in Columbus and earning the league minimum at most in 2015.  If he goes to arbitration he may only be looking at $2-3M total for 2015; whereas the deal proposed here gets him $4M between now and 2015 (signing bonus + 2015 salary).   Tribe would be taking a big risk offering this deal now after only half a year of great hitting from Chisenhall.  However, if they believe as I do that what he is doing is the real deal, then like with Kluber, the longer the Tribe waits the more it’s likely going to cost them to extend Lonnie Chisenhall.

 


 

AUTHOR’S NOTE:  There is one important factor I want to point out here in regards to this article.  Chisenhall still has less than 1000 career plate appearances.  BABIP/xBABIP need larger sample sizes in order to draw more definite conclusions (typically closer to 1500 plate appearances).  So any numbers pertaining to those two stats (or any stats in general here) are subject to small sample size warnings and should not be taken as absolutes.

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