It’s frustrating to see a player go through an extended slump in the batter’s box where they just can’t seem to hit anything hard, or watch a pitcher on your team get rocked and put their team behind seemingly every time they take the mound. But it doesn’t mean they can’t bounce back. In this segment, we’ll attempt to break down what might be the cause of a cold player’s struggles, along with a few interesting stats you might not have noticed.
Player: Lonnie Chisenhall
Breakdown Time Frame: June 13th to August 13th (2014)
Performance: .197 AVG, .309 SLG, 10 XBH, 14 RBI and 42 K in 201 plate appearances spanning 49 games.
Below the Surface: If you looked a list of baseball’s best players around June 11th, Lonnie Chisenhall would have been pretty high up. He had a .393 batting average and a 1.057 OPS to go with 7 homers and 32 RBI over 189 trips to the plate. He even got a request from Cooperstown for a bat he used during his famous game at Texas in which he crushed 3 home run balls and drove in 9 runs (including pushing teammate Michael Brantley across the plate 5 times) as part of a five-hit performance. Lonnie was the talk of Baseball Tonight, Fox Sports and, of course, Wahoo’s on First, as well as a dozen other reputable baseball blogs and fan sites.
Then, something unfortunate happened. Terry Francona decided to sit Lonnie against ace lefty Jon Lester in a game at Boston. The team described it as a routine day off, and while that may have been the intent, it’s hard to imagine that Chiz, who had struggled mightily against lefties in 2013, saw it that way. After that game, he went 0 for his next 16, and just hasn’t been the same hitter since.
We’ll never know for certain how Chisenhall might have done to this point if he hadn’t been sat against Lester while he was red hot. But one thing is for sure: Lonnie has been in a terrible slump since that point in the season. His batting average has dropped over a hundred points, and though he’s walking twice as much during his last 200 PA, he’s also striking out a lot more often. He’s looking a lot more like the Lonnie Chisenhall of 2013. He doesn’t even seem as composed at the plate anymore.
So what’s the deal? Why has he had such a dramatic drop off? We can look at his BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) and say a lot of it is due to luck. Through June 12th, he had a BABIP of .428. Since then, his BABIP has been .234. However, a lot of people like to attribute BABIP as more of a luck stat than it actually is. The truth is that, while some of it has to do with luck, a lot of it has to do with placement skill, fielding skills, and defensive shifts. We could say that the league is adjusting to Chisenhall, and that’s certainly quite likely. He’s seen 3% fewer fastballs and a small increase in sliders, changeups and cutters. These numbers are pretty small, though, so it doesn’t look like he’s being pitched to much differently.
One thing I’ve noticed a change in is his hard contact. According to the data on Fangraphs, Chisenhall hit almost twice as many line drives before June 12th as he has since that date. His line drive percentage until 6/12 was 28.7%, while his line drive rate after that has been just 16.9%. Correspondingly, his ground ball rate has changed from 32.2% in the first part of the season to 45.6% in the second part. And though his fly ball rate has been relatively the same, his infield fly ball rate before June 12th was 5.4%, and that stat has been 7.8% during his slump. Basically, a lot of his line drives have turned into ground balls, while a smaller of his fly balls have been leaving the infield. These numbers seem like a big culprit of his decreased BABIP.
What can we expect moving forward? What’s encouraging about this slump is that his plate discipline hasn’t changed much. He’s still swinging at a similar number of pitches both inside and outside of the zone. The problem is that he’s just not squaring up the ball like he used to. There are a number of factors that we could cite, including potential fatigue or a regression in pitch tracking or pitch recognition. We can’t see directly into the mind of the Chiz Kid, so we don’t know for sure.
Bottom line, it’s unlikely that Lonnie will slump like this for much longer. We may not see the utter destruction of pitching that we saw earlier in the season, but once he hits his stride again there’s no reason to think he couldn’t finish the year with a .290 batting average and 15 home runs. The kid is only 25. He’s got plenty of room to grow, and I expect him to be a vital part of the Indians organization for a number of years.