Many fans were disappointed at the end of spring training when Jack Hannahan was named the Indians’ starting third baseman and Lonnie Chisenhall was demoted to Triple-A Columbus. Discouraging though it may have been to see a top prospect relegated to the minors, it was the right decision. Chisenhall is the Tribe’s third baseman of the future and the reassignment was meant to be temporary, but there were serious problems with his approach in his MLB debut last year that he needs to work out.
The season is now well underway, and Chisenhall is starting to make waves in Columbus. With Hannahan playing so well (he’s hitting .364/.453/.523 thus far) the Indians aren’t in any rush to call him up, but it’s still worth asking: Is Lonnie Chisenhall ready for the big leagues?
At first glance, it looks as though Chisenhall is proving himself quite worthy of a promotion. He’s hitting .308/.329/.551 in 19 games with the Clippers; project his counting stats over a full season and he’s on pace to swat 34 homers, score 85 runs, and drive in 102.
Jeff Sackmann’s Minor League Equivalency Calculator translates Chisenhall’s Triple-A performance to a .280/.301/.486 triple-slash in the majors. In 150 games he’d hit 22 homers, score 59 runs, and collect 73 RBI. The Simple WAR Calculator converts that to a 116 OPS+, and if we call him a good fielder and an average baserunner he projects as being worth 3.8 wins above replacement over a full season. Not bad for a player who didn’t make the cut for Opening Day.
But Chisenhall’s strong start doesn’t necessarily mean he’s made some major improvements. Chisenhall’s batting average on balls in play currently sits at an unusually high .339, 40 points higher than his previous career minor-league total. If we adjust his stats to be based on his .299 pre-2012 MiLB hit rate, even if we assume all the lost hits would be singles his triple-slash would fall to .277/.301/.521—still solid, but not quite as impressive.
Plugging these adjusted numbers into Sackmann’s calculator, his projected MLB triple-slash drops to .253/.275/.458; the Simple WAR Calculator pegs him for a diminished 2.8 WAR. That would still be a solid year for a young player, but a .275 on-base percentage would be a massive drain on his usefulness.
Another factor that could be inflating Chisenhall’s numbers is power. He’s shown solid pop before, but never to the extent that he has this April. Last year in Triple-A Chisenhall homered once every 36 at-bats; in 2012 that’s up to once every 20 trips to the plate. It’s entirely possible that he’s starting to grow into some more power at age 23, but we should be cautious in attributing such a dramatic spike in his slugging prowess to newfound ability rather than a fluke of the small sample size.
But the biggest reason why Chisenhall is best suited to the minors for now is the same reason he was demoted a month ago: his plate discipline has completely abandoned him, and he won’t be an effective hitter in The Show until he regains his strike zone judgment.
Chisenhall had never been a particularly patient hitter before his 2011 call-up, but he had demonstrated a clear ability to get on base. He entered 2012 with a career minor-league walk rate of 8.6 percent, and that number had improved as he’d ascended through the Indians’ organization; his walk rate hit 8.8 percent at Double-A in 2010 before peaking at 9.6 percent in Triple-A last year.
Then he reached the majors and it all fell apart. In 223 plate appearances with the parent club last year, Chisenhall reached ball four only eight times while seeing strike three on 49 separate occasions. Simply put he lost his once-solid strike zone judgment, as evidenced by the fact that he chased nearly 40 percent of pitches out of the zone while taking almost a third of offerings over the plate for called strikes.
Chisenhall was given every opportunity to show improvement in spring training—Indians officials said again and again that the third base job was his to lose. But lose it he did. Chisenhall took only one walk against 16 strikeouts in 16 preseason games. So he was sent to Columbus to retool his approach.
The early returns for Chisenhall in the minors may look good, but he doesn’t appear to have made any progress regarding plate discipline. He’s walked just twice in 82 plate appearances while striking out 15 times—both his walk rate and his walk/strikeout ratio are worse than they were with Cleveland last year, when he was facing far superior pitching.
Maybe he’s pressing, maybe he’s a little traumatized from taking a Carlos Villanueva pitch to the face last year, or maybe he’s just had a crisis of confidence. I don’t claim to have the answers, and presumably if the Indians knew what the problem was they’d have helped him get over it by now. What’s clear is that something isn’t quite right with Chisenhall.
There is a silver lining to the fact that Chisenhall is struggling with his pitch selectiveness in the minors: it suggests that he isn’t a Quad-A player. The “Quad-A” label is often misapplied or assigned before the player in question has had the chance to find his groove in the majors, but it makes sense that some kinds of hitters would have a particularly difficult time adjusting to The Show. But Chisenhall’s problem has followed him back to Columbus—hopefully that means his eventual adjustments will help him in the majors too.
Despite what many analysts will tell you, having Hannahan at the hot corner is a strength, not a weakness. But regardless of the parent club’s third base situation, Chisenhall isn’t ready for the big leagues. Just as Chisenhall needs to learn to wait for his pitch, the Indians shouldn’t rush him back to the majors. He’ll be great someday, but for now he’s got a lot of work to do.