Cleveland Indians: Lonnie Chisenhall Should Get A Lengthy Last Chance

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Last June, Lonnie Chisenhall turned in one of the greatest offensive performances in the history of the game when he managed three home runs, five hits and nine RBIs in a mid-season game against the Texas Rangers. At that point in the season, he was batting .385/.429/.615, and he had all but claimed third base as his. From that game forward, he hit .231/.295/.323, effectively ruining the record-breaking season he seemed to be on pace for.

So far in Spring Training, he’s batting .297/.366/.459, with four walks and three RBI. While those stats are virtually meaningless, Chisenhall certainly isn’t guaranteed a full-time job, and how well he does this spring may affect how much playing time he gets out of the gate. Bench players like Mike Aviles may get more third base at-bats if Chisenhall struggles too much, and prospect Giovanny Urshela is waiting in the wings after batting .280/.334/.491 with 18 home runs in Akron and Columbus last season.

The problem with judging Chisenhall on those 37 at-bats is that he’s always been an excellent spring player. In his career, he’s averaged .321/.391/.541 during camp, yet the highest regular season slash line he’s ever accumulated was last season, when he hit .280/.343/.427. That means that it will be necessary for the Indians to wait until games that count begin before making a final judgement on whether the 26-year-old is going to have success this year. There are several reasons to believe he can do it, and the Tribe should give him enough time this season to show whether he’s capable of keeping his job once and for all.

Last year, Chisenhall’s walk rate jumped to 7.3 percent, which is still below average but higher than his career average of 5.8 percent. His 18.6 percent strikeout rate was the highest it has been since his rookie season in 2011, but only by a fraction of a percent. Since his rookie season, he’s worked to lower his swing rate, albeit slightly, and managed to improve the amount of times he makes contact with pitches outside the strike zone. Even though his improvements have been marginal, increased plate discipline is a good sign for a hitter that has always had trouble taking pitches and earning walks.

Of course, baseball is a game of averages, and Chisenhall’s season is the kind of year that makes statisticians frustrated. His solid overall numbers are a result of a blazing-hot start to the campaign, and an extremely cold finish. During the first half of the year, he struck out less than 15 percent of the time, but during the second half, he struck out in over 20 percent of at-bats.

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Most likely, this was a combination of the league making adjustments to a hitter that struggles with inside pitches, and frustration on the part of Chisenhall, who went from one of the luckiest hitters in the league to one of the worst. His BABIP in 2014 was .328 – indicating that a large component of his average was inflated by chance. Having hits fall in just beyond the reach of fielders isn’t necessarily a skill that can be repeated year after year, and although some hitters tend to play with high BABIPs due to their style of hitting, Chisenhall has never been one of those players. By the end of the year, he was no longer getting lucky in his at-bats, and the stats reflected that.

Will Chisenhall get the majority of third base at-bats this year? Possibly, but everything will depend on his performance out of the gate. Last season, Carlos Santana was expected to be the everyday third baseman in what was easily the most baffling decision of the year. Yet Chisenhall hit so well through June that Terry Francona was forced to hand over playing time, even giving him at-bats at first base to get him into the game. By the time the Santana Experiment had been declared a failure, Chisenhall was ready to step in and take the job.

But the more at-bats he got against lefties, the less success he saw, and that carried over into his appearances against right-handers. At the beginning of the year, Francona was using him in very carefully selected situations, and Chisenhall was hitting each time. Fans clamored for him to see more lefties, and eventually, the team conceded that they might be right. However, it didn’t work out as planned. His numbers fell back to earth, because no matter how lucky he was in his first few opportunities, he wasn’t able to overcome the fact that he’s never been good against left-handed pitchers.

When the Indians begin the season, Chisenhall should ultimately be the team’s starting third baseman against right-handers and the occasional lefty, but the Tribe should keep a careful eye on his progress. If he struggles to hit again, it might the answer to the long-discussed question of whether he can ever become the superstar third baseman the team hoped he would be.

Next: Friday 5: Bold Predictions for the Cleveland Indians in 2015

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