There is Reason to be Optimistic About Lonnie Chisenhall Turning Things Around
Lonnie Chisenhall is having a rough go of it so far in 2015. The former top Cleveland Indians prospect has struggled mightily so far while putting together a mediocre .216/.250/.364 slash line and wRC+ of 69. That’s been extremely disappointing for most Tribe fans after Chisenhall appeared to finally turn the corner with a .280/.343/.427 slash line, 13 homers, 59 RBI and 121 wRC+ in 2014.
The drop-off in production has caused many fans to question how long the Indians should continue to stick with Chisenhall. It’s a legitimate question. The Indians were expected to compete in 2015 and Chisenhall was supposed to be a key cog in whatever success they achieved. With tensions mounting in an already frustrated fan base, suggestions ranging from the conventional, Mike Aviles or a trade, to the radical, moving Francisco Lindor to third a la Manny Machado and the Orioles, have been proposed.
Aug 19, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Cleveland Indians third basemanLonnie Chisenhall
(8) at bat against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
To that I say, slow your role. Let’s not do anything crazy when it is entirely possible and much more likely that Chisenhall will turn things around. And you know what, the Indians know it too. That’s why there hasn’t been any panic or urgency to replace him on their part.
So why should we expect Chisenhall to turn things around? Well, if you dig deeper into his offensive performance from a statistical standpoint, there are a lot of things that simply just can’t continue over the course of a 162 game season. Simply put, Chisenhall being so bad is due largely in part to a lot of bad luck and some easily correctable adjustments in his approach at the plate.
Let’s start with his batting average on balls in play (BAbip). League average is typically somewhere around the .300 mark. In 2014, Chisenhall hit .329 on balls in play and for his career has been .289. But, in 2015 he’s hit an abysmal .233 on balls in play. That’s the definition of bad luck. The law of averages alone should be enough reason to expect Chisenhall’s numbers to improve over time. Eventually, some of the balls he’s put in play that have gone for outs will start dropping in and finding holes. It’s just a matter of waiting out that shift in luck.
Something that may be negatively impacting Chisenhall’s BAbip is the type of contact he is making. Currently, he has a ground ball rate of 41% and an obnoxiously high infield fly ball rate of 15%, both of which are significantly easier to turn into outs than fly balls and line drives. To make matters worse, his soft hit ball percentage is hovering around 25%. But why is that?
The primary culprit is more likely than not Chisenhall’s plate discipline lack thereof. Chiz just isn’t showing enough patience at the plate, which is likely a product of forcing the issue. Chisenhall currently sports a walk rate of 4%, a key contributor in his .250 OBP. But even worse is that he’s swinging at way too many pitches outside of the strike zone, about 42.3% currently, and he’s not missing those pitches at all, 78% contact rate on swings at pitches outside of the strike zone.
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From a logical standpoint, the more pitches you are swinging at and making contact with outside of the strike zone, the higher the rate of probability that the contact you are making will be weak. The results for Chisenhall bear that out.
Compare that with last season. In 2014, Chisenhall swung at 39% of pitches outside of the zone and made contact with only 72.4%. That added discipline, as slight as it may appear to be, resulted in weak contact only 17.6% of the time. Compared to the 25% so far in 2015 and it’s easy to see why Chisenhall has failed to make an impact, particularly in the power department, 4 home runs and 140 isolated power.
While improving his plate discipline is something Chisenhall has shown he can do, there is one other trend occurring in his game that is a bit alarming. If there is one thing young players can usually do well is hit the fastball. For a promising young power hitter, you would expect Chisenhall to feast on fastballs. That hasn’t been the case this season. Actually, it has been far, far from it.
Of the pitches Chisenhall has seen this season, 61% of them have been some form of fastball. According to the data compiled by Fangraphs, Chsienhall is -4.2 runs above average on fastballs. Meaning, pitchers are saving a little more than four runs this season when throwing Chiz fastball’s.
Aug 16, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall (8) reacts after striking out in the first inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
Surprisingly, this is something he has struggled with throughout his career, -17.7 in parts of five seasons. Now that he is seeing more fastballs than ever, it is apparent that opposing pitchers are learning how to pitch to Chisenhall. Skip the soft stuff, don’t let him kill you on your breaking balls, blow him away with heat.
Despite all of that, the Indians continue to stick by Chisenhall. Clearly they see the potential he has and at 26 years of age it’s still way too early to give up on him. It also helps that while Chisenhall has struggled to produce at the plate, he is having by far his best defensive season. And it’s not even close.
So far, Chisenhall has been a vacuum at third base. He has made only three errors on 76 plays in 372.1 innings of work at the hot corner. That’s good enough for 97.6% fielding percentage. More importantly, Chisenhall has produced 6 defensive runs saved, tied for third-best in all of baseball with Adrian Beltre trailing Nolan Arenado and Mike Moustakas. His UZR/150 also ranks in the top ten at 6.5.
Taking into account that the Indians are currently one of the worst defensive teams in all of baseball (-14 DRS), Chisenhall’s defensive performance has been a lone bright spot. Compare that to the Indians offense which has performed as the fourth best offense in baseball in terms of weighted runs created (108 wRC+) and it’s clear why the Indians continue to plug Chisenhall into the lineup on a nightly basis.
So, whether you agree with the Indians continued usage of Lonnie Chisenhall or not, you have to agree that the argument for him is a compelling one. Bad luck combined with a lack of discipline has led to a dip in performance. Correct those issues and experience a shift in luck and it’s highly likely that Chisenhall could begin looking like the version we saw last season.