Cleveland Indians Should Bring Back Lonnie Chisenhall Soon


On Tuesday, the Cleveland Indians called up Giovanny Urshela to become their primary third baseman. Urshela has long been heralded as one of the top prospects in the Tribe’s system, and it was a great moment for those who have been waiting to see what the highly touted young infielder can do at the major league level. But whenever one player gets their big break, another player is forced to return to the minor leagues, and in this case, it was Lonnie Chisenhall.

Chisenhall has struggled this season, for sure. On the day he was demoted, he was batting just .209/.241/.345. He had hit only four home runs all year and looked completely lost at the plate. But in the absence of average and power, there were some takeaways from his season that should give the Indians reason to believe he can have a positive impact on the club in the future.

To start with, Chisenhall had become surprisingly good at baserunning. Admittedly, he needs to get a hit before he can take advantage of that skill, but he had developed a sense for reading the ball off of the bat. 41 percent of his hits went for extra bases. The league average is 33 percent. Chisenhall doesn’t have speed – he hadn’t stolen a base yet this season – but he did seem to stretch his singles into doubles, challenging the other team to get the ball back to the infield in a hurry. That could be part of why he had scored 19 runs, despite seldom being on base.

He also made efforts to improve his defense. While he hasn’t been error-free, he was one of the most reliable third basemen throughout the early part of the season, and it was a large part of the reason he got as long of a chance as he did. Perhaps while he’s at Triple-A, he should get some reps at first base. Although the Tribe already has a plethora of first basemen, if Chisenhall were more versatile, it would give him a better chance at holding a spot on the team when he returns.

But why should the Tribe give Chisenhall yet another chance when he’s looked so terrible at the plate during both this season and the end of last year?

Last April, Chisenhall got off to an unbelievably hot start. Through June 11 last year, he was batting .393/.438/.619, with a pair of stolen bases and seven home runs. He also had an unsustainable BABIP of .428. As his BABIP sank lower and lower, his average came back to reality and he started hitting more like the player he had been in previous seasons.

There are a couple of ways to look at Chisenhall’s two months of madness. First, one could say that he’ll never have a BABIP like that again, and those two months make his entire career look far better than it would look without those. That’s not an unfair opinion, but it’s not the only one.

Through June 11 last year, Chisenhall had 189 appearances. Through June 11 this year, he had 189 appearances again. Is he the player who single-handedly demolished the Texas Rangers last June? No. But he’s also not the player he appeared to be this year. Averaging out his first three season, he batted .244/.284/.411, with a 3.4 percent home run rate – higher than the league average of 2.5 percent.

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The main difference in the two seasons is the way the Tribe used him. Chisenhall is notoriously bad at hitting lefties. Last year, Francona did a great job of platooning him, which in turn built Chisenhall’s confidence up. It wasn’t until he was facing left-handers every day than he started to struggle, with his average creeping back down. This season, Francona didn’t bother to coddle him. Part of it was a lack of other options – Bourn’s struggles meant he was the leading candidate for a platoon, and right-handers Mike Aviles and Ryan Raburn received at-bats as outfielders instead of covering for Chisenhall at third base. By the time Lonnie was back to a platoon situation, it was too late – his confidence was shot, and the team had no chance to pull him out of his slump.

Why not platoon Chisenhall on a regular basis? The Tribe could certainly use some power in their lineup, and Chisenhall can provide that against right-handers once his bat gets jump-started in Columbus, even if he isn’t hitting for a truly high average. Using him fifth or sixth in the batting order, as the Tribe did during the absence of Yan Gomes, is a mistake. But lower in the order, he could be every bit as reliable as Mike Aviles.

As soon as the Indians see signs of life from Chisenhall at the plate, it’s time to get him back to Cleveland and let him start against right-handed pitchers. He’s not going to be the superstar the Tribe hoped for, but he can be a much needed boost of power in the bottom half of the lineup.

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