We all know that waiting for third basemen to develop is kind of a thing for the Indians. Even though we keep hearing that Lonnie Chisenhall is “only” 26 years old, it feels like he played with Mel Hall and Joe Carter. Before him there was the immortal Andy Marte, who was seemingly a prospect for the entire Bush administration. Did you ever think we would be nostalgic for Casey Blake?
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We find ourselves back in this holding pattern again, with Giovanny Urshela. It seems unfair to be lumping him with Chisenhall and Marte after 216 at bats, but we go into the 2016 season much the same as we have for about the past ten years, with a third baseman who may or may not be the answer. We even have the veteran insurance policy already in place, with Chris Johnson following in the footsteps of Jack Hannahan and Blake. Johnson was working on his third consecutive year of negative defensive WAR as a third baseman with Atlanta, and he provides no platoon advantage over Urshela, so he would have to hit a lot better than Urshela to offset the obvious advantage Urshela has with the glove in order to earn playing time. However, this front office doesn’t seem to want to let young players work through their issues on the major league level, so it seems likely that Urshela will return to Columbus at some point in 2016. Will the Indians be comfortable handing the position to Johnson for however long it takes Urshela to find himself, should that be necessary?
However his development evolves, it seems that Urshela is the guy, at least until he proves he can’t handle it or reaches a point where it no longer makes financial sense to invest in his development. Given that, can we infer anything from those 216 at bats that tells us how likely it is that Urshela claims the position for keeps in 2016, or ultimately becomes an impact player for the Indians?
The most disturbing thing about Urshela at this point is his .329 slugging percentage. From that we can infer that he isn’t driving the ball when he makes contact. The question is whether this is an issue of development or talent. In looking at his minor league numbers, it is apparent that Urshela advanced through the system faster than his offensive skills warranted because of his outstanding defense. For example, he was playing in High-A at age 21, despite never posting an OPS above .700 before that point. This is more common for a middle infielder than a third baseman. It took until his second year in Double-A ball before his offense progressed enough to actually consider him a prospect. That was only a year ago.
So we have a guy who profiled as a defensive specialist in Double-A ball less than two years ago, but is now in the majors. It’s not surprising that he isn’t tearing it up under the circumstances, and you can make a case that he probably should have spent the entire year in Columbus, which likely would have been the case had Chisenhall not flopped in Cleveland. But here we are. The encouraging thing is that in his second year in Akron, he took a big step forward, so perhaps we can look forward to the same thing happening on the major league level.
The other discouraging thing about Urshela’s numbers is the fifteen walks he has drawn. This is not a terrible number for a rookie, but the amazing thing is that his rate of one walk per 15.5 plate appearances in the majors this year better than his minor league numbers by a good margin. From 2010 to 2013, Urshela averaged one walk per 30.6 plate appearances. Considering how many of the pitchers in the lower levels of the minors struggle to throw strikes, he must have been swinging at everything but pickoff throws.
Again, the 2014 numbers offer some cause for encouragement. That year he average one walk per 14.7 plate appearances, similar to what he has done this year. The other encouraging sign is that, no matter how adverse he was to taking a pitch, Urshela has never struck out much (once per 8.3 PA in the minors, once per 5.2 since he got to Cleveland). So his bat is quick enough to make contact, but he isn’t disciplined enough to lay off bad pitches, resulting in a lot of weakly hit ball, which is how you end up with a .329 slugging percentage.
Guys who walk at this rate seldom turn into guys who walk 120 times, but they can get better. It’s a lot easier to develop a little patience, in fact, than to develop a quicker bat. Given that fact, it is reasonable to expect Urshela to, as he becomes accustomed to major league pitching, make more solid contact and drive the ball more solidly on a consistent basis.
The caveat is that it will take a while. Odds are that Urshela won’t hit .300 next year. In fact, we will probably spend the first half of the year speculating on whether he will be sent back down to Columbus. My hope here is that he isn’t. There are times, such as Jose Ramirez earlier this year, when a player is simply in over his head and needs to go back down to the minors to get rid of his bad habits and experience some success. But for the most part, the best way to learn how to hit major league pitching is to hit major league pitching. The constant back and forth that Chisenhall (and many other prospects for the Indians) experienced is, in my opinion, detrimental to a player’s development. Major League ball is played at a speed and precision that you cannot duplicate in the minors. Once you bring a player up, he should stay up, at least long enough to get through the league and see the same pitchers multiple times and show whether he can make adjustments and learn from his experience. Now that Urshela is here, he should get something close to a full season to prove himself.
Fortunately Urshela has one big advantage over Chisenhall – his defense. Even as he has struggled with his bat for the past two months, he has provided positive value to the Indians by playing the best defense of any Cleveland third baseman since Travis Fryman. Unless his bat totally tanks, this should be enough to keep him in the majors while his hitting continues to develop.