Lonnie Chisenhall: Finally Living up to His Potential
The Indians drafted Lonnie Chisenhall in 2008 out of Pitt Community College with hopes of him, one day, becoming their everyday third baseman. Now, six years later and after three mediocre seasons in the bigs, Chisenhall may finally be living up to the hype.
Chisenhall quickly rose through the ranks of the Indians farm system, and after hitting .267/353/.431 in Triple A in 2011, the Indians called him up in late June to give them some offense at third base. The Indians’ third baseman at the time, Jack Hannahan, was hitting a paltry .180/.296/.295 in June, and with the Indians still in the midst of the division race with the Tigers, the Tribe needed all the offense they could get.
From 2011 to 2012, Chisenhall showed steady improvement, hitting .255/.284/.451 with a .303 wOBA in 2011, and .268/.430/.311 with a .322 wOBA in 2012. Chisenhall also improved his plate discipline over these two years. His outside swing percentage dropped from 42.3 to 38.3 percent, and his overall swing percentage dropped from 54.4 to 50.8 percent. In addition, Chisenhall hit more line drives and less fly balls, which more often turn into hits that ground balls or fly balls. His line-drive percentage increased from 19.5 to 25.2 percent and his fly-ball percentage decreased from 42.1 to 32.2 percent.
However, in 2013, Chisenhall started the season very poorly, both in the field and at the plate. He had a -6.2 ultimate zone rating (UZR) at third base in 2012, and hit .182/.250/.182 in May before being sent down to Triple A. Chisenhall finished the 2013 season hitting .225/.270/.398 with a .293 wOBA, and many thought that the third baseman was never going to reach his full potential.
In the offseason, there was talk of the Indians acquiring a third baseman. Chase Headley’s name was floated around as a possible trade candidate, but eventually the Indians moved catcher Carlos Santana to third base, platooning him and Chisenhall.
This season, Chisenhall made the team out of spring training after hitting .306/.386/.532 in Glendale, Arizona, but with Santana in front of him at third base, he wasn't expected to play everyday. Rather, he would play mostly as a platoon against righties, as he's a career .272/.316/.435 hitter with a .328 wOBA against righties, compared to a .248/.282/.436 hitter with a .313 wOBA against lefties.
While Chisenhall has played mostly against righties this season, he seems to have picked up where he left off in 2012, and even further improved at the plate. Chisenhall’s hitting a nasty .365/.413/.538 with a .415 wOBA in 176 plate appearances, 148 of which have come against righties His line-drive percentage is at an all time high, 29.8 percent, and his plate discipline has improved as he’s now swinging at just 52.5 percent of pitches.
This is all before last night, too, where Chisenhall, you know, had five hits, three home runs and nine runs batted in. All in one game. No big deal.
And as Chisenhall continues to be the Indians' best hitter, Terry Francona has expanded his role, playing him at first base with Nick Swisher hitting .211/.312/.319 and now on the disabled list. Francona has also been starting to play Chisenhall more against lefties.
Against righties, Chisenhall's hitting .336/.386/.511 with a .391 wOBA, while against lefties, in just 28 plate appearances, he's hitting .520/.526/.680 with a .540 wOBA. Obviously Chisenhall won't continue to hit over .500 against lefties, but he seems to be hitting better against them. He's striking out less and hitting more line drives, even in such a small sample size, than in years previous. Chisenhall has never never hit above .260 against lefties, and even then that was only in 52 plate appearances.
He also has an insane .411 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), 108 points higher than his career average. And while that may not be sustainable for the entire season, his BABIP may explain his poor season last year. He has a career .303 BABIP. In 2011 and 2012, his BABIP was right around his career average, at .299 and .300 respectively. But in 2013, his BABIP dropped down to .243, a career low. Additionally, in 2013, his line-drive percentage dropped to 19.7 percent, down from 25.2 percent in 2012. This year, his line-drive percentage has improved over his 2012 levels, and his fly-ball and ground-ball percentages are both down from previous year’s levels.
Chisenhall is hitting better this year than in previous years, as evidence by increased line drives and more patience at the plate, but he's also getting a bit more lucky with an insanely high BABIP. While Chisenhall may never be the top flight third baseman some projected him to be, he's still at the very least a viable platoon and with the potential to still be a solid starter, as long as he doesn't recede into his 2013 form.
Defensively, Chisenhall is still a poor defender at third, with a -12.2 UZR over 1604 innings in his career. But if Francona continues to play Chisenhall at first base, Chisenhall projects to be a good first baseman, with a current 0.1 UZR this year, and a UZR per 150 defensive games of 13.4 (UZR/150).
Of course Chisenhall can't be expected to continue hitting .365/.413/.538 with a .415 wOBA and .411 BABIP the rest of the year, numbers that would make him the best hitter in baseball, given enough plate appearances to qualify. But something along the lines of his ZiPS rest of the season projection, .281/.329/.440 with a .338 wOBA and a .323 BABIP, would really give the Indians a boost.