There have been about a million superlatives thrown Lonnie Chisenhall's way the last 36 or so hours. This happens when you have one of the greatest individual hitting performances in the long history of baseball, maybe the very best in franchise history. It also happens when you go from bench piece/platoon bat to arguably the best hitter in the American League through more than two months of the season.
As of Wednesday morning, the man they call Lonnie Baseball leads all of MLB (min: 150 PA) in wRC+, is second in wOBA (atop the AL), second in OPS (atop the AL again... Troy Tulowitzki is a special player). He leads MLB in AVG, is fourth in OBP, and is third in SLG. Pick a rate stat that measures batting prowess, and Chiz is in the top five.
He is also leading baseball in BABIP, at .420. That, plus the fact that this performance came seemingly out of nowhere, is creating some doubters out there. Looking closer though, there are some real changes to Chisenhall's underlying stats, which suggests that this is no fluke and that the former top prospect may have finally become the star third baseman we've been hoping for.
Let's start with that BABIP. We talked before the season about BABIP vs. xBABIP. Using the same calculator we looked at in that piece, Chisenhall (going into Tuesday night's game in KC) had an xBABIP of .369. A more complex method, based on what percentage of balls are hit hard and the batter's speed suggests a .316. Considering Chisenhall's 29.4% line drive rate (4th in baseball), I am more inclined to believe the former than the latter, but even if we split the difference (say .342) and even if we round down a bit for when that LD rate comes down (say .330), we are still talking about an elite ability to turn batted balls into hits.
Next, take a look at what is happening when he does NOT put the ball in play. Again prior to Tuesday's game, Chisenhall had a 5% walk rate and a 13.8% strikeout rate. That walk rate is not great, but in past years, Chisenhall posted a similar walk rate but with a strikeout rate over 18%. He is being more selective (swinging at more good pitches and fewer bad ones) and he is swinging through fewer pitches.
In addition, Lonnie is hitting the ball further than he has in the past. His 283-foot average on HR and fly balls this year is not elite, but it is far better than his previous career average of 269 feet. Besides, Chisenhall is not making his presence felt with home runs (Monday night excepted), and his HR/FB rate (13% before last night's game) is not abnormally high.
Let's make a few reasonable assumptions, to project what his numbers might look like over the rest of the year:
- Let's assume Chisenhall doesn't increase his walk rate (though he should when pitchers start to give him more respect).
- Let's assume his strikeout rate stays about the same (walk and strikeout rate are among the first stats to normalize, and the sample size for those measurements is plenty large enough already this season).
- Let's assume he keeps hitting HR around the same rate he has.
- Let's assume his BABIP falls to .330. Let's assume he gets 400 more PA this year.
- Let's assume that ~28% of his non-HR hits become doubles (he's at 27.5% for his career and 29.1% this year).
With those numbers, here is what he would do over the rest of the season: .308/.342/.501 with 15 more HR. That doesn't look nearly as pretty as the insane numbers he is putting up today, but it looks awfully good.
Chisenhall could fall off a cliff. He could also start hitting more HR. He could hit even more line drives. The assumptions above may not all come true, but I do think they're all entirely reasonable. What we have seen during the last two months is not just a flash-in-the-pan, it is real improvement from a hitter we once thought could be great. For a couple years, he wasn't very good, much less great. Maybe now he is.