Lonnie Chisenhall was a bad hitter in 2013. He hit .225/.270/.398, and understandably spet some time back in Triple-A. Because he had an ugly .243 BABIP, and a decent line-drive rate, and was 24 years old, I thought he was still a better talent than many seemed to think, and before this season began I wrote a post arguing there was a good chance he'd still become a good player, and should be given every opportunity this year. He didn't get a ton of playing time right out of the gate, but his production quickly won him more and more time, and he eventually began starting every game, and reclaiming his job as start third baseman.
I was optimistic about Chisenhall, but I didn't expect numbers anywhere near what he was posting. On June 9 in Texas, Lonnie went 5 for 5 and hit 3 home runs, in one of the greatest offensive performances in franchise history. He had two more hits in each of his next couple games, and at the end of play on June 11, he was batting .393/.438/.619 in 189 plate appearances. Over the next month we watched him get closer and closer to qualifying for the batting crown, and wondered if he might merit an All-Star selection. Little noticed at the time was that he'd stopped hitting well, and that's continued in the week's since the All-Star break too.
It's now been two full months since the high-water mark of his season. In those two months, Lonnie has had 196 more plate appearances, almost exactly what he had up to that point. In these last two months, Chisenhall is batting .195/.282/.305. Those are worse numbers than Carlos Santana had at the time of his concussion, numbers that led to many calling for him to be benched. Those are worse numbers than Nick Swisher has this season, numbers that have led to many calling for him to be cut.
Now, those first ten weeks still count, and on the whole, Lonnie is still having a great season at the plate, with a .292/.358/.459 batting line, and a 133 wRC+ that is second only to Adrian Beltre among MLB third baseman. Any Tribe fan would have been delighted if you told them Chisenhall would have numbers like that in ~400 PA to this point in the season.
His walk rate has actually been better during the slump than it was when he was on fire, which is good, but his strikeouts are also up, and his line-drive rate is down. The other big change, and this connects with his 2013 as well, is his BABIP. As I mentioned at the top, in 2013 his batting average on balls in play was .243. Unsustainably low, and a sign that bad luck was certainly a factor in his numbers looking so bad. Through June 11, his BABIP this season was .428. Unsustainably high, and a sign that he was due for some downwards regression. For the last two months, his BABIP has been .233, even lower than last year.
Is there something about Chisenhall's approach that might explain the wild swings in his BABIP, or is he just an extreme outlier for just how random BABIP can be? My guess is it's the latter, but I'd be happy to hear theories for the former.
If you put Lonnie's 2013 and 2014 together (both the good and bad parts of it), his batting line is .261/.319/431, with a .292 BABIP. That's probably pretty close to his "true" value as a hitter. It makes him solidly above average at the plate (a 111 wRC+), but not anyone who's going to be mistaken for a star. He's got 22 home runs in 693 PA, which prorates to 19 homers in 600 PA. Again, very solid, but not spectacular.
With average defense and base running, hitting like Lonnie's would make him a 3 WAR player, a great thing to have under team control for years to come. The thing is, Lonnie's defense at third base has not been average this season, it's been well below that, among the worst at the position, by some metrics. With poor defense, numbers like he's posted over the last ~1.5 seasons put him below league average as a starter; not someone who's hurting the team (especially at such a low salary), but also not someone who's providing a boost.
If he can get out of this slump and post average numbers over the final seven weeks of the season, he's going to have strong offensive numbers for the year. Should we expect to have those numbers in coming years too, and be glad to pencil him in at third base, or should the Indians look to trade him this offseason, now that his value has rebounded, and with Giovanny Urshela having a break season at third base in Columbus? I haven't yet given it enough thought to have a strong opinion, but I do think it's well worth considering.