2015 was a key turning point in Lonnie Chisenhall’s career, but not for the reasons you'd think going into the campaign.
A successful season for Chisenhall was supposed to be something along the lines of this: he would be the everyday third baseman, being productive in the lineup while not giving up too many runs in the field. A bad season would involve Chisenhall ending the year in Columbus, with that perhaps leading to the Indians non-tendering him.
Lonnie was the Opening Day third baseman, but like the most of the rest of his teammates, didn't hit in April or May. His OPS peaked at .700 on May 7, and slowly sunk as the month went on. By June 1st he was hitting .214/.250/.364, a poor batting line for a middle infielder, nevermind for a player the Indians were counting on to be a key offensive weapon. And while Chisenhall's range at third was actually better than recent years, it wasn't nearly good enough to justify him staying in the lineup. In early June, the Indians elected to replace Chisenhall with Giovanny Urshela, a young third baseman with a still-developing bat but a much better glove. Chisenhall was optioned to Columbus, and there was very real possibility that he wouldn't get another chance with the Indians.
While in Columbus, Chisenhall played mostly third base but volunteered to play other positions in the hopes that he'd be able to help the big-league club. He ended up making four starts in right field with the Clippers, not enough to signify a position change, but it was enough to come in handy later on in the year.
In late July the Indians traded Brandon Moss, the everyday right fielder, to St. Louis, and Chisenhall took his spot on the roster. On July 31 he made his first major-league start in the outfield. He looked as though he'd been playing the position for years, showcasing his known strengths (a strong arm) as well as strengths that nobody thought he had (outfield range). In just 354.1 innings in the outfield Chisenhall compiled the 14th-highest UZR among outfielders in the majors, and the vast majority of that value came from his legs, not his arm. Only Kevin Kiermeyer (40.4) had a higher UZR/150 (UZR per 150
innings games) than Chisenhall (35.3).
Those numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, especially because of the small sample size, but I think the eye test does validate those numbers. On this play, made on September 13, he showcased both his athleticism and his quick adoption of the outfielder's craft. He took an almost perfect route to the ball, and caught it by making a difficult dive with his back to the plate.
Usually an outfielder has more trouble going back on a ball than in on one, but maybe Chisenhall, who had spent almost all of his professional career on the left side of the infield, used his experience on balls hit to shallow left field to make going back on a ball in the outfield a routine play.
Those defensive heroics would have made Chisenhall's second half just an interesting footnote had not hit well. After returning to Cleveland, Chisenhall hit .288/.353/.404, not gaudy numbers by any stretch, but when paired with his defensive prowess made him a 2.3 win player by the end of the year (which included his awful spring). If he can continue to play defense like he did in the second half, a .700ish OPS would be more than enough to not only keep him in the lineup, but make him one of the more valuable players on the roster. All because of a mid-season position change.
The major cause for concern is Chisenhall's bat. He had a very poor September, which offset a tremendous August. In his short career Lonnie has been a streaky hitter, but now his defense as an outfielder has given him a higher "value floor" than he ever had as a third baseman. It feels weird to make this comparison, but Chisenhall the right fielder somewhat reminds me of Franklin Gutierrez the right fielder when he was playing for the Indians. The question with Gutierrez was whether he'd hit enough to remain at a corner, and the same holds true for Chisenhall. The difference between the two being that Gutierrez was capable of playing an excellent center field, while Chisenhall doesn't have that ability. I least I don't think he does....