Patience is the name of the game when it comes to developing a young player at the major league level, but eventually enough has to be enough. In the case of Cleveland Indians and third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall, it may be time for the team to say enough.
Despite the excitement surrounding Lonnie when he was called up in 2011, he has always been considered far from a slam dunk star player. Drafted out of Pitt Community College in 2008 in the first round of the MLB draft, Lonnie came with a checkered past off the field. Initially he played for South Carolina, but was removed from the baseball program when he was charged with stealing electronic equipment from a dorm room. That didn't stop the Indians from taking him 29th overall in the 2008 draft.
On the field, Chisenhall's stats have never quite lived up to his scouting reports - even at the minor league level. He was said to have plus bat speed and power to all fields, but those scouting interpretations only translated to 18 home runs in 2009 in A+ ball, and 17 home runs in 2010 playing in AA. Outside of those two seasons he would never break more than seven home runs in the minors in a single campaign. But you can't scout prospects by numbers, so it wasn't preposterous to assume that he was just under-performing his true ability while in the minors.
After receiving that first call up in 2011, things didn't go quite as planned however. Chisenhall would bounce around between playing for the Indians and AAA Columbus Clippers until 2014 when he finally got full playing time. During those first three years he was streaky at best, and just awful at worst. His approach at the plate - while never hailed as anything special prior to his call up to begin with - wasn't good. A measly 3.6% walk rate in 2011 compared to a 22.0% strikeout rate, 5.3% walk rate compared to 17.9% strikeout rate in 2012, and a 5.2% walk rate compared to an 18.2% strikeout rate in 2013 summed up what was a disappointing trio of campaigns for Chisenhall.
Encouragingly, 2014 was a surprise year for Chisenhall. Much like the rest of the Tribe last year, Lonnie thrived. His plate approach didn't change much (7.3 BB%, 18.6 K%), but balls he was hitting were finally finding space in the field. Playing in 142 games in 2014 he amassed 13 home runs, a slash line of .280/.343/.427 and a passable 2.1 WAR. Just like his scouting report would indicate, nothing mind-blowing, but a solid MLB starter. The only question was whether or not he could maintain that level of play, especially considering he put up those numbers with a .328 BABIP.
If 2015 is any indication so far, the answer to that question is a clear no. On the surface his stats paint an eerily similar picture to his first three forgettable years, and potentially even worse if the trend continues. His 4.1% walk rate is the lowest its been since 2011, although his strikeout rate has come down a bit to 14.2%. Other than that, everything else is pointing to a perpetually-struggling hitter, including his pitiful .204/.240/.336 slash line and career-low 57 wRC+.
Not a lot of prediction models had Chisenhall putting up another 2.1 WAR season, but they had him at least doing something reasonable. ZIPS had him at 10 home runs and a .259/.310/.412 slash line with a 1.4 WAR, while Steamers had him hitting 11 home runs with similar batting numbers. So what happened?
When it comes to arguably the two biggest components of putting together a good at-bat (plate discipline and where the ball ends up after you hit it), there is almost no discernible change for Chisenhall year-to-year. Meaning that he's hitting in 2015 essentially the same exact way he has all his career. Even 2014, where he looked like a real deal major league player, his component numbers were still roughly the same.
From 2011 to 2015, Chisenhall has swung at pitches outside the zone 39.5% of the time. In 2011 alone he did so 42.3% of the time, and during his peak 2014 season he only swung on 39.3% of ill-advised pitches. But when we flip over to 2015, Lonnie is back up to swinging at 43.6% of pitches out of the zone. His contact rate on pitches outside of the zone has improved a bit - 81.3% in 2015 compared to his 72.0% career average - but his overall contact rate this year remains right along his career average.
As far as what happens once Chisenhall does make contact, those numbers too remain relatively unchanged over his five years in the majors. His infield fly ball percentage (17.8%) is rather inflated compared to his career average (10.1%), but other than that there is no real signs of improvement, or a hint that he'll regress in a positive direction. Line drives are being hit 19.7% of the time, right on track with 2011 when he hit 19.5% and 2013 when he hit 19.7% over the course of the season. He's also hitting ground balls 41.9% of the time which is right along his career 39.0% average.
What we're left with, and what we've been seeing so far in 2015, is a below-average player who is not doing anything to improve offensively or defensively. It begs the question of just how long can the Indians bare to keep running Chisenhall out there knowing that there are almost no signs pointing to a great future? Even with the loss Monday night a lot of things are going great for the Indians, but Lonnie Chisenhall just isn't one of them. If the front office isn't already planning for a future without him him, they should probably start.