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Lonnie Chisenhall, fly balls, and the BABIP gods

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Lonnie has been two different hitters this season, but the reasons why are not obvious.

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Lonnie Chisenhall's 2015 can effectively be split into sections: before right field, and after right field. Before right field, when he was the Tribe's everyday third baseman, Lonnie was a struggling batter who could not hit well enough to keep his job over a rookie. Now, playing in right field nearly every game since his July 30 call-up, Lonnie looks like a potential middle-of-the-order threat who can get on base whenever he wants and can hit everything thrown at him. However, most of what's different between those two periods can be placed at the feet of the sometimes merciful, sometimes vengeful BABIP gods.

Normally, if you are applying the blanket statement "well his BABIP improved so he is just lucky," it is wrong. Surely, something else had to give to improve how a hitter performed, there is not really some magical BABIP fairy that determines when and will not a ball falls into play. This usually comes in the form of a hitter pulling less (or more, depending on how they improved), a batter hitting more line drives, or just making better contact. But in the case of Lonnie Chisenhall, none of these are really true.

Let’s try a little experiment. Without cheating, can you tell which one of these cherry-picked stats point to the April-through-June bad Chisenhall, and which stats point to the July-through-August good Chisenhall?

Lonnie A Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% SwStr% GB/FB LD% IFH%
53.8 % 76.6 % 91.3 % 84.7 % 8.1 % 1.60 21.2 % 6.3 %
Lonnie B Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% SwStr% GB/FB LD% IFH%
57.2 % 82.4 % 88.4 % 86.4 % 7.8 % 1.33 20.0 % 6.3 %

Across the board (including even more stats that aren't listed above), Lonnie looks almost identical now as he did when he was hitting so much worse earlier in the season. Yet Lonnie B (the version we've seen in the last three weeks) has a much better batting line.

For the sake of simplicity going forward, we will stick to the Lonnie A and Lonnie B designations. Lonnie Chisenhall, when he was a 57 wRC+ third baseman, will be Lonnie A, and Lonnie Chisenhall, when he was (and still is) a 169 wRC+ right fielder, will be Lonnie B.

On top of the similar stats above, Lonnie is doing nearly everything the same. His batted profile looks almost identical – Lonnie B’s pull percentage (42.9%), balls hit to center percentage (31.4%) and opposite field percentage (25.7%) look shockingly similar to Lonnie A’s (42.4%, 33.%, 24.2%).

Despite all these similarities, Chisenhall’s Tale of Two Seasons is dramatically different. Lonnie A hit with a well below-average .209/.241/.345 slash in 189 plate appearances, while Lonnie B hit for .375/.412/.542 in 51 plate appearances as of Tuesday. So what did actually change? There are a few possibilities.

Fly balls or more specifically, infield fly balls

Lonnie Chisenhall is hitting a ton of infield fly balls. Specifically, 40% of Lonnie A's fly balls landed in the infield, and now 33.3 percent of Lonnie B's are doing the same. This number is going to fluctuate frequently (just yesterday Lonnie B's was closer to 13%), but on the season, Lonnie ranks 14th among batters with at least 200 plate appearances in infield fly ball percentage.

Lonnie is also now hitting more fly balls in general. Lonnie B’s 38.4 fly ball percentage is 4.4% higher than Lonnie A’s. That does mean that Chisenhall is now hitting more fly balls into the outfield, which can be a good or bad thing. Bad if you are hitting it right to waiting outfielder’s gloves, good if you have a BABIP of .485(!).

Lonnie has become the patron saint of the BABIP gods

Sometime between the dates of June 7 and July 30, Lonnie Chisenhall was summoned to the home of the BABIP gods, Mt. Columbus, where he passed several trials of bravery, wit, and athleticism to prove to the that he was worthy of being their avatar. He drank some strange liquid and woke up one day in the Indians clubhouse, ready to deliver the message of a near-.500 BABIP to the people of earth.

Divine intervention or not, Lonnie has been phenomenally lucky in terms of balls falling into play. As we looked at in the fly balls section, he is now hitting more fly balls than he did in his first stint of 2015, yet more of them seem to be landing in open ground instead of in gloves. For comparison, Lonnie A's BABIP was .231.

He is hitting slightly fewer ground balls (Lonnie A: 48.5 GB%, Lonnie B: 45.7 GB%), but he is hitting roughly the same amount of line drives. That small percent of ground balls has been converted to fly balls and nearly all of them are landing where they should. That is not going to last forever.

Small sample size

Obviously, Lonnie Chisenhall is not going to carry a .485 BABIP until the day he retires. Conventional wisdom would say that he is due to regress closer to his career average BABIP, considering this bloated total has come in just 49 plate appearances. It is just bizarre that almost nothing has changed in his approach or the type of hits he has had. But in the end, the results have been dramatically different thanks to some good old fashioned luck. It will be interesting to see how he regresses, and whether or not it will happen while he still has the same peripherals.

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For now, keep making your sacrifices to the BABIP gods and hope Chisenhall does not fall out of their favor. Currently, he is not hitting particularly harder or with a better approach than he did at the start of the season. The big difference now is that everything he is hitting isn't getting caught by outfielders. It may just turn out that Lonnie Chisenhall is a batter that is going to live and die by his BABIP, unless he makes some real adjustments at the plate.