Are three games and two innings too small of a sample size to declare Lonnie Chisenhall’s move to right field a success? The answer ranges somewhere between "yes" and "absolutely positively yes," but that does not make how well he has performed over this past series against the Oakland Athletics any less impressive. Most importantly, it indicates that he could have a future in the outfield.
For the unaware, Chisenhall to this point has been a career third baseman. Prior to Friday’s game against the A’s, he started 329 games for the Cleveland Indians at third base and eight at first base – not a single start in any outfield position, right field or otherwise. It was not until Chisenhall’s trip to the minor leagues to improve upon a terrible 2015 start that he got some work in a new position.
Granted, he did not get a lot of work in right field (four starts playing for Triple-A Columbus), but the Indians traded away two outfielders at the trade deadline, which opened the way for Lonnie to be promoted and get another shot on the Major League roster, this time as a right fielder.
Chisenhall has been somewhat lucky in his first few games in the outfield. For one, the A’s were not hitting much against Indians pitching. It also helps that much of what was hit at Lonnie were mostly routine plays, but there were a couple highlight-worthy moments that he easily could have blown and had it chalked up to inexperience at the position.
The flashiest play was during his first outing on Saturday when he threw a bullet from right field that prevented Max Muncy from scoring.
Chisenhall likely would have another laser-accurate throw to add to his resume from the same game, but Carlos Santana cut the ball off at the last second in an attempt to get a runner out at third instead. It did no go well.
These throws are impressive to watch and all, but keep in mind Chis is a career third baseman. He would be nothing at that position if he could not pick up a ball and rocket it to to first base to get a speedy runner now and again. Throwing from the outfield is definitely a different beast, but it is one that Chisenhall seems to have picked up right away.
To me, the more impressive aspect of Chisenhall playing in the outfield so far is his routes. This is something that could change when the Indians face teams with better hitters and Chisenhall faces more challenging plays, but catching "routine" line drives is still no easy task, especially in your first few starts in the outfield.
Going back to that Sunday game in Oakland, Chisenhall took a smart route to a line drive that prevented a run scoring from third. Again, not as impressive to look at as nailing someone running home, but even a second of hesitation means a run scores and a batter winds up on second base.
Back when Chisenhall’s promotion was first announced, I wondered aloud in the comments if another similar situation ever occurred where a player sent down to the minors came back to play a brand new position alongside the guy that replaced him. Let's Go Tribe user Brick brought up the great comparison of Alex Gordon. The big difference between Gordon and Chisenhall is the expectations and overall skill levels (Gordon has arguably always been higher in both regards), but their situations are strikingly similar.
Like Chisenhall, Gordon spent the first few years of career switching between being good and being extremely disappointing while playing a mix of third and first base. It was not until he made the full-time switch to left field in 2011 that he really took off. Gordon was worth 6.6 fWAR that season and he has been worth 25.3 fWAR in the four-and-a-half seasons since the change.
That is not to say Chisenhall has any chance of being on Alex Gordon’s level of an outfielder, but it is just worth pointing out that the transition from third base to outfielder is not an unheard of move. Gordon took his canon third base arm and translated it into one of the best outfield arms in the business.
Last night's injury on a failed diving attempt in right field proves that Lonnie has some growing pains to go with the position, but if he can find his bat and keep improving on his outfield defense, his future could still be bright in Cleveland. Chisenhall may not have been dead in the water at third base, but if it were not for his athleticism and ability to play a second position, he may have never done much more than stick around in AAA, at least in the short term.