We are in year six of the Lonnie Chisenhall Experience, and who can say it’s been anything but interesting? What amazes me most is that even though he seems like he's been a fixture on the team, to this point he’s only appeared in more than 100 games twice and only crested 500 at-bats once, in 2014. That year was his best on record offensively, logging a 119 wRC+, even as he played butcherman at third for much of the season.
He’s a former first-round pick, so there's some leftover expectation on him, but in baseball, that’s no guarantee of anything. Still, he’s been an interesting player to watch for much of his career even as the luster of prospectess has worn off. We keep waiting for a breakout, and he has reinvented himself as a sterling right fielder and he seems to have made a new adjustment at the plate of late. Lonnie captures my imagination, and I can’t help but hope for the best.
That adjustment I mentioned is a level of patience, yet mixed with a certain aggression. He is walking more than he ever has in his career -- 9.4 percent of the time. He’s seeing a career-high 3.88 pitches per plate appearance and actually working counts instead of dying after he gets 0-2 or 1-2. He’s never been known as a patient hitter, and despite this newfound patience and pitch recognition, he’s somehow become more aggressive at the plate. Bizarrely, it's working for him.
Lonnie is swinging at a career high 55.6 percent of pitches seen. He’s attacking early, even if he is seeing more pitches, swinging at the first pitch 39.2 percent of the time, again a career high by a considerable margin. His career average is only 32.7 percent. All this amazes me simply because he’s always seemed like an aggressive hitter already, wanting to use that gorgeous lefty swing any time he gets the chance. And yet, despite attacking more, he’s become more patient and has begun to succeed through it. While his 100 wRC+ is far from his career best, his ability to get on base has become much less connected to his hitting ability and that can lead to longer term success. That kind of approach can help negate slumps, and more importantly, he’s more likely to see more hittable pitches.
This power outage of Chisenhall is a bit concerning, though. His slugging percentage has dipped below .400, his .127 isolated slugging (or ISO, which tells you the number of extra bases a hitter averages per at-bat) isn’t a career low only because opening the season last year he was the worst thing to ever be near a baseball bat. That’s the reason he was even a first round pick anyway, was his bat. He was supposed to hit well enough that keeping him in the field was alright even if it was a mess. Even as the luster wore off, a 20-25 home run, 115-125 wRC+ type of player was hoped for. Maybe he’ll go on a tear, and there’s hope that a bump in the power numbers might appear. Perhaps last year was an aberration when it came to his hitting.
His fluctuating ability to hit the fastball is simply strange. Last year something happened with Chisenhall, and he couldn’t hit the fastball with authority. Only 18.9 percent of fastballs put in play were line drives, compared to 27.9 percent the year before and 27.7 this season. For a guy who had trouble on his way up with hitting anything breaking or offspeed, this was a major problem. But he could be back to that. Combining that with his newfound selective aggressiveness, or aggressive patience (which sounds like a really in your face monk) or whatever you want to call it, we may see a sudden surge like he’s shown in the past, but more prolonged because he doesn't chase that diving away slider as much now that he has a firm idea of how he's going to be treated, and can get to that four-seamer or sinker in the zone with more authority than ever before.
It's not just knowing what he'll see. He’s also not pulling the ball as much, which could be another part of an adjusted approach. Through last year, he’d never hit the ball to left field more than 29.3 percent of the time. This year he’s going opposite field 33.6 percent of the time, and only pulling the ball 37 percent of the time, a career low. The shift has murdered Lonnie for years, and if he’s accepted that maybe going for dingers all the time isn’t the way to go and spraying the ball the other way could give him a longer career, everyone benefits including him and his bank account. It might negate the aforementioned potential power surge since he appears to be just chasing singles, but some of those oppo knocks could hit a gap or dart down the line, which means a double more often than not.
One thing that is troubling, aside from a lack of any legit pop, is breaking balls are back to killing Chisenhall. At least compared to last year. Whatever happened in 2014, he decided he could hit breaking and offspeed pitches better (LD% of 33.3% on breaking pitches and 28.6% on offspeed) and decided to flip this script this year. While the LD% on fastballs has leapt to that career high 28.9 percent, it’s also tanked on other pitches, 22.2 percent on breaking and 13.3 percent on offspeed. A conversation with him about what happened last year would be truly illuminating if it was on purpose. Whatever it is, those soft pitches are getting him as they used to, at least in contact type.
Nobody wants a guy who was supposed to hang in or around the middle of the lineup to become a punch and judy singles hitter, but for Chisenhall, it’s about finding a home consistently in the league, particularly offensively. The defense he flashed in right last year was legit, and while he rates negatively on FanGraphs, it’s by a mere -0.7 UZR/150, which could easily be turned around. He’s just not getting a lot of reps because he’s getting platooned so much and the insane number of lefties the Cleveland Indians seem to see, seemingly every single one in the American League. Facing the Chicago White Sox 19 times will do that, I suppose. So his defensive numbers might suffer for a bit until he’s given a chance to actually save some runs, but he’s looked good out there, and his arm plays every day of the week.
There’s still something more to hope for from a player that seems like he’s become every Tribe fan’s little brother. The desire to see him succeed is unending, but he keeps being "God dammit Lonnie", even if it’s said with love. By August, it could be we’ll see that wRC+ up above the 115 mark, or least there for the second half of the year. He’s one who is easy to root for, though, and there’s hints and subtle nudges throughout his year that he’s growing, getting better, and hopefully going to ascend into his prime real soon. Whatever that looks like, now is the time to buy in on Lonnie Chisenhall.