It’s been eight years since the Cleveland Indians selected Lonnie Chisenhall in the first round of the MLB Draft. We’ve seen him rise to be the top prospect in the organization, become a top-25 Baseball America prospect, and struggle to find his place in the majors. But after a few stints at third, a handful of trips to and from Columbus and a few injuries that slowed any development he’d shown, Chisenhall has found a place for himself.
While everyone wants their first round pick and top rated prospect to be a star, that’s not realistic. There can’t be that many stars. What there can be is very good ballplayers, who fulfill their potential as much as they can. One man on the Indians at least has done that. Lonnie Chisenhall has become everything he was supposed to be.
Considering where he was drafted, Lonnie has already far exceeded expectations
Actually, saying Chisenhall is what he should be is doing a disservice. By WAR, he’s been more than what he was supposed to be. Chisenhall has earned 7.8 bWAR in his career as an Indian. While it’s slightly old, this article from The Hardball Times from 2014 shows that, on average, a late first round pick is worth roughly 2.4 WAR in their team controlled years. Lonnie has nearly quadrupled that and is sure to continue adding to that while not being a free agent until 2019. So really, he’s already far exceeded what one might expect out of where he was drafted.
But that’s all just averages and theory. With so many players drafted that don’t make it, those averages get dragged down with fat zeroes. The first overall pick in 2008 was Tim Beckham, who is barely a big league player. Other names include Kyle Skipworth at six, David Cooper at 17, and right behind Chisenhall at 28 was Casey Kelly. All names you don’t remember. Kelly has actually been worth -1.5 bWAR in his career. Basically, there’s a lot of nothing in the MLB draft that makes everyone else look worse when you look at averages. Lonnie has been better than what is expected out of an average 29th pick, but there’s a lot of chaff in there to muddle it. We expect big things out of high draftees, and he’s delivering.
It was a slow burn to the Chisenhall roaming right field today...
All through his minor league career, Chisenhall was a bat searching for a defensive position. He only spent one complete season in Double-A Akron, hitting 17 home runs and notching an .801 OPS, but the brain trust saw something in him that said, "Triple-A is where he belongs". He pretty much blasted through that and made the majors as a 23-year old. His speedy promotion track likely had something to do with the Indians being some level of garbage at that point and trying to employ Jack Hannahan as an offensive presence. Chisenhall was heralded for his bat and was young and could probably learn third base on the job, so it seemed like a good idea to see what he had.
It didn’t work out. In fact, over the next three years in the majors, a combined 202 games, he was worse offensively for the Indians than Jack Hannahan had been in 2011. Even 2014 was looked at as a sham season, artificially buoyed by an absurd June and little else. The star had faded. A lot of people wanted to move on from him, especially after that dreadful start last year.
But there has always been something about Chisenhall. Every Tribe fan I’ve talked to over the years has been grumbly about him, but there was a kind of kid brother aspect to it. Despite his failings, despite all the chances that he didn’t take advantage of, most people didn’t want to quit on him, rooted for him to pull it out even. Which was strange. It’s not even like he was a top five pick or anything. He didn’t demonstrate a Miguel Sano type of terrifying power in the minors or a Byron Buxton can-do-everything skillset. By the way, the TMinnesota Twins have to figure out their minor league development.
But Chisenhall was a good minor leaguer, never great. All he’s ever had going for him was a great name, one of the most Baseball Names ever, and a swing sweet enough to rival Ken Griffey Jr. on a bad day. I think that’s why the desperate hope he’d succeed maintained in fans so much. It could be that I’m more of a fan of Chisenhall than most, but it just seemed like he had to succeed. He looked so good even when he struck out. So many wanted him to succeed, maybe more so even than he did. Maybe all this Tinkerbelling has worked. It looks like the worm has finally turned.
...but it was worth the wait
Through 115 games this year, Chisenhall is hitting. 298/.338/.458, good for a 109 wRC+. Being nearly 10 percent better than the average offensive player isn’t a huge thing, but he’s bringing more than just what is expected to the table. But he also had a rough start to the season. Since May 31st, a date where he went 3-for-4 and seemed to have finally healed up from offseason surgery, he’s been hitting .306/.334/.483. It’s a stretch of 85 games where he’s hit 20 doubles and eight home runs. In that stretch his BABIP has been .346, but the very nature of the way Lonnie has been spraying the ball around the field (more than 30% of batted balls go to the opposite field, and less than 40 are pulled) means he’s more prone to a high BABIP.
But I can go further. Since last August 1st, right around when he and Jose Ramirez showed back up and knew how to play baseball and a stretch of 551 plate appearances, he’s hit .293/.341/.440. This is the stat line I’ve always wanted out of Chisenhall. And even that is dragged down by a rough first two months of 2016. He was never going to be a high walk guy. Even in the minors, he was there to hit, not create offense at the plate. He struck out nearly twice as much as he walked in the minors, which is something you don’t really expect from a guy who is supposed to make it on his bat. But he did, and still laced the ball everywhere.
This is all he was ever supposed to be. The fact that he can actually play a decent right field (Monday night notwithstanding) while allowing a young stud in Jose Ramirez flourish in his own right is just icing on the cake. Yes, he is essentially a slightly worse Michael Young. But Michael Young was never a bad player, he was just a massively overrated player.
If Chisenhall ends the season hitting over .300 he is going to get praise for it, because that’s still a pretty good milestone to reach. It doesn’t mean as much when you’re only getting on base 34 percent of the time overall, but it still means something. And if he can yank a couple balls over the wall in October or even just hammer a few into the gap, he’s earned his lunch. Anyway, i think the Indians could benefit from a player like him and Ramirez, who show up to hit the ball and not just wait for the perfect pitch, especially with the Santanas and Napolis of the world joining them in the batting order.
It’s nice to see a player reach some kind of potential, even if it took a while. Chisenhall has turned into a fine ballplayer even if it took a few missteps and stumbles. Most draftees could only hope for the career he’s had, not to mention the organizational patience. I guess all it takes is a sweet lefty swing, and the rest is gravy.