For coming on a half-decade now, we’ve been working on finding a place for Lonnie Chisenhall with the Cleveland Indians.
He's been able to record 592 games for the Tribe not including postseason, and few that have played beside him have had such insane ebbs and flows, false starts, and rebirths as Chisenhall has. As we enter May of his fifth year in Cleveland, Chisenhall finds himself once again in unfamiliar defensive territory. He's also having a pretty good start to the season.
One must wonder, for neither the first nor likely the last time, if this time it's all for real.
Seeing as how it's still the first week of May, and adding to that the fact Chisenhall has all of two at-bats against lefties, perhaps after all this time expectations should be tempered. But we do that subconsciously this time of year anyway, or do if we hate fun. Because Aaron Judge will hit a ball to the moon soon. And Francisco Lindor will hit 35 home runs, and you're wrong if you think otherwise.
But let's look at what Chisenhall is doing. He's only got 49 plate appearances so far this season, well below any level where stats start to normalize. And he's had outlier Aprils in the past. In 2014 he had a 31.4 percent line drive rate compared to a 22.9 percent grounder rate and hit .362. He also had a .486 BABIP that month. That was Chisenhall's best season, but even that only kept going for about three months, cresting in a wild night in Arlington. In 2015 He had an opposite April — hitting .222, his line drive rate cratered to 24.1 percent and he got demoted. Like I said, he's a man of wild swings, though the last couple Aprils have been a bit of a barometer for the rest of the season. The way this April looks, maybe he found a happy medium.
That happy medium, in this case his hitting .302/.343/.512, is a bit much for anyone to expect out of a full season. Especially Lonnie based on previous track record, and especially If he were a full-time player. But the good news is, he doesn't have to be that anymore. Between the rise of Abraham Almonte (whose April is silly in its own right, but who knows anymore) and more importantly the presence of Brandon Guyer, Chisenhall can become that platoon player he was seemingly always destined to be.
Even if the slash line takes a dip, I am encouraged by the more normal .306 BABIP that Chisenhall has recorded so far. It's a bare two points higher than his career rate, so there's a glimmer of realness to his line that he's only demonstrated in April once — last year when it was .294. He was otherwise dreadful last April (48 wRC+, the same he recorded the year prior), but for the year he was at least league average a with a 102 wRC+. That would be just fine this year, but not super expected. At this point though, that's about where we're at with Chisenhall.
Then of course there's this whole center field experiment. I'm not one to question the brilliance of Terry Francona, and in this case maybe he's right. After all, the players manning center last year, Rajai Davis and Tyler Naquin, were no great shakes out there even if they both looked the part on a baseball card. And despite that the Tribe still made the World Series. We're in a place where "not terrible" is what to hope for with the outfield for this team. Chisenhall has always had his athleticism to fall back on, and he's got a better arm than Naquin, so even if he makes okay plays look amazing like that leaping catch this past weekend, the Indians could probably do worse. It'd be nice if they could do better, but what are we, rich people?
Maybe I should stop looking for a time where Lonnie Chisenhall will emerge as some kind of Alex Gordon 2.0, and accept him as what he is. I probably have, most of us have, deep down. But wouldn’t it be cool for this first-round pick to do all the first-round pick things he was supposed to? It’s not to say he hasn’t had a good career already, and he’ll probably sign for a few decent millions once he hits free agency, but until he hits 30 I will keep on this ever-shrinking bandwagon. Even afterward, I’ll see if I can get him on my softball team.
Chisenhall’s looked good in the early goings, and a wise man is putting him in places to succeed. Whether or not he “figures it out”, whatever that means at this point, he has kept being open to new things and changing his own game for the good of the team. That alone is admirable. Hopefully it leads to him finding final success eventually.