The Indians’ inaction this winter was predicated on a couple things. The team’s budget always looms large, but a hope that some players would revert to form — or, in Yonder Alonso’s case, continue the new version of themselves — was thick in the team’s planning. It’s not smart business of course, but it’s reality. Still, they head into the season with an outfield rife with question marks. Can Bradley Zimmer hit? Will Michael Brantley heal? At least on paper the right field platoon was looking okay, until it was the middle of March and Brandon Guyer is still on Injured Reserve.
What if that’s not a bad thing though? What if Lonnie Chisenhall, Full Time Player is finally a thing?
With a 101 career wRC+, has there been such a dead average player with such a long tenure on a team that has the following Chisenhall does? Outside of people who get irrationally angry when any prospect of note is anything but great, he’s a beloved part of the squad. For years as he battled Jack Hannahan for playing time, lost innings go Gio Urshela, showed flashes of talent only to get injured, and somehow ended up in right field, he’s continued to dazzle with effort, a pretty swing, and a great smile. Even if the numbers have never matched up.
Until 2017, the flaws were obvious. The man was simply too aggressive — walk rates under 6.4 percent every year, swing rates more than 10 points above league average every year — and he just couldn’t hit lefties. His bat got him to the majors, then failed him.
But 2017 was different. Chisenhall was excellent over 270 plate appearances, posting a 129 wRC+, fourth best on the team. His 33.7 percent hard hit rate was far and away a career high, as was the 45.7 percent fly ball rate. He struck out more — the 20.2 percent rate was two points higher than his career — but the 9.3 percent walk rate was three points higher than he’s posted thus far, as well. All that led to more power with a career high 14.3 percent HR/FB ratio and a .233 isolated slugging.
More than anything, he hit lefties, and that is what is holding him back from 500 plate appearances. It wasn’t a lot, only 60 PA’s this year, but Chisenhall hit .340/.456/.511 facing southpaws. Which is, well, Votto-ian. It’s also a complete ruse. Despite the spike in fly ball rate overall, Chisenhall was hitting grounders at a 54.1 percent clip against lefties and fly balls only 34.1 percent of the time. This led to an unsustainably high .400 BABIP even if he does keep working the ball to all fields against them. He pulled the ball 39.5 percent of the time against right-handers, only 32.5 percent against left-handers, which had something to do with the higher BABIP. Even with that all-fields approach though, he is due for a massive whack of regression in 2018. But it’s not all bad.
We continue to deal in a sample of only 60 plate appearances, but in that stretch Chisenhall did walk 15 percent of the time. As said before, overall he walked considerably more than he ever had, but he also got more patient. Overall he swung only 50.3 percent of the time, his lowest rate in six years. But against lefties in particular, his swing rate cratered:
The great killer of lefties facing lefties, and especially Chisenhall, has alway been that hard breaker running away. From 2012 through 2016 Chisenhall saw sliders 18 percent of the time, trailing only four- and two-seam fastballs. He swung at it 57.3 percent of the time. In 2017, when sliders and breaking balsl in general continued to climb in use he saw a slider 27.2 percent of the time, swinging only 47.5 percent of the time. It was only 59 total pitches, and he only put five of them into play (three hits) but all of them were opposite field:
He stopped chasing a pitch he couldn’t hit, went with the pitch, and helped himself in the process.
The goal isn’t to have Chisenhall bludgeon the ball equally from both sides of the plate. But if he can be serviceable, put up something resembling a 100 wRC+ against lefties even, his ability to hit righties at an above average rate (120 wRC+ in 2017) makes him a very solid regular.
Nobody should expect a star out of Chisenhall. That time has likely passed. He’s older, wiser, and knows how he’s being treated though. Being able to use him late in games frees up the roster to have, say, Greg Allen on the bench for defense and running rather than Guyer, or allows for another reliever. It adds flexibility elsewhere. It was only 60 plate appearances, but it showed the glimmer of a guy learning his weaknesses and exploiting his strengths. That’s the path to a very interesting breakout candidate.