There is nothing more sinister, more loathed in all of sport than that lurking spectre of injury. With utter impartiality it robs players of their ability, fans of their favorites, and makes the game less fun for all. For the last two or so years it’s robbed the Cleveland Indians of the regular services of Lonnie Chisenhall. Which is a travesty.
If he were healthy, Chisenhall has a place with the best at his position.
As much noise as is made about the absurd talent at shortstop these days, right field is nearly as packed. At the very top you have superstars in Mookie Betts, Aaron Judge, and Bryce Harper (even if he’s having a miserable first half) along with George Springer sometimes and the intriguing Brandon Nimmo, among others. All these guys are some kind of excellent at offense, some more than others. It’s not a list you expect to see Chisenhall on. And yet, since the start of 2017 Chisenhall’s 130 wRC+ is the eleventh highest among any right fielder with at least 300 plate appearances:
Top right fielders the last two years, by WRC+
Actually he’s 10th, now that J.D. Martinez’s days on that side of the field basically done for. And while it’s not even a whole season’s worth of at-bats for Chisenhall, it’s in a way validating.
When he was a prospect it was the bat that got him to the majors, then promptly disappeared. It seems like it wasn’t until he started using that bat with a handle like an axe (it’s called the AxeBat of course, developed by Baden) that he really broke out and became something approaching his promise. Its designers say the shape of the handle allows for better bat control and firmer grip — and therefore firmer contact — and players from Mookie Betts to Dustin Pedroia to George Springer swear by it. Red Sox hitting coach Chili Davis sees no downside in it. We’ve read how launch angle and all that have changed players’ careers. Why no a little tweak in technology? It’s at least a piece of what’s unlocked Chisenhall.
Whether the bat or just maturity, it’s not just a platoon situation with Chisenhall either. That was what he seemed to be heading toward in 2016 when he and Brandon Guyer split time in right. He only saw a lefty 52 times that year, 12.4 percent of his at-bats. Between last year and this though, that rate has leapt up to 18.4 percent. Across baseball lefties have seen a left-handed pitcher 18.8 percent of the time this year, so he’s definitely become more of an everyday player. And for those living under a rock, he’s certainly been getting the better of his counterparts on the mound. Since 2017 he’s posted a 159 wRC+ againt lefties, walked 14.7 percent of the time against a 17.3 percent strikeout rate. It’s only 67 plate appearances that are broken up by a long string of injury, but it’s certainly a world away from the hitter he was only two years ago.
But we don’t get to appreciate his excellence at the plate — or that arm of his in the field — because of a couple stupid calves that keep getting strained. It’s infuriating regardless, but especially when you realize what he’s become at the plate. He’s tied with Francisco Lindor in wRC+ over the last season and a half, but that 700 or so fewer plate appearances makes you wonder what could be. The Tribe has dealt with enough injury problems this year and last. We are seeing glimpses of a flowering of long promised talent, flashes of excellence suddenly snatched away.
Life might be unfair, but can’t the baseball gods smimle on a man with the most baseball name on earth? Just for a few months? The world deserves it.