It’s hard to call a player a bust before their career is over. Just ask the Cleveland Indians, who have third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall in the midst of a breakout year. Once a first-round disappointment, Chisenhall is now hitting like an MLB All-Star through the first half of the regular season.
There are several compelling storylines to grab from the 25-year-old’s rise to stardom. His elite hitting, his relative obscurity due to the minimum plate appearances requirement, his history-making night against the Texas Rangers…take your pick.
Those three storylines—and a couple more—will be given a closer look in these five takeaways from Chisenhall’s first half performance.
Chisenhall is hitting at an elite level
Chisenhall’s 2014 statistics are stunning, to put it lightly. He is batting .344/.401/.559 at 256 plate appearances and has 38 RBI with a career-high walk percentage of 7.0 percent and a career-low strikeout percentage of 15.6 percent in the majors, per FanGraphs.
That’s really, really good, but also unprecedented for Chisenhall. To put those numbers in perspective, he’s the third-best hitter in baseball on a park-adjusted basis, outpacing several stars, such as Miguel Cabrera and Yasiel Puig, according to Grantland’s Jonah Keri.
Puig was a witness to one of Chisenhall’s many highlights in Wednesday night’s game at Los Angeles.
Chisenhall’s power is evident in the above home run, and he always seems to hit the long ball with runners on base. The most notable aspect of the play is Chisenhall’s calmness: A run isn’t a noteworthy accomplishment for him anymore—he knows he’s become legit.
So what’s changed from his past few years of mediocrity?
The answer is more logical than fascinating, but it comes down to his adjusted batting stance. MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian wrote that Chisenhall has lowered his hands a bit and has a slight forward lean in his setup for more consistent hitting.
With a new stance and increased patience, Chisenhall has risen through the statistical ranks this season. Is it enough to earn him an All-Star bid?
One stat dooms Chisenhall's All-Star chances
If Lonnie Chisenhall isn't an All-Star, there's seriously something wrong with baseball. #Indians— Jim Berdysz (@JBirdman27) June 25, 2014
Chisenhall’s dominance at the plate this season certainly makes him a tough guy to snub. I wouldn’t say something is wrong with baseball if he is left off, however.
The problem with Chisenhall’s All-Star chances is that the fans probably don’t have an idea as to how hot he’s been this season. According to Cleveland.com’s Zack Meisel, a major leaguer needs 3.1 plate appearances per game over a season to qualify for the batting crown.
Right now, Chisenhall isn’t qualified for the batting crown. But if he was, he’d be second in qualified MLB batting average behind Troy Tulowitzki. And having his name among MVP candidates and top batters would make the fans outside of Cleveland realize his excellence.
Chisenhall’s lack of plate appearances is ultimately what will make his run at the 2014 MLB All-Star Game fall short. Oakland’s Josh Donaldson has a sizable lead at the third base spot for the AL, per MLB.com, and with voting ending Thursday night, it will stay that way.
His fielding is a work in progress
The absence of Lonnie Baseball at the All-Star festivities just gives the budding slugger more time to improve his game for next year.
Right now Chisenhall is doing nearly everything a manager could ask for from a hitting perspective, but his fielding has been a roller-coaster ride. He has 10 errors and a minus-10.5 defensive rating on FanGraphs, which is second-to-last on Cleveland’s roster. The Indians as a whole have been an atrocious defensive squad this year, but Chisenhall’s rawness stands out in particular.
Chisenhall’s lack of significant playing time in the majors is the main reason for this shortcoming, and in time, he will be better. His potential at the position is certainly evident in the two plays below, which show off his anticipation skills and his rocket arm:
With his bat masking his fielding struggles, Chisenhall should be able to see the field enough to improve with in-game reps. That could mean more superb outs like the ones showcased here.
He's owner of the best hitting performance of the season's first half
June 9 was when Chisenhall truly showed he meant business in the majors. Against the Texas Rangers, he had a ridiculous three home runs, was 5-for-5 at the plate and added nine RBIs. No other player has ever done that in MLB history.
The above video? That’s history. Chisenhall capitalized on every opportunity throughout this game, getting a single in the first inning, a homer in the second, another home run in the fourth, a double in the sixth and his third home run in the eighth inning.
The bat Chisenhall used is headed to Cooperstown, as Chisenhall donated the bat to the Baseball Hall of Fame, according to the Associated Press.
Francona is hesitant to unleash Lonnie Baseball
Part of Chisenhall falling short of qualifying for the batting title is manager Terry Francona’s odd handling of one of his best talents.
In fact, it seems like only recently that Chisenhall has been consistently locked in at 3B, as he bounced around positions early on in the season. With 43 games at third base, 11 at first base and 16 at designated hitter according to ESPN, Chisenhall’s defensive miscues are likely due to unfamiliarity rather than a lack of skill.
But it’s not just Chisenhall’s spot-on defense that’s been inconsistent—his order in the lineup has been all over the place. Despite his scorching-hot batting, Chisenhall has been fifth in the lineup for most of the season, with stops at sixth, seventh, ninth….basically anywhere but the top four spots in the order, which is where the top batters usually hit.
Francona even sits Chisenhall out occasionally, particularly against left-handed pitchers—which is odd because he’s been much improved in that aspect this season.
Lonnie Chisenhall tells @BullandFox "I certainly didn't ask for it" - in response to having night off vs BOS last night. Francona made call— Keith Britton (@KeithBritton86) June 13, 2014
Maybe Francona wants to prevent Chisenhall from handling too much too soon, which could stunt his growth. But when a player is hot, he’s hot, and that means giving him his due at a higher spot in the rotation. Francona’s handling of Chisenhall could hurt the Indians as they attempt to claw their way to a playoff spot.
Although Cleveland is sitting with a losing record at 41-43, they have to feel good about the future of the team with two emerging stars in Chisenhall and outfielder Michael Brantley. Chisenhall’s breakout 2014 campaign is one of the best stories of this MLB season, and whether or not he maintains his sterling performance at the plate will be fascinating to watch going forward.