At one point during the Indians stirring comeback win on Sunday afternoon, I got into a Twitter discussion with another Tribe fan about Lonnie Chisenhall and what the Indians should expect from him, given his recent struggles with both the bat and the glove. Lonnie was in the midst of yet another brutal game, one that saw him go 0-3 with two Ks and a costly error (on a very routine play) that nearly cost the team the game and the series with the Tigers.
The fan that I was talking to advocated patience for Lonnie, as every player slumps and five weeks of a baseball season is really too small of a sample to decide anything. I agreed with this astute point about sample sizes and slumps, but I pointed out that Chisenhall’s struggles in 2013 are the same struggles he’s had since his first call-up in 2011: nonexistent plate discipline, terrible speed, and a subpar glove. I argued that right now, Chisenhall is a 0-tool player who should be ceding time in the field to Mike Aviles, who has been more than competent in the early going.
So who is right? Well, let’s look at the numbers.
On the season, Chisenhall’s slash line is .220/.253/.363, good for a dismal .615 OPS. He has also struck out 20 times in 95 plate appearances against only 2 walks (including one today).
Compare those numbers to his career statistics: .252/.286/.409, which is slightly better, but a .695 OPS just doesn’t cut it for a bat-only player. Also, in 469 plate appearances, Lonnie has struck out 96 times and earned a free pass only 18 times.
Let me put those numbers in perspective: Delmon Young, a free-swinger that is notoriously difficult to walk, averages 1 BB every 24.2 plate appearances. Lonnie, on the other hand, is averaging one BB every 26 plate appearances. It’s not an enormous margin, but Chisenhall has demonstrated that he has worse plate discipline than a player who is known for his reluctance to take a walk.
For the record, Chisenhall averaged just a shade over 12 plate appearances per base on balls in his minor league career, and that includes his time in Columbus last year, when he walked just four times in 126 PAs. This tells me that the potential to have good plate discipline is there, but it simply hasn’t translated at any point in his Major League career. This doesn’t mean that it won’t, it means just that: it hasn’t translated yet.
But the fact remains: we are quickly approaching Chisenhall’s 162nd game in the Major Leagues, and he hasn’t really showed that he’s here to stay. So, using the fantastic database at The Baseball Cube, I checked which players throughout history have had the most similar career arc to Lonnie. Similarity Score is a SABR statistic that compares a player’s stats in one season to all players in baseball history at the same age.
To be fair to Lonnie, I used his pseudo-breakout season of 2012 as a reference point. At the time, Chisenhall was 23 years old and posted a respectable line of .262/.311/.430 with 5 HR in 43 games. It is another agonizingly small sample, but it does provide us a reference point. The results were… slightly underwhelming.
(Quick Note: Similarity Score on The Baseball Cube is rated on an algorithm of 0-100. The closer a player is to 100, the more similar their seasons were. For this article, I looked at the five most similar seasons to Lonnie Chisenhall’s 2012 (Age 23) season and the career arcs of those players)
#5 Most Similar Season: OF Glenn Wilson (Similarity Score: 79.37)
MLB Seasons: 10 (Teams: DET, PHI, SEA, HOU, PITT)
Years Active: 1982-1993
Age 23 Season: 1982 (Detroit Tigers) – .292/.322/.457 with 12 HR and 34 RBI in 322 ABs over 84 games
Best Season: 1985 (Philadelphia Phillies) – .275/.311/.424 with 14 HR and 102 RBI in 161 games
Career: .265/.306/.398 with 98 HR and 521 RBI
While Wilson is not a household name, he carved out a very respectable career in the Major Leagues. At this point, if you told me that Lonnie would put up a .704 OPS over 10 seasons, I’d say that sounds about right. The big difference between Chisenhall and Wilson, however, was that Wilson was known as a plus defender with a cannon for an arm. In 1131 games in the outfield, Wilson amassed 109 assists, a solid total. Lonnie, however, is currently closer to a liability than an asset in the field, so it would be harder for a team to justify giving regular playing time to a player who is going to post merely mediocre offensive numbers.
#4: 3B Hank Majeski (SS: 80.19)
MLB Seasons: 13 (Teams: BOS, NYY, CHW, CLE, BAL)
Years Active: 1939-1955 (Did not play 1942-1945 due to WWII)
Age 22* season: 1939 (Boston) – .272/.310/.379 with 7 HR and 54 RBI in 106 games (394 PA)
Best Season: 1948 (Philadelphia Phillies) – .310/.368/.454 with 12 HR and 120 RBI in 148 games (Finished 11th in MVP voting)
Career: .279/.342/.398 with 57 HR and 501 RBI
*Majeski had 3 Abs total in his age-23 season
Offensively, I believe Hank Majeski represents something approximating Chisenhall’s ceiling, only Chisenhall projects to have a lower OBP and a slightly higher slugging (with more HRs). If Lonnie ever finishes anywhere on an MVP ballot, I think most Tribe fans would be thrilled. The problem with this comparison, however, is again related to the glove. Majeski ended his career with a .967 fielding percentage, good for 13th best all-time among third basemen. It’s not a stretch to say Chisenhall will never find himself on such a list. So again, we have a player with a slightly above average bat, but whose value is buoyed by his ability to flash the leather.
#3: OF George Thomas (SS: 80.30)
MLB Seasons: 11 (Teams: DET, LA (AL), BOS, MIN)
Years Active: 1961-1971
Age 23 season: 1961 (DET/LA (AL) – .274/.328/.458 with 13 HR and 59 RBI in 96 games (316 PA)
Best Season: 1964 (Detroit Tigers) – .286/.329/.464 with 12 HR and 44 RBI in 105 games (333 PA)
Career: .255/.316/.389 with 46 HR and 202 RBI
Unfortunately for Chisenhall, I fear that George Thomas is the best comparison for the Tribe’s young third baseman. Thomas managed to stick around for 11 major league seasons, yes, but he was used mostly in a utility role. He was a good utility man, to be sure, but he never really stuck as a full-time starter for any team and only managed to hit double-digit home runs twice (once at age 23 and once at age 26).
#2: IF Bill Nagel (SS: 80.96)
MLB Seasons: 3 (Teams: PHI, CHW)
Years Active: 1939, 1941, 1945
Age 23 Season: 1939 (Philadelphia Phillies) – .252/.307/.437 with 12 HR and 39 RBI in 105 games (374 PA)
Best Season: 1939 (see above)
Career: .227/.281/.374 with 15 HR and 72 RBI in 189 career games
Oof. As we climb up the Similarity Score ladder, the news gets worse and worse for Lonnie. Bill Nagel represents my biggest fears for Chisenhall: low average and OBP mixed with poor fielding (in 133 career games at 2B and 3B, Nagel posted a .943 fielding percentage. Lonnie has a career .936 fielding%), resulting in a career that never took off. World War II may have played a role in Nagel’s aborted career, but the combination of his mediocre bat and below average glove relegated him to only three seasons and only 84 games played after this rookie season. The career arc of Bill Nagel has to be considered the worst-case-scenario for the Indians #8.
#1: 2B Heine Scheer (SS: 81.14)
MLB Seasons: 2 (Team: Philadelphia Athletics)
Years Active: 1922-1923
Career: .212/.259/.301 with 6 HR and 33 RBI in 365 PA
I almost didn’t include Heine Sheer here, because I believe this similarity score is the function two small sample sizes working against each other. Scheer was a player defined by his glove that never developed even an average bat and was out of the majors after two seasons. He was bad, but he was bad in a different era. I put this here for the sake of completion, but I don’t think Scheer is a good reference point to glean anything about the career of Chisenhall.
Before anyone comments, I want to freely admit that Chisenhall’s entire major league career is still a decidedly small sample. We don’t know if he’s going to be another Hank Majeski and carve out a long (if unspectacular) career or if he will be sunk by his glove and lack of plate discipline a la Bill Nagel. I feel pretty good about saying that those two players represent something akin to Lonnie’s ceiling and floor, but reading anything beyond that at this point would be irresponsible.
I think the Indians have to give Chisenhall until at least the All-Star Break before they make a decision. If he still isn’t walking or hitting, and his glove still hasn’t started to solidify by then, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him back in Columbus. I don’t think he’ll ever develop into a middle-of-the-order threat or find himself in an All Star Game, but Chisenhall has all the tools to be a quality contributor on a major league roster.
Whether he ever realizes that potential… that’s up to him.
Chat with Adam during (most) Indians games on Twitter (follow @palagoon) where he will lament Brett Myers’ continued employment, among other things.