Now that pitchers and catchers have reported to Indians camp in Goodyear, AZ, the 2016 season is officially underway. In preparation of the season, I will take an extended look at the Indians’ roster from all angles. I will highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the team and evaluate exactly what it will take to raise the first World Championship banner since 1948. Today, we will look at Lonnie Chisenhall and his unexpected emergence as a right fielder at the end of 2015. Is the defense for real? Will the offense be better?
Lonnie Baseball, as he’s (sometimes) lovingly referred to by Indians fans, has long been one of the most frustrating and streaky players on the team. Drafted by the Indians in the first round (29th) of 2008, he was hailed as the third baseman of the future for a team that desperately needed one at the time [Author’s note: I look sadly upon my Korean Baseball League Andy Marte jersey]. Chisenhall made his major league debut in 2011, almost exactly three years after he signed his rookie deal, and he has played in an average of 96 games per season since.
Unfortunately, he hasn’t really stuck. His defense at third has been generally bad, both by the eye test and the metrics we have to evaluate defensive ability. According to baseball reference, Chisenhall’s defense has cost the Indians 14 runs in his five seasons and 340 games at third base. It’s not horrendous — Carlos Santana‘s aborted third base experiment cost the Indians 5 runs in only 26 games (that’s really, really horrible) — but it just wasn’t good enough. If Chisenhall’s bat was great, or even good, the team could deal with below average play at the hot corner, but Lonnie’s bat has been extremely streaky over the years.
In five seasons, Chisenhall has a .257/.306/.407 slash line which amounts to a career OPS of .713. By itself, those numbers aren’t awful – if the team could count on steady production throughout the season I dare say Chisenhall would have stuck as an everyday player much earlier. The problem with Lonnie Baseball is that he’s so streaky. I can’t even talk about his defensive renaissance last season without mentioning he hit .183 in his last 29 games this season after hitting over .400 in his last 25 games. Over the course of a month, a player who doesn’t help you on defense and actively kills you on offense is going to find himself benched or demoted.
And that’s been exactly where Lonnie Chisenhall has found himself at some point nearly every season since he debuted. The lone exception to that being 2014 when he opened the season by hitting .332 before the All-Star Break – only to follow it up with a .218 clunker in 63 second-half games.
Still, I would be remiss if I didn’t remind everyone that this night happened in early June, 2014, when Chisenhall hit 3 HR and had 9 RBI. Sit back and enjoy:
What does all of this mean? Well, at some point in 2015, the Indians decided that the Lonnie Chisenhall Third Baseman Experience was going to close up shop, and they sent him down to Columbus to learn how to play the outfield. By conventional knowledge, you can’t pick up an outfield position on the fly just like that, so this very well could have spelled the end for Chisenhall.
But then, something amazing happened.
Summer 2015: The Lonnie Chisenhall Renaissance
Remember when I said that Lonnie’s bat was good enough that if it was buoyed by a great (or even a good) glove, he might have stuck in the major leagues better? Well, the amazing thing that happened was that the Chiz Kid was incredible in the outfield. I don’t mean passable, I don’t mean good, I don’t even mean great – Chisenhall’s defense in RF was nothing more than astounding.
Using the same defensive metric that painted him as a below-average defender at third (-14 runs over five seasons / average of -3 runs per season) raves about his prowess as a right fielder. Chisenhall played in only 51 games in right field, but the stats say he saved 13 runs in those 51 games — spread out over a full slate of games (~135 games or 1,200 innings), that works out to 37 Defensive Runs saved per season!
For reference, here are some elite outfielders and their defensive runs saved per year (Rdrs/yr):
Mike Trout (LAA): Average of 2 Rdrs/yr
Kevin Pillar (TOR): Average of 18 Rdrs/yr
Starling Marte (PIT): Average of 18 Rdrs/yr
Yoenis Cespedes (NYM): Average of 4 Rdrs/yr
Jason Heyward (STL): Average of 20 Rdrs/yr
So, basically, the advanced metrics are saying Chisenhall played right field just about as well as you can possibly play it. As someone who tends to believe that data don’t lie, I must admit, I was pretty skeptical of those defensive metrics. So let’s go to the only “statistical” test I know of that everyone can understand: The Eye Test. Two seasons ago, MLB introduced Statcast, which puts actual data on things that happen in-game. While this is cool for seeing how far home runs travel, or how fast the ball came off the bat, it’s really useful for judging fielders – how fast they react to the ball, how fast they run, and their route efficiency (that is, how efficiently did they travel to the ball?) are all easily digestible for just about anyone. Let’s take a look at some plays:
Exhibit 1: 9/23/15 – Indians @ Twins
Because a video/highlight search on MLB.com returns results starting with recent history, this was the first highlight of Chisenhall that I looked at, and it wasn’t very promising. Look at how he misreads the ball off the bat and takes a lateral move towards the corner – as Tom Hamilton says, “he turned a routine play into a highlight.” Still, though, an 87.7% route efficiency is not great.
Give Lonnie credit, though, he made the catch, and that’s what matters.
MLB Statcast metrics:
First Step: 0.31s
Max Speed: 19.8mph
Route Eff: 87.7%
Exhibit 2: 9/10/15 – Tigers @ Indians
Now this is actually a nice catch, and it’s a nice counterpoint to the first highlight above. In that play, Lonnie made an easy play difficult, but still made the catch. In this play, he makes a difficult play look easy, and deserves some credit for it. Chisenhall isn’t known as a particularly fast player, and he gets to that ball in the gap and makes it look routine. Normally this play wouldn’t make a highlight reel, but look at what statcast has to offer us:
MLB Statcast metrics:
First Step: 0.34s
Max Speed: 17.3mph
Route Eff: 95.5%
Lonnie got to that ball as easily as he did because he took a great route to it. For a guy who had been playing the outfield full time for a matter of weeks, that’s pretty incredible.
Exhibit 3: 9/13/15 – Tigers @ Indians
Now THAT’S a catch. Full extension, incredulous announcers, this play has it all. Chisenhall gets a great jump, he takes a sparkling route, and he has the athleticism to reach up and extend to get the ball. This play, for me, means that Chisenhall’s defense not only passes the analytics test, it also resoundingly passes the eye test, too. One of the announcers asks a very pertinent question at the end of that highlight: “Is he your starting outfielder next season?”
Well, as Matt Underwood replies: “….if he keeps making plays like that…”
And that’s really the point here – Lonnie’s bat appears to be what it is, and that’s streaky. There will be times in the season where he is actively hurting you at the plate for weeks at a time — but if his defense in RF translates into a consistent positive, then I don’t think he will have to worry about any midsummer trips up and down I-71.
MLB Statcast Metrics:
Max Speed: 18.8mph
Route Eff: 97.0%
Is Lonnie Chisenhall the Next Alex Gordon?
When I first sat down to write this column, I asked myself the above question and then immediately dismissed it. Yes, Alex Gordon was a first round pick of the Royals who struggled with the bat (he hit under .250 in his first four seasons with the Royals), and who didn’t provide much defensive value at third base, and as a result bounced around between AAA and MLB. But Alex Gordon, I told myself, was the second overall pick in the draft, and people always expected he would hit. There’s no way Lonnie is going to suddenly figure out how to hit consistently. Clearly, it was a silly, far-reaching comparison and I wasn’t going to make it.
Alex Gordon took over left field full time in his age 27 season. After hitting .215 with a .671 OPS the season before, Alex Gordon the left fielder went out and hit .303 with an .879 OPS – he also saved 11 runs with his glove in that season, which led to his first of four consecutive Gold Gloves and garnering some deserved MVP votes.
Lonnie Chisenhall is about to enter his age 27 season.
So while the comparison between Gordon and Chisenhall is probably far-fetched, stranger things have happened.
I mean, if I told you last April that Lonnie was going to come up from Columbus midsummer and play like a Gold Glover right fielder, you probably would have thought that was a bit far-fetched, too.
Fearless Prediction: .255/.315/.417 with 16 HR, 50 RBI, and 0 trips to Columbus
Join me tomorrow as I ask myself: Who is going to play Third Base?