There are different types of left handed hitters. Some are like Michael Brantley, so valuable in the field and at the plate to remove from lineup despite having below average numbers against left handers (.756 career OPS vs RHP, .661 vs LHP). Some are like Jason Kipnis, who is an incredible hitter against pitchers against any hand (.808 vs RHP, .702 vs LHP). Of course, most are like Lonnie Chisenhall, who has been kept out of the lineup against left handers after batting just .220 against south paws during his career.
There was another player the Indians in recent history who was a liability against left handed pitchers and didn’t do enough on defense to deserve playing time and his name was Travis Hafner. Pronk’s first full season was in 2004, when he batted .311 overall, but had monster splits, hitting .244 against LHP and .344 against RHP. At this point in his career, Hafner realized that his biggest weakness as a hitter was against left handed pitchers, so he decided to work on it. He started taking extra batting practice against left handed coaches and setting the batting cage to throw from the left side. Slowly, he improved, with just .052 points separating his averages in 2005. In 2006, he actually batted better against left handers (.321) than right handers (.300), a trend that continued into 2007 (.274 vs LHP, .261 vs RHP).
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While obviously, Travis Hafner is a very different player than Lonnie Chisenhall, but these numbers show that it is possible to change. Like Hafner, Chisenhall is aware that his biggest struggles at the plate have come against left handed pitchers. Attempting to change, Chisenhall has been taking batting practice against left handed batting coach, Ty Van Burkleo and through 14 plate appearances, things are looking up. While it is obvious that Chisenhall is not going to flirt with .400 all season, the quality of his swing is vastly improved over previous seasons.
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His extra work against left handers has been paying off to this point, but that is not the only change from previous seasons. Chisenhall’s line drive rate has jumped up 10% this season while his infield fly rate has dropped by 9%. While we often take batting average on balls in play as a direct indicator of luck, there are things a player can do to legitimately increase it and the two numbers noted for Chisenhall are two of those. His .441 BABIP is unsustainable, but there is also no reason to think he would drop back to his .243 of last season. In essence, Chisenhall has improved every part of his game. He is walking more, striking out less and hitting the ball straight rather than up. This has lead to a slight decrease in home runs, but a huge jump in all his rate stats and doubles, making him a much more valuable player overall.
After just seven starts at third in April, Chisenhall has already made ten starts in May. After batting ninth in 12 of his 17 appearances in April, he hasn’t batted ninth since and has hit fifth or higher in ten of 22 games. With increased playing time has come an increase in hits. With more run scoring opportunities, he has knocked in more runs (one in April, nine in May). With more at bats against left handers, he is still batting .500. Lonnie Chisenhall has been a top prospect since he was the Indians first round pick in 2008 and he is finally becoming the hitter that he was expected to turn into for all that time. Time will tell how long he will be able to maintain this incredible start, but with half the lineup batting near .200, he will have plenty of opportunities to keep it going.