Lonnie Chisenhall has had a roller coaster of a season in 2014. He started out being hated and disrespected, prior to the season, when he was replaced on the field by Carlos Santana and in the lineup by Jason Giambi, being excluded from All-Star voting. From there he became almost a cult figure while batting near .400 as #FreeLonnie and #LonnieBaseball took over twitter to the point that Chisenhall trademarked the latter. Finally, he sits somewhere between the two levels with a batting average of .290 on the season, but just .206 in August.
The above chart shows Chisenhall’s numbers month-by-month through the 2014 season to this point. While average isn’t a generally good judge for how good a player actually is, in this case it can provide the most accurate assessment of what has happened with Chisenhall. While his RBI numbers were greatest in June, that had more to do with opportunities. During the first two months, almost every plate appearance came in the eighth or ninth spot in the lineup before he was promoted to a more run production friendly position.
Looking beyond counting stats, Chisenhall’s average rose in May, when he finally became a starter, then dropped each successive month. Of this change, the most important aspect was the final column of the above chart. BABIP explains 92% of the change in Chisenhall’s batting average this year as luck has been a fickle mistress. The league average BABIP sits somewhere around .300 and anything much higher or lower than that is usually due more to luck than anything else. With a BABIP nearing .500 in April, Lonnie Chisenhall may have been the luckiest man on the planet (the highest qualifying BABIP in the AL during April was Mike Trout at .420) and in May, when he actually qualified, he held the second highest in the AL to Xander Bogaerts. Since then, things have gone the way they were expected, dropping down to just .244 in August.
The one aspect that has effected Chisenhall during this fall other than just luck is respect. In baseball, this is not a good thing. As he moved up the lineup and pitchers began to fear him, they began to pitch him more intelligently. As pitchers prefer to save energy against poor hitters, Chisenhall saw more balls within the strike zone (40%) and more fast balls than in any other month since. There is no question that fast balls are generally easier to hit than breaking pitches, so there should be a decrease in average and slugging percent when pitchers start throwing differently.
In addition to the physical numbers (40% pitchers in strike zone in April, 37.5% in May, 36.5% in June and 40% again in July), Chisenhall’s stats has shown the difference as well as the usually impatient hitter has increased his walk count in each month. In 2013, he walked just 16 times in 94 games for the whole year, but as pitchers have become more selective in their pitch choices and locations, Chisenhall has also become more selective and walked 11 times in July alone.
There is still one more way pitchers could work even harder to beat Lonnie. The above chart shows his hot and cold zones, showing that he hits best against pitches from the middle of the plate, low and to the outside and for some reason, that is where he receives the majority of his pitches. There are much more intelligent places for pitchers to be placing their pitches. The below chart shows how many pitches Chisenhall has swung at in each zone for the entire season and combined with the above chart, shows a glaring weakness. Chisenhall is just 7/48 (.146) on balls that are high and or inside. While he rarely puts these balls in play, he does swing at them often, as can be seen below.
Lonnie could also use this information to improve himself even before pitchers start to take advantage of his weakness more. By ignoring all high pitches, which he is not very good against anyway, Chisenhall could focus on his positives and likely reduce his amount of strike outs and increase his walks.
The real question, after all this analysis, is how can we expect Chisenhall to play over the rest of his career. His defense, which has yet to have been mentioned, is so bad that if he continues to hit as he has in July and August, he will be a negative WAR player. If he could be used as a DH, it would increase his value, but since that seems out of the question for the moment, he will have to increase his offensive output to be of use for the Indians.
To start, in the minor leagues, Chisenhall batted just .282 across four levels and six seasons and while some players are able to play better in the Majors than in the minors, an average greater than that should not be expected. His slugging percent over that time was .470, so his .261/.310/.424 career MLB line fits well within those expectations. In addition, he is just 25 years old. Most baseball players hit their peak somewhere between the ages of 27 and 29, so there is no reason to think that this year’s 35 extra base hits and .290 average are at all a ceiling. With the proper coaching, Lonnie Chisenhall could be an above average third baseman or great DH for the duration of his team control years (through 2017).