Resurgent Chisenhall Crucial to Cleveland’s Second Half
Bob Toth | On 14, Jul 2013
For the last three seasons, the Cleveland Indians have been waiting for Lonnie Chisenhall to completely appear on the scene in the Major Leagues.
He may have finally arrived.
The 24-year-old third baseman started the season on the Indians’ Opening Day roster for the first time this year. He had seen limited action in each of the last two seasons after it was determined each year that the young corner infielder needed more refinement to his game. After allowing journeyman Jack Hannahan to depart in free agency in this past offseason, it looked as though the Indians were ready to give the full time job to Chisenhall.
Six weeks into the 2013 regular season, Chisenhall was on his way back to Columbus for his third consecutive year at Triple-A.
It was a disappointing start to the year for Chisenhall, who was expected to be an important bat in the Cleveland lineup. After hitting just .213 through early May with three home runs and eleven runs batted in, the Indians decided the kinks in his swing and his poor plate discipline needed to be worked out with regular playing time in Columbus and not in the every day lineup with the Indians, who could ill afford to lose at bats while trying to contend in a wide-open American League Central.
“We sent him down because we wanted him to take a deep breath and get his swing going,” said Indians manager Terry Francona after Chisenhall rejoined the Indians in mid-June. “He’s certainly done that.”
In Columbus, he did exactly what Francona described. He hit. And hit. And hit some more. His confidence looked like it had finally returned.
With the Clippers for 27 games, he hit .390. He not only hit for an impressively high average for a month, but he hit for the same power that was lacking in Cleveland. Scattered amongst over 100 at bats were eight doubles, a pair of triples, six home runs, and 26 RBI.
Upon his return to Cleveland, Chisenhall immediately extended his Major League hitless streak to 18 at bats before knocking a base hit against Minnesota in his third game back. In the previous two games, he sharply lined out to short and had pulled three hard-hit grounders to the right side of the infield. He looked like he was seeing the ball clearly and was just hitting the ball squarely at infielders.
In each of the next five games that followed after ending his hitless streak against the Twins, he reached base via hit. Three of the six games featured multi-hit efforts and five of the hits were for extra bases, including his first home run in nearly two months. He added another four-game hitting streak in early July.
With his 2-for-4 at the plate against Kansas City on Saturday, he showcased just how quickly his bat could take over a game. With the bases loaded and two outs in a 1-0 game in the sixth inning, Chisenhall pounced on the first pitch of his at bat against Kansas City starter Jeremy Guthrie and hit an absolute no-doubt grand slam deep into the Royals’ bullpen over the heads of a pair of KC relievers sitting in chairs atop the bullpen dugout roof.
His first career grand slam gave the Indians what would ultimately prove to be the deciding runs in a 5-3 final.
With his two hits on the evening, he boosted his season batting average to .247, a marked improvement over his .213 average from two months ago. He is now batting .314 in July and .292 since his return to the lineup from Columbus on June 18th.
Meanwhile, the veteran who had replaced him in the field during his month-long hiatus from the Major League roster is marred in an awful July slide.
Mark Reynolds, a quiet $6 million signing by the Indians in the offseason, raced out to a fantastic start this season, only to see his numbers rapidly nosedive.
In April, Reynolds put his name on the Cleveland Doppler radar with mammoth home runs while being a key offensive figure in the lineup. A career .235 hitter through his first six seasons in the Major Leagues between Arizona and Baltimore, he slugged right out of the gate, picking up where he left off for the Orioles in their September playoff push of 2012. His .301 batting average in his first 23 starts seemed to be an unrealistic expectation for the new addition, but his eight home runs and 22 runs batted in made him appear to be the first real power-hitting righty in the Tribe lineup since the days of Manny Ramirez.
The strikeouts came with the package that is Reynolds, as he struck out in all but four of his 23 April games. But in May, those K numbers picked up slightly while appearing in more and more frequent playing time at the hot corner, due to the struggles of Chisenhall. After averaging a strikeout every 4.32 plate appearances in April, it jumped to once every 3.41 plate appearances in May. His May batting average, as expected with more strikeouts, was just .218 for the month, a fairly drastic change from the first month of the season.
His numbers showed no improvement in June. In fact, they got worse. Starting his first dozen games of the month at third base, his strikeout rate worsened to one every 2.29 plate appearances! In two-thirds of those games, he had at least two strikeouts and twice went for the dreaded hat trick.
After Chisenhall rejoined the team and Reynolds returned to more regular playing time at first base for the rest of the month, his plate appearance per strikeout rate moved back up to 2.95, still not good, but progress nonetheless. For the month, his rate was easily the worst of the season at 2.60. His monthly batting average dipped to .187. He struck out six more times in June than he did in May, all in four fewer games. His power waned as he supplied just five runs batted in and a pair of home runs.
A pronounced slump has seen Reynolds benched twice in the last week. He has just three hits, all singles, in his last 41 plate appearances. His bunt single in the seventh inning on Friday night ended a 2-for-35 slump at the plate in surprising fashion. He is batting .081 during the slump and has drawn just three walks to his 18 strikeouts. His July plate appearance per strikeout rate actually is currently at a season-worse 2.18.
On the season, Reynolds has been abysmal when having to step in the batter’s box when defensively representing third base. As the first baseman or designated hitter, he hits .242 – not great, but above his career mark. As the man at the hot corner – .178, 64 points lighter. And it is not just the average that plummets, it is his overall run production – he has 38 RBI in 204 plate appearances as a first baseman or DH and just eight in 147 appearances as a third baseman.
Scary to believe, but Chisenhall, the same player who slumped so drastically through the first month and a half of the regular season, has easily outperformed Reynolds since his recall from Columbus. While Reynolds has batted .164 with one home run and four RBI since June 18th, Chisenhall reached that offensive production with one swing of the bat in the sixth inning of Saturday’s game. He is batting .292 with three home runs and 14 RBI in that same time frame.
Chisenhall has also significantly reduced his strikeout rate from the time prior to his demotion. He now is averaging a strikeout every seven plate appearances. Prior to being sent down to the minor leagues, he was averaging one every four and a half at bats.
Chisenhall has always struggled with his eye at the plate. It was one of the primary reasons he started last season in Columbus. He had that same issue to start 2013, when walking just three times through his first 99 plate appearances over 26 games. In the 77 plate appearances over 21 games since his return, he has drawn five.
The better walk rate of recent is by no means a miraculous transformation or even a substantial and significant sign of things to come, but it does show some ability and potential for Chisenhall to become slightly more selective at the dish.
While Reynolds will presumably (and hopefully) snap out of the skid at the plate at some point this season, it has to be quite a bit of relief for Francona to be able to rely on the bat of Chisenhall in the lineup to fill some of the power void absent during the power outage currently plaguing Reynolds.
If Chisenhall is able to evade the season-altering injury like the one he endured with his broken arm last season in Baltimore, just as he got hot at the plate, he may be an integral piece of the Indians’ puzzle and playoff pursuit for Cleveland in the second half of the season.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images