The Real Lonnie Chisenhall
Steve Eby | On 14, Oct 2014
Today continues DTTWLN’s three week examination of the Indians’ 2014 season and where it fell short of the playoff expectations established last winter. The staff will examine where the season went wrong and the challenges the front office faces to make the Indians contenders in 2015.
Albert Einstein once said, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” It often feels like the same can be said about the Indians starting third baseman.
Although it may seem like he’s been around for a long, long time, Lonnie Chisenhall only just turned 26 on October 4. He’s been in and out of the Tribe’s starting lineup for four straight years and has logged 345 games primarily at third base. Chisenhall has provided results that have been anything-but-steady over that time, but he is coming off of the best hitting season of his young career.
In 2014, Chisenhall posted career highs in nearly every offensive category, including batting average (.280), homeruns (13), RBI (59), hits (134), doubles (29), runs (62), OBP (.343) and OPS (.770). In addition to his offensive explosion, Chisenhall also committed 18 errors at third base—third most in the American League. Only Josh Donaldson (23) and Mike Moustakas (19) made more, and both of those players played in far more games than Chisenhall—150 and 138 compared to just 114 for Chisenhall.
The majority of Chisenhall’s damage came in his outstanding first half, as Chiz posted a .362 batting average in April, a .373 mark in May and a .311 mark in June. A .209 average in July brought him back to Earth and then a .250 August and .219 September put him at his final mark of .280. From June 13 until the end of the season, Chisenhall managed just a pedestrian .219 average.
To get more in depth, Chisenhall’s BAbip (batting average on balls in play) was an excellent .328 for the year. Prior to the All-Star break, it was an outstanding .371 and for April it was an otherworldly .486. This statistic, which measures a player’s batting average on balls hit into the field of play, calculates the randomness—and luck, basically—that the player has had on batted balls. Normally, a player who has a lot of flares fall in or weak liners drop over an infielders head would have an abnormally high BAbip. Chisenhall’s .297 career BAbip is right around the league average of .300 and shows just what a luck-filled season that Chisenhall had in 2014. In contrast, Chisenhall’s BAbip in 2013 was a very unlucky .243.
What all of these numbers show are that Chisenhall, like most players, is randomly average over his career, but had a randomly positive 2014. His stock has never been higher as a player, but he is also a prime candidate to regress toward the mean when he puts the ball in play—just like he started to do from July to September. At this point, the Indians would have to consider a trade of Chisenhall, knowing full-well that a regression in statistics is likely coming because of his good luck in 2014.
It would be a classic sell-high move, but all 30 MLB teams will know that Chisenhall’s season was above-average lucky and will likely expect a regression toward the mean as well. Because of this, there is little reason to think that the Indians would get any ridiculous value that some fans would hope for in any deal. This doesn’t mean, however, that Chisenhall is not without his upside. At only 26, Chisenhall is just entering his prime years and should have a chance to improve his game. Acquiring a solid bat at another position or reliable starting pitcher for Chisenhall or possibly a package built around him is certainly not out of the question.
If a trade did occur, the Indians could use internal options as a replacement at third base, possibly going with Zach Walters, Jose Ramirez or Mike Aviles at the hot corner in 2015. The top third base prospect in the organization, Giovanny Urshela, is widely considered to be a potential Gold Glove defender but a raw hitter at this point in his career. Unless the Indians would like a younger version of Jack Hannahan in their lineup, Urshela is probably still about a year away.
Besides a trade, another option for Chisenhall would be a position change. With a UZR/150 of -15.0 at third base, Chisenhall rates as one of the worst third baseman in all of baseball and the Indians would be better served to employ someone who rates better than “awful”. While first base seems a natural switch for a third baseman that has trouble throwing the ball accurately, the Indians already have a Carlos Santana and Nick Swisher logjam at first. Right field could possibly be an option as well, although the Indians would probably need to find a taker for David Murphy for that to be an immediate possibility. Chisenhall probably has a strong enough arm to move into the outfield, but whether he could handle that kind of switch is a real question.
Figuring out what to do with an inconsistent, defensively-inept third baseman with upside who is entering the prime years of his career is not a whole lot easier than it was at this point last year, the year before, or the year before. Selling high on Chisenhall seems like a good idea, but switching positions could increase his value in itself. Hitting the bulls-eye on a Chisenhall decision is one of Chris Antonetti’s biggest priorities this offseason, as Chiz was one of his more productive bats and is still one of his most tradable assets.
It might just take an Einstein to figure out which route is best.
Photo: Associated Press