Chisenhall Found Consistent Level of Play in 2016

Since his first call up to Major League Baseball in 2011, Cleveland Indians right fielder Lonnie Chisenhall has been maddeningly inconsistent. It seems as though his career has gone through more stops and starts than city traffic with a street sign at every corner.

Before 2016, the former third baseman saw return trips to Triple-A Columbus in every season besides 2014. Even that campaign was headed towards a need for further minor league seasoning by the last day.

However, a longer-lasting light may have finally clicked on at the end of the 2015 campaign. Chisenhall started tasting MLB success after a year’s worth of struggling. He was in a prolonged slump that had begun in the second half of 2014. That was a season that saw him hitting a ridiculous .393 on June 11. After slogging through a forgettable final three months, he finished with a .280 batting average that season.

That dry spell lasted all the way into July of 2015, when the Tribe had no choice but send the then-third baseman back to Columbus. He was hitting a miserable .209 at the time of his jettisoning and seemed to be nearing the end of his rope. There was uncertainity about his future with the Indians.

About two months later, the surprising trade of the albatross contracts of Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn saw the Tribe go to a complete youth movement for the final two months of the 2015 schedule. The struggling Indians were willing to give anyone a chance to prove that they belonged in the big leagues and could be a part of the future. Anyone included Chisenhall.

Chisenhall came back with a renewed bat and a brand new position in the field as 2015 came to a close. He hit .403 at the plate that August, proving he could still hit the game’s top pitching. He was also playing right field and playing it well. He was not the defensive liability he was at the hot corner.

Perhaps defensive stress was taken off, but Chisenhall just seemed a lot more confident as 2015 ended and it bled into this past season. Other than a brief rehab assignment early in the year, the Chiz Kid stayed in Cleveland all year. More importantly, his bat never got unbelievably hot or horribly cold. For once, he maintained a consistent pace for a whole season and it resulted in a pretty solid season.

Playing mostly in a platoon right field role and batting against mostly right-handed pitching, Chisenhall wrapped up the season hitting .286 with eight home runs, 57 RBI, and six stolen bases in 385 at bats over 126 games. After a slow start to the year, he maintained a batting average right around .300 for much of the season.

Spending most of his time in right field, Chisenhall flashed a strong arm and an ability to get to fly balls in the gap.

Between a more consistent offensive showing and solid defensive output, Chisenhall turned in what was, by far, his most consistently good season of his career. Several factors could be involved there. He is certainly no longer pressing at a position he may not be entirly comfortable playing. Manager Terry Francona played him more to his strengths this past year, avoiding matchups with tough southpaws. That certainly had to help him avoid prolonged slumps.

However, the biggest factor in Chisenhall’s career resurgence and hopeful step towards maintained furture success is simple age and growth. This past year was his age 27 season. He turned 28 on October 4, just in time for the Tribe’s playoff run. Chisenhall is only now hitting his prime. He has only been in the majors as long as he has because he made his debut at the tender age of 22, when some guys are just wrapping up their senior season of college baseball. Most players who debut that young are usually not ready and end up with a return trip or two to the bush leagues before all is said and done. Most guys are not Mike Trout or Cleveland’s own Francisco Lindor, who can hit MLB pitching at an early age and never look back.

It should then be no surprise that Chisenhall did not live up to his first round draft pick billing from the get-go.

Who some Indians fans like to use as a comparison is Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis. He made his debut with the Tribe the same season as Chisenhall and never needed a return trip to Triple-A. He was an All-Star by 2013. Keep in mind, however, that Kip was 24 when he hit the big leagues, nearly two years older than his teammate. Kipnis had his ups and downs early on, just not quite as pronounced as Chisenhall.

The Indians can only hope that whatever light clicked on for the right fielder at the end of 2015 truly is on for keeps. Arbitration eligible this winter, Chisenhall stands to earn around $4 million. It will be a nice pay day and he has earned it after a solid 2016 campaign.

Cleveland needs Chisenhall to continue to man a steady right field in what is a very unsettled outfield. The Indians are hoping Chiz and Brandon Guyer can continue to form the successful right field platoon that they became upon the acquisition of the latter before the August trade deadline. Chisenhall hits well against righties while Guyer can hit lefties as well as anyone on the team. Francona has a nice combo in that duo.

The rest of the outfield remains a question. Right now it is only 2016 rookie Tyler Naquin in center as Rajai Davis has become a free agent and the Tribe needs to figure out where it is going with that spot. In left, superstar left fielder Michael Brantley hopes to be back after missing nearly all of last season with a shoulder injury. It is no guarantee he will hit at the same clip he did back when he was an MVP candidate in 2014. If the Indians can continue to count on the Chisenhall/Guyer combo in right, that would go a long way toward keeping the outfield at least somewhat steady.

Chisenhall can enter 2017 with a confidence he had rarely opened a season with before. He has now been hitting well for over a year and his defense is no longer a burden to the team. He even showed in the postseason that he could handle the brightest of lights as he was one of the club’s better hitters for the first handful of games. He wilted in the World Series, but got that great playoff exposure along with the rest of his younger teammates.

Indians fans have watched Chisenhall grow. Where most players grow in the minors, away from the spotlight, Chisenhall has grown up in front of a Major League crowd. At times, it hasn’t been pretty. However, he can turn it around and continue the upward path his career now seems to be on. The struggles to stay in the big leagues will become just growing pains. Chisenhall is now an important piece on a playoff contender rather than a guy struggling to hang on a squad that is fighting to stay alive in September as was once the case. The team and player have both grown together over the years and one can only hope more growth and bigger things are ahead.

Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

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