Chisenhall Providing Steady Bat For Indians Lineup

Over the past couple weeks, the Cleveland Indians have finally started hitting their stride. The defending American League Champions spent April and May mostly treading water and doing just enough to stay near or at the top of a weak American League Central Division.

That has changed in recent weeks as the Tribe bats have started heating up and the pitching staff, led by the always great Corey Kluber, has started resembling last year’s vaunted group.

However, one issue that remains is a somewhat inconsistent offense. Last week was a microcosm of that. In last weekend’s three-game series against the Twins, Cleveland tallied a grand total of two runs. Then, the offense exploded for 15 on Monday against Texas before falling back to one the next night on Tuesday. The Tribe totaled five runs in each of their final two games against the Rangers on Wednesday and Thursday.

The offense has been inconsistent this year. Francisco Lindor, Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, and Yan Gomes are all hitting below expectations. Edwin Encarnacion had a rough April and much of May. Of the regular every day players, only Jose Ramirez has consistently performed to or above what someone might expect.

Then there is Lonnie Chisenhall. Chisenhall is not an every day player. He plays most games sitting when the opposing team starts a left-handed pitcher. Between that and two stints on the disabled list this year, one might think the Chiz Kid would have some issues at the plate.

That could not be further from the truth. The 28-year-old, who has become a veteran at this point in his career, is enjoying a strong start to this season. He has been the lone player, besides Ramirez, who has really produced all year with little slumping. He has become manager Terry Francona‘s most-trusted player off the bench on those nights he does not start.

Since June 6, Chisenhall has not started seven games. He took swings in all but one. Francona typically makes sure to get his left-handed platoon right fielder into a game almost the moment the other squad goes to the bullpen for a righty. That is how important Francona feels Chisenhall is to the batting order.

The numbers show that Cleveland’s skipper is right to want to get Chisenhall into a game as soon as the moment calls for it. He went into Saturday night’s game against the Tigers hitting .307 with ten home runs and 44 RBI. He leads the club in runs driven in, is fourth in long balls, and is second in batting average among players who have appeared in more than 50 games. This is despite injuries and being a platoon player, limiting him to 20 games and more than 100 at bats less than guys like Lindor and Encarnacion, who have played all year and nearly every game.

One might wonder why Francona still insists on sitting one of his most consistent hitters when a southpaw is on the hill. That is somewhat simple, really. Up until the latter half of the 2015 campaign, the Indians tried to force their 2008 first-round draft pick into being an every day player. On the surface, it makes sense, considering a first-round selection is someone a team hopes will blossom into a very good player, if not a superstar.

Making Chisenhall play every day, however, was like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It just was not a fit. He was maddeningly inconsistent. A big part of that were the slumps that he would fall into when having to face too many left-handers. He would get into slumps and bad habits and seemingly never recover. When he was going well, he would go really well. In 2014, Chisenhall was hitting .370 in June. He ended the year at .280, if that tells you anything about how inconsistent he could be as a regular player.

Finally, after a miserable start to 2015 saw Chisenhall sent to Triple-A Columbus and nearing the end of his rope as an Indian, the Tribe changed course. Cleveland decided to no longer force him to play third base, a position he struggled with, and decided to see how he would fair as a situational player. He was moved to right field, his athleticism making that a smoother transition than expected and his at bats against lefties were limited. Since then, Chisenhall has sky-rocketed towards being a much more consistent player and someone who Tribe fans can enjoy watching take swings at pitches.

Chisenhall ended 2015 on a strong note and then enjoyed his best season as a Major Leaguer last year. In 2016, Chisenhall hit .286 with eight bombs and 57 RBI. The big thing for him was that he never soared to a ridiculous high in hitting at a clip he would never maintain, but also rarely slumped. The same has held true this year, as Chisenhall has been even better in the first half of this season. Chisenhall played in 126 contests last year and is headed for a similar number this year.

Even in a less-than-full-time role, Chisenhall’s performance is deserving of All-Star consideration. The squads for this year’s Midsummer Classic, on July 11, get announced this evening. It is doubtful Chisenhall will be named a reserve, partly because of a dearth of deserving American League outfielders and partly because he does not start on a daily basis. Still, Francona, who will manage the A.L. roster thanks to the Tribe’s 2016 World Series appearance, has to have Chisenhall’s name on his top 10-15 list. That is saying something for a guy who does not have enough at bats to qualify for a batting title at this point in the season.

Chisenhall has really started coming of age the last couple of seasons and playing to a potential that the team saw in him nine years ago. For many reasons, he struggled to get his footing in the Majors. Perhaps he was too young when called up the first time and not ready while struggling to play third base weighed him down. Whatever the case, he has found a niche playing right field and facing mostly left-handed pitching.

Of course, Chisenhall’s role could expand. Brandon Guyer, a righty who formed a strong platoon with Chisenhall the last two months of 2016, has really struggled this year when he has not been hurt. Chisenhall, in a very small sampling, has actually done pretty well against lefties this year. Last year, the numbers proved right in making Chisenhall a platoon guy. He hit .295 against right-handed hurlers and just .217 when facing a lefty. This year, Chisenhall has hit .289 against righties and in 31 at bats against southpaws is at a stunning .387 clip with six hits and two bombs.

Whether or not the Indians try one more time to see if he can handle playing every single day remains to be seen. They have a good thing going right now with him in more of a semi-full-time role. He is not a part-time player in the sense that he does play the majority of the time but is not truly full-time. Right now, that may be about all that stands between him and an All-Star nod.

Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

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