The View from the Porch: The Chisenhall Conundrum

ChisenhallA lot of the Indians content here at EHC has largely been in support of the team and its players. This is a dangerous line to walk in the Cleveland media world and, yes, I consider us part of that because we have an audience (thank you!) and some guys that really understand the sports landscape in the city. The reason it’s dangerous is because supporters are labeled as apologists or shills for the team. Those that criticize are welcomed with the “one of us” mentality.

As I suggested during a conversation on Twitter with some of my EHC colleagues and other respected Cleveland sports blogosphere residents, this happens because it’s far easier to criticize than to acknowledge. Fans that are still hellbent on voicing their anger over the CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee deals seem content to forget that Michael Brantley and Carlos Carrasco came out of those trades. Fans that feel the need to consistently belabor the “Dolanz are cheep” argument conveniently ignore that the Indians have locked up in-house players to contract extensions and also went out and spent on free agents like Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher. Those that blame Chris Antonetti or Mark Shapiro for the team’s lack of success willfully ignore the moves that worked out handsomely. Yan Gomes, Corey Kluber, and Carlos Santana came from Esmil Rogers, Jake Westbrook, and Casey Blake. Trevor Bauer and Bryan Shaw came from one season of Shin-Soo Choo. Marc Rzepczynski came from Juan Herrera, a light-hitting infielder that has not played above Single-A. They’ll also ignore that the Indians have a playoff appearance and 177 wins over the last two seasons, which is hardly a lack of success.

Those that complain about the draft tend to forget that TJ House was a 16th-round pick. Cody Allen was a 23th-round pick. Kyle Crockett was a fourth-round pick less than two years ago. Tyler Holt was a 10th-round pick. Roberto Perez was a 33rd-round pick. Jason Kipnis was a second-round pick who changed positions and made it to the Majors in two seasons while on the fast track to the bigs.

Those that complain about the draft also forget how well the Indians have done internationally in the past and present. Jose Ramirez was an international signing out of the Dominican Republic in his age-17 season. He made his MLB debut before his 21st birthday. Danny Salazar was signed at 16 out of the Dominican Republic. C.C. Lee was signed out of Taiwan at 22 years old. Other international success stories include Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta, and Fausto Carmona.

A couple weeks back, I wrote about realistic expectations and how they have changed. There are people reading this introduction right now telling themselves that C.C. Lee sucks and Tyler Holt is a fourth outfielder. You’re missing the point. To have ANY draft pick outside of the top two or three rounds make the Major Leagues is a huge developmental win. Hell, there’s a long list of first-round busts out there. To have ANY international signing that isn’t some slam dunk like Jose Abreu or Yu Darvish work out is a huge developmental win.

That brings me to Lonnie Chisenhall. The organization’s patience with Carlos Carrasco appears to have been rewarded and it would appear that this is the make or break year for Lonnie Chisenhall. Chisenhall has been afforded countless opportunities to grab the job at third base and run with it. The Indians have failed to fill this position for a long time as they wait for Chisenhall’s physical tools to catch up. With the exception of 53 games last season, that remains the case.

Chisenhall is a former first-round pick currently playing in the Major Leagues, which is a good example of quality amateur scouting. Chisenhall’s career path could have been different had he not wasted a scholarship to the University of South Carolina to play under legendary coach Ray Tanner. The silver lining to his dismissal from the school is that his landing spot at Pitt Community College in Winterville, NC allowed the Indians to take him in the 2008 draft.

I’m often a supporter of what the Indians do. I understand the financial side of baseball. I understand how the Indians operate and why they operate the way they do. Some probably call me an apologist. Others probably consider me a sheep. Most of what I have written for EHC, as well as what I wrote in the past for TheClevelandFan, has been supportive of the front office’s effort to build a contending team. It does not mean that I blindly follow and support everything they do. It does not mean that I’m on board with every roster decision. Today, it means that I’m going to take an in-depth look at Lonnie Chisenhall and why I’m selling his stock.

I’ve never been a big fan of Chisenhall. He’s a subpar defender with a nasty career platoon split and there’s barely enough power to justify his spot at third base and overcome his fielding foibles. Like most of you, I got caught up in Chisenhall’s incredible start to the 2014 season, suggesting on Twitter that I should admit that I was dead wrong about him. Suffice it to say, Chisenhall’s June 13 through the end of the season stretch was ugly.

Why June 13? June 11 marked the plateau of Chisenhall’s season. Chisenhall entered the June 12 off day with a .393/.438/.619 slash line. The rest of the season, Chisenhall slashed .219/.292/.323 to finish the season with a .280/.343/.427 slash. From Opening Day to June 11, Chisenhall hit 17 of his 29 doubles, seven of his 13 home runs, and drove in 32 of his 59 runs.

Ready for a lot of numbers? I hope so. (Author’s note: There are some minor discrepancies between Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs, and BrooksBaseball’s PITCHf/x data.)

When Chisenhall reached his high points on June 11, his BABIP, per BrooksBaseball, was .439. It was .262 from June 13 to the end of the season. The “average” range for BABIP is between .290 and .310. Players who hit missiles with regularity and players with speed are often able to finish above that range. That doesn’t describe Chisenhall. (For those that don’t know, BABIP stands for batting average on balls in play. It’s effectively batting average subtracting strikeouts and home runs because they are not balls in the field of play. It’s a multi-purpose statistic. For hitters, it can quantify “luck” and be a major sign of positive or negative regression on the horizon. For pitchers, it can quantify the level of fielding and also be a measure of good or bad luck. For more, check out the definition over at Fangraphs.)

What makes Chisenhall so dependent on BABIP? By data provided by Fangraphs, only 13 qualified players swung more often than Chisenhall. Chisenhall swung at 52 percent of the pitches he saw. In a general sense, I would say that 10 of the 13 had a better offensive season than Chisenhall and the list includes names like Adam Jones, Carlos Gomez, and Jose Abreu.

O-Swing% is also called chase rate. It’s the percentage of pitches outside of the strike zone that a hitter swung at. Only nine names appear ahead of Chisenhall’s 38.1 percent rate at Fangraphs. They include Pablo Sandoval, Salvador Perez, Abreu, Justin Morneau, Jones, and Gomez. In fairness to Chisenhall, his 70.5 percent contact rate was the fourth-highest of the list of players and his Z-Contact%, or contact percentage on pitches PITCHf/x considers strikes, was the third-highest.

Let’s look a bit deeper at Chisenhall with some PITCHf/x images (click to enlarge) courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net. First, an overall look at the pitches that Chisenhall swung at:

Chisenhall Swing Rate

I’ve done the math for you. By PITCHf/x data at BrooksBaseball, Chisenhall saw 2,051 pitches last season. He swung at 1,059 of them. Interestingly, there’s a minor discrepancy between BrooksBaseball and Fangraphs because this is a 51.6 percent swing rate. Overall, we get a 40 percent chase rate, which is also above Chisenhall’s numbers at Fangraphs. On pitches in the zone, Chisenhall swung at 69.65 percent for the season. It’s also worth mentioning here that pitchers threw 443 more pitches outside of the strike zone to Chisenhall than pitches in the zone.

Here’s a look from Opening Day to June 11:

Chisenhall Part 1

Chisenhall swung 51.4 percent of the time during this period. He swung at 40.5 percent of pitches outside of the zone and 69.1 percent of pitches inside the zone. Pitchers threw 170 more pitches outside of the zone than inside the zone.

Here’s a look from June 13 to the end of the season:

Chisenhall Part 2

Chisenhall swung 51.7 percent of the time during the period. He swung at 39.7 percent of pitches outside the zone and 69.9 percent of pitches inside the zone. Pitchers threw 273 more pitches outside of the zone than inside the zone.

To recap, Chisenhall’s plate discipline got better while his numbers got significantly worse. Why? The answer is BABIP.

From Opening Day to June 11, Chisenhall’s BABIP was .439 according to BrooksBaseball. From June 13 to the end of the season, it was .262. That’s an enormous drop and says a lot about Chisenhall’s second half. Looking a little bit deeper, the splits between pitches in the zone and out of the zone are telling as well. Up through June 11, Chisenhall’s BABIP on pitches outside the zone was a staggering .528 average. From June 13 on, it was .263. On pitches in the zone, Chisenhall’s BABIP went from .378 to .261. It’s also worth mentioning that Chisenhall had a .369 BABIP against same-side pitching and that elevated his career slash versus left-handed pitching to .240/.286/.382.

There are a few caveats, of course. For one thing, BABIP never stabilizes. It can fluctuate a lot, as it did with Chisenhall’s 2014 season. There are some players that almost always finish with a BABIP above the range and there are others that will finish at the low end or below rather frequently. Another thing is that these are relatively small sample sizes, though they do illustrate both the volatility of BABIP and also the way that it affects performance.

Here’s the biggest problem I have with Chisenhall and the takeaway from a hitting standpoint. Players that put balls in play are dependent on good fortune and a high line drive rate to succeed. Chisenhall’s line drive rate was above 30 percent in April and May, which is actually within the range to stabilize because LD% stabilizes under 40 plate appearances. The problem is that it didn’t. He wound up with the highest line drive rate of his career, so there is some cause for optimism.

Chisenhall walked 39 times last season. Twelve of those were four-pitch walks and three of those were intentional. Therefore, we can say that Chisenhall “worked” a walk only 27 times last season. That may be a little bit unfair because he had the discipline to not swing 1-0 or 2-0, or even at the first pitch, but it’s not like he’s a guy that works a lot of counts. The nice thing about a walk is that you are guaranteed to reach base. Once the ball leaves the bat, there’s no telling what will happen. This is why on-base percentage has superseded batting average. As I’ve said before, the point of hitting is to not make an out.

To the point earlier about power, Chisenhall’s .427 SLG was well above average last season, though his .396 from the 308 plate appearances he had in 2013 was around league average. As mentioned above, however, Chisenhall’s SLG from June 13 on was .323, which is horrible at any position.

The glass half full approach to Chisenhall would be to say that he’s going to be a streaky hitter and the Indians will have to live with that. With a BABIP-dependent profile, he’ll get onto runs where he overachieves, but also get into ruts where every seed is at a fielder and every blooper hangs up long enough to be caught. This happens because Chisenhall swings at pitches all over the map. It’s not a coincidence that pitchers threw him 20 percent more balls than strikes. He’ll swing a lot and hitters rarely do major damage with pitches outside of the zone.

The glass half empty approach, which I tend to have, is that Chisenhall is a bad fielder by nearly every available metric and the inconsistencies in his offense aren’t enough to overshadow what he costs the team defensively. Offense, defined as hitting and baserunning, is still more valuable than defense, which gave Chisenhall positive value overall as a player, but not a whole lot. It’s a major concern entering the season.

Chisenhall is still only 1,200 plate appearances into his Major League career and he’s only 26, so these are things that can improve. With Giovanny Urshela pushing his way to the Majors, time is probably not on Chisenhall’s side. Urshela provides instant defensive impact and his bat can probably reach similar levels of production, if not more.

Hopefully Chisenhall can put it all together because he would be a huge piece for what I anticipate to be a big playoff run. He’s only played around two full seasons worth of plate appearances and people rave above the line drive approach and the bat-to-ball ability, but the window of opportunity is closing quickly.

The thing about the Indians is that they can’t just give up on young players with talent because they are the key to succeeding in a market of this size. Chisenhall is one of those players. For all the good signs last season, there were some bad ones as well. For me, it all adds up to a player that is not only replaceable, but that replacing said player should be (should have been) a priority. However, I’d be more than happy to eat some crow if I’m wrong.

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