Orbiting Cleveland: Getting a read on Lonnie Chisenhall

A competitive team is always looking for ways to improve the club. Regardless of circumstances, winning teams are always willing to take the necessary steps that will ultimately lead that team toward a championship.

Some of these moves or decisions along the way are not always the most popular, but again, they’re all done in an effort to bring home the ultimate prize.

After Monday, it appears as if the Cleveland Indians may now qualify as one of these teams.

On that day, the Indians decided to send third baseman and former first round pick Lonnie Chisenhall back down to Triple-A Columbus. For many, the move was a complete shocker, but should it have been?

The Indians are clearly in win-first mode, and the team’s front office believes this year’s team has a significant chance to do some damage in the American League Central. While Chisenhall may have only appeared in 26 games, his 0.1 WAR certainly was not doing much to help the Indians achieve their goal of winning. A winning team needs to get the most out of every member of the 25-man roster, and the Indians clearly have not been getting the most from Chisenhall’s roster spot.

In those 26 games, Chisenhall has gone 20-for-94 (.213/.253/.604) with four doubles, three home runs, three walks and 22 strikeouts. He’s also struggled mightily against left-handers as he’s hit just .091 this season in the Majors against southpaws.

So the numbers do seem to indicate that Tribe fans probably should not have seen Monday’s demotion as the colossal shocker that it came across as. Chisenhall had shown some minor glimpses, but the fact is that he never showed the consistency of an everyday player.

For years, it’s been the same story with Chisenhall. “He has not had enough Major League at-bats.” “Give him some time. He’s still barely 24 years old.” “Once he learns how to hit left-handers, he’ll be devastating.” These were all common thoughts shared by many Tribe fans.

Indians fans always seemed to have faith in Chisenhall and his future regardless of circumstances, but it’s now clear that there’s a marked difference between faith and blind faith.

There was a hope that Chisenhall would come around, especially heading into this season, but why? When had he ever given anyone a reason to believe that he could be a legitimate corner infielder in Major Leagues?

Tribe fans weren’t the only ones enamored with the Morehead City, NC native. Heading into the 2010 season, Baseball America ranked Chisenhall as the No. 31 prospect in all of baseball. He skyrocketed all the way to No. 25 prior to the 2011 season.

The IBI’s Tony Lastoria also offered high praise toward the first round pick. Lastoria ranked him as the team’s No. 9 prospect in 2009, No. 2 prospect in 2010 and No. 1 prospect in 2011.

Where did all the admiration come from? Was it the swing? There is no denying that Chisenhall has one of the most beautiful, compact swings in the game.

Yet, a swing is never a good barometer of future success, and there probably should have been warning signs that Chisenhall could be a potential bust when he struggled to make much progress as he moved up the organizational ladder.

Yes, Chisenhall did see his numbers rise at each stop, but he never really seemed to hone in on his two most notable inconsistencies: batting average against left-handed pitchers and plate discipline.

Upon being selected 29th overall in 2008, Chisenhall was assigned to Single-A Mahoning Valley. He played 68 games there that season and was impressive as he posted a .290/.355/.794 line while walking 24 times and striking out just 32 times. He also did okay against left-handers as he hit a very respectable .258. Unfortunately, that’s where the positives end for Chisenhall in this regard. Take a look at the graphic below.

Chisenhall continued to progress through the system each year, but the problem is that he made no progress in terms of how he hit left-handers. In fact, he actually struggled more as he made the move from level to level.

Take his 2010 season as an example. For the first time in his minor-league career, Chisenhall was playing extensively at the Double-A level. In fact, he actually ended up staying in Akron for the entire season.

However, while Chisenhall did compile a .278/.351/.450 line, he also hit what was then a career-low .234 against left-handers.

During the next season, Chisenhall made the jump to Triple-A Columbus and then Cleveland. His batting average against left-handers sank to a new low, .224.

Chisenhall saw this number rise slightly in 2012 to .231, but it was hardly what could be described as a noticeable improvement.

Of course, as we all know, Chisenhall continued to struggle in this area this season, which is likely one of the main reasons as to why he finds himself back in Columbus. For some reason, everyone seemed to believe Chisenhall would be okay and finally assert himself as the team’s regular starting third baseman. But why?

The numbers above show that Chisenhall has never been able to really improve in his ability to hit lefties, so why would that suddenly change now?

Another major warning sign is the fact that Chisenhall also struggles significantly with plate discipline. During his professional debut with Mahoning Valley, Chisenhall did pretty good in this area as he drew 24 walks and struck out only 32 times. However, take a look at the numbers since.

Much like his ability to hit left-handers, Chisenhall has made little to no progress in the area of plate discipline. He did alright in his 2010 season with Akron as he walked 46 times and struck out 77 times, but he then was right back at it a year later.

In 132 games between the Clippers and Indians, Chisenhall drew 36 walks while striking out 96 times. That type of plate discipline is just startling for a player that is expected to be the everyday third baseman.

So that now brings us back to a previous question. Why, especially when you consider his inability to make corrections in the past, did fans expect Chisenhall to immediately come out this year and assert himself as an everyday player?

Was it because he was previously such a top-heralded prospect? Were even the top baseball pundits off the mark with this one?

It does seem as if it’s hard to quantify exactly why Chisenhall was and has been one of the game’s top prospects. He had a great debut with Mahoning Valley, but since then, it seems almost unreasonable to project a player like Chisenhall for future success when you consider his splits and (lack of) plate discipline.

Of course, sometimes there is no better way to judge a player than the human eye. So, with that in mind, think back to when, if ever, you’ve watched Chisenhall play and say, “Man, this guy really has something?”

The first two instances that come to mind are Spring Training 2011 and 2013. Though as most will tell you, Spring Training statistics are essentially meaningless, but Chisenhall’s torrid springs are arguably his most memorable moments in his young career with the Indians. Doesn’t seem to add up, does it?

In his short career, Chisenhall has provided some minor glimpses, but there was never that ah-hah! moment where it was immediately evident that the Indians had something special.

In comparison, think back to the early careers of former top prospects Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis.

When Santana joined the Indians on June 11, 2010, he started on a tear and hit .345/.458/.707 with nine doubles, four home runs, 15 RBI, 13 walks and just eight strikeouts in his first 18 games. The switch-hitting catcher eventually came down to Earth, but the message was sent: this is a special player.

Jason Kipnis had similar success when he joined the Indians on July 22, 2011. In his first 18 games, Kipnis hit .279/.347/.603 with four doubles, six home runs and 11 RBI. He was most impressive during a four-game stretch from July 31 to August 3 where he hit a home run in every game.

Like Santana, Kipnis eventually came down to Earth, but the message was still clear.

For Chisenhall, there has been no message. We’re all still waiting for Chisenhall to officially arrive.

Plenty of excuses can be made, and there are likely still many fans out there willing to buy them. Some will cite his young age while others will claim that he has shown promise, but the facts remain.

And the facts with Lonnie Chisenhall are that he has hit .250/.286/.406 with 23 doubles, 15 home runs, 49 RBI, 19 walks and 98 strikeouts in 135 career Major League games — nearly an entire season of work. Chisenhall has also hit a measly .200 in his Major League career against left-handers.

For the past few years, fans have hoped that Chisenhall would follow in the footsteps of Kipnis and cement himself as the team’s next top infielder.

Well, it’s now evident that Chisenhall does seem to be following in the footsteps of a former Indians infielder, but it’s unfortunately not Kipnis. At this point, a more apt comparison would be first baseman and now failed Major League prospect, Matt LaPorta.

There’s still time for Chisenhall to figure it out, but the key to remember is that Chisenhall has really never corrected any of his woes during his Major League career. Why would that suddenly change now?

Tribe fans will obviously continue to hope for the best, and I will too. However, given the circumstances, Indians fans should not hold their breaths. I know I won’t.


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