Quadruple-A, fourth outfielder, bad hitting, disappointing fielder who is the most obvious candidate for an upgrade on the 2016 Cleveland Indians. No, that is not a line of insults from The Sandlot, but instead actual arguments being utilized against Lonnie Chisenhall from otherwise sane fans. Something about Chisenhall evokes the hyperbolic viewpoints to be steadily strewn throughout social media, while other lesser players receive far less harsh words. However, whether or not the criticism is warranted can be quantified, so the numbers shall bear out if the current narrative is fair. Spoiler alert: it is not.
Note: Statisitics taken are from fangraphs or baseball-reference unless otherwise noted and are through games ending June 2, 2016.
D-Fence clap clap D-Fence
The argument against Chisenhall's defense notes that if he has a poor bat (hold on, we'll get to his offense), then he needs to be an elite defender in order to justify his inclusion on the Indians 25-man roster. ESPN's David Schoenfield had declared Chisenhall such an elite defender when he named him as the MLB Defensive Player of the Month for August 2015. Yes, Chisenhall's first full month as a MLB outfielder. The 27 out of zone plays he made in 2015 from right field were a ridiculous amount as were the 59 plays made in his zone out of 61 opportunities. Defensive metrics might still be imperfect, but the eyes matched directly what the stats were spitting out as Chisenhall was throwing out attempted advancement of runners as well as he was making diving catches.
There is also little question his 2016 defense hasn't quite lived up to the 2015 hype. He has still made 41 out of 44 plays in his zone, but only 12 out of zone plays have materialized from right field. Whether happenstance of fortune, better range from his center field counterparts, or a downtick in his own play is unknown as MLB does not release the raw data from StatCast for public consumption. Similarly, his DRS (0 in 2016 after 11 in 2015) and UZR/150 (11.3 after 35.3) indicate his defense isn't quite what it was a year ago.
However, his DRS score was minus-2 after his first two games back from the DL (a wrist and forearm injury), which means his score is a healthy plus-2 since getting his feet wet. Also, while the UZR/150 score isn't an eye-popping best-in-MLB type of score, he still ranks among the best RF defenders in the game (George Springer is 11.8 UZR/150).
Plus, his defense is continuing to regain the 2015 form. On Friday he showed as much when he gunned down Cheslor Cuthbert from the warning track as the Kansas City Royals second baseman attempted to stretch a hit into a double.
But, what about that bat?
How does a career 99 wRC+ and 98 OPS+ hitter get labeled as such a poor hitter considering those levels mean he is generally a league average guy? Well, prolonged slumps tend to get recognized, and Chisenhall has had his share of cold streaks. In fact, his below average numbers in 2015 are due to a horrific start of the season that saw him hit for a 64 sOPS+ before he came back in the OF as a 108 sOPS+ hitter. The same trend held true in 2014, when he began the season as a legit Silver Slugger candidate with a 158 sOPS+ before falling apart in the second half with a 72 sOPS+.
That is all a fancy way of saying that there are Indians fans who do not trust him to consistently hit because he has not consistently hit in the past. The net effect is still positive, but it can be rough weathering those cold fronts.
Any indicators he can become more consistent?
First, it must be understood the 2016 has a smaller sample size than the other seasons on this list. There is potential for his numbers to have some noise built into them that will not prove to be sustainable over the course of the season.
However, there do appear to be positive trends emerging. Chisenhall has seen his walk rate increase nearly four points while his strikeout rate has fallen nearly four points. That eight point swing is a huge boon to his OBP and potential for positive impact. Additionally, Chisenhall is hitting more line drives for the season, which helps explain his high BABIP. With the increase in line drives, he has seen his softly hit ball rate drop too.
If Chisenhall can prove this is his new hitting profile, then he emerges not as a league average hitter, but as an above average (though not quite impact) bat. Basically, he would be a hitter that any team would be happy to slot in as the fifth or sixth hitter in the lineup. That is how good he has been so far in 2016.
Lonnie Chisenhall has been an above average fielder with an above average bat in 2016. He has been one of the most valuable players for the Indians since his return from injury (only Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez had a higher fWAR in May), yet he is still maligned by fans who remember his past inconsistencies.
Yes, Chisenhall needs to prove that he can maintain his gains in plate discipline and batted ball efficiency. However, waiting for the other shoe to drop on a player who has continually worked to become a positive member of the team is counter-productive. Try sitting back and enjoying Big Lon. Whether a runner is attempting to stretch an extra base from a hit or he has the bat in his own hands, the odds are that Lonnie Baseball will do something to make you smile.