CLEVELAND – Trusting the decision-making of manager Terry Francona is a necessary process for Indians players and fans alike.
After all, the South Dakota native has two World Series titles atop his resume of momentous accolades.
When Francona employed Lonnie Chisenhall off the bench in place of Austin Jackson in the fifth inning on Thursday afternoon, it was almost as if he verbalized a checkmate to manager Dave Roberts.
It's worth noting, the pair of skippers each won their league’s respective Manager of the Year awards this past season, proving their baseball intelligence as both players and managers.
Commence the chess match.
Francona countered Roberts’ choice to pitch Ross Stripling by calling upon his hottest hitter in a one-run game at Progressive Field. With the Dodgers riding a six-game winning streak and the Tribe clinging to a .500 (31-31) record, the situation could not have been more important for the defending American League champions.
"We're going back and forth, Millsy and I, watching the inning unfold," Francona said. "Do we leave Austin in and bunt him? Do we hit Lonnie? You want to tack on, but then we're bunting for the bottom of the order. I think Millsy kind of pushed me in that direction."
Chisenhall lifted a pinch-hit, three-run homer over the right-center field wall to yield an 8-4 lead, a comfortable cushion that completely changed the complexion of the contest. The left-handed hitting outfielder finished the matinee with five RBIs, making him one of only three players in franchise history to achieve such a feat as an in-game replacement (Chuck Essegian on 6/11/1961 and John Ellis on 9/15/1973).
“Being on the bench, Tito looks for good situations to get you in the game,” said Chisenhall. “You try to not read his mind, but I've done it for long enough that we're kind of on the same page, where I can visualize a good spot for me so you don't want to be caught off guard – especially in situations like that. I know it was a little early, but I felt ready to go."
Although using a pinch-hitter in the middle stages of the ballgame may seem odd given Jackson’s respectable slash line (.279/.350/.471), the move eventually paid off, exemplifying Francona’s unparalleled ability to recognize the valuable opportunity and cash in just two pitches later…
Result: Pinch-hit, three-run home run on a 1-0 two-seam fastball
Pitch Velocity: 90.3-mph
Exit Velocity: 99.9-mph (barreled ball)
Distance: 415 feet
Launch Angle: 28 degrees
Hit Probability: 64%
As written earlier this month, Lonnie Chisenhall is smashing everything in sight as the team’s best power hitter.
“He does seem like a more mature hitter – maybe person, too,” Francona said. “I've always thought he was a great kid, but I think with time in the league and going through struggles and things like that, I think you do see that with players.”
Despite two stints on the disabled list (right shoulder sprain and concussion) in 2017, the 28-year-old platoon specialist currently features career-highs in slugging percentage (.557), OPS (.884) and isolated power (.293). The sudden surge in both home runs and extra-base hits has been a blessing for the bottom of the batting order.
“It's amazing, like when he comes back (from the DL), how his first game or two are always like that's when he's hit his home runs or done some damage,” said Francona. “When guys are sitting in that – whether it's seven, eight, nine – and they do some damage, boy, it can really make the game different.”
What stands out the most for Chisenhall is his 48.8% fly ball rate and 16.7% home run to fly ball rate, both percentages that lead to a higher launch angle (top image below), more power (previously stated) and an increased value as a player that can create runs (wRC+, bottom image below).
While Chisenhall will not break out of the platoon role for the rest of his career in an Indians uniform – .268/.316/.433 vs. RHP compared to .239/.294/.372 vs. LHP in major league tenure – his ability to be healthy and readily available in the prime of his career makes him an integral piece of their postseason puzzle.