Indians

Big Lon is the All-Star no one is talking about: Bode Plots

Apologies, but due to time constraints, the statistics in this article were compiled before Monday’s 15-9 Cleveland Indians win over the Texas Rangers where Lonnie Chisenhall played against left-handed starter Cole Hamels and ended the night 3-for-5 with two runs and three RBIs. So, consider this article to be downplaying his current status and please bump up all of his statistics from 2017 below accordingly.

Francisco Lindor’s smile, Jose Ramirez’s flying helmet, Michael Brantley’s smooth swing, Edwin Encarnacion’s parrot trot, and Corey Kluber’s expressionless face are all identifying marks of the Cleveland Indians most popular players. Positive attention tends to be in somewhat limited supply among the casual and even diehard fans of any ballclub though, which lends to some players remaining in the shadows even well after the brightness of their star created a spotlight unto themselves. The Tribe player most befitting that category in 2016 was Carlos Santana. In 2017, that player is obviously Lonnie Chisenhall.1

Chisenhall has been a positive force for the Tribe this season hitting, on the basepaths, and on defense. On Monday, one of his three hits plated two runs, which allowed the Indians to take their first lead of the game, which they would not relent.

There is even a legitimate argument that he deserves to represent the American League in the All-Star game. Here is that case.

The Zimmer butterfly effect
Bradley Zimmer taking a stronghold on the center field position simultaneously filled the biggest gap in the Indians defense, while tangentially helped upgrade their right field defense. Chisenhall did his best, but he will never be a good center fielder due to poor overall speed/range compared with his peers at that position. In a corner outfield spot, his range is much more than adequate and his arm is a weapon. That corner right field spot (174 innings) finally became the position he has logged the majority of his 2017 time over the weekend against the Minnesota Twins (164 innings in center field).2

Per Fangraphs, Chisenhall has a -26.6 UZR/150 in center field, and a 6.9 UZR/150 in right field where he has made eight out of zone plays (OOZ) in right field. Those are plays that are considered to have a low probability of being caught that Chisenhall has been able to nab. He’s not yet at his 2015 rate of an OOZ catch every 13 innings (or 2016 rate of an OOZ every 15 innings), but one every 22 innings is not bad.

The eye test also indicated he was letting more balls fall in front of him early in 2017 rather than attacking them with the Chisen-kaze attitude that earned him the 2015 August Player of the Month Award in his first MLB time at the position. Whether the early tentativeness was not having proper timing from splitting time in center field or nursing his shoulder back to health, it was encouraging to see Chisen-kaze make a return against the Minnesota Twins over the weekend.

On Friday, he made a diving scoop catch to rob Max Kepler.

On Sunday, he made a diving catch in the gap to rob Joe Mauer and save the Indians from falling further behind as it ended the sixth inning with runners in scoring position.

Hitting profile for reals or nah?
WFNY dove into the barrels or bust swings that had defined the early portion of Chisenhall’s season. The conclusion of that article is summed up here:

Chisenhall has a huge ceiling if he can figure out how to hit the ball just a tad harder with the same swing. There is a cluster of batted balls that were outs (black dots) on the borderline of being a barrel, which is where his home run was on Monday. There is another whole slew of batted balls in the light blue hit under category, which could transform from easy outs to extra base hits.

One issue of note though is that while he has the highest hard-hit rate of his professional career (30%), he also has the highest soft-hit rate (26.7%). Chisenhall is swinging hard, which means he is sometimes going to miss hitting the ball on the barrel. Those mis-hits end in easy outs.

Even as Chisenhall has continued to post the highest wRC+ on the Indians,3 many were expecting pitcher’s to adjust to Chisenhall’s new profile and to see a drop off in production. Others are still expecting Chisenhall to drop off in the second half similar to how he dominated for a couple months early in 2014 before his offense collapsed. Both of those expectations are as funny as the fact that Chisenhall’s current walk up song is Hair Up from the movie Trolls once the peripheral numbers are given closer inspection.

Let’s first take a look at how pitchers might adjust to 2017 Chisenhall.

courtesy of baseballsavant.com

If you were a MLB pitcher coming up with a game plan of how to attack Chisenhall, then what type of pitches would you focus on throwing? Asking for a friend; aka MLB pitching coaches league-wide. He has hit with the bases empty (124 wRC+), he has hit with men on base (169 wRC+), he has hit with RISP (149 wRC+). He has hit left-handed pitching (175 wRC+ in the extremely small sample size of 35 plate). He has hit right-handed pitching (140 wRC+).

According to BaseballSavant as seen in the table above, Chisenhall is raking every type of pitch. Even those where he has a low batting average against- such as the sinker with .222- he makes up for it with a high slugging percentage (.556). BrooksBaseball shows a similar chart though they also break out the splitter, which is the only pitch Chisenhall has not registered a hit against (15 splitters thrown against him). Of course, a pitcher throwing only splitters will see Chisenhall lay off them and walk to first base.

Pitchers might get excited to see the low batting average on inside pitches. OK, let’s bust him inside. Except the corresponding chart next to it shows that the pitches Chisenhall connects with on the inside often go for extra bases. The only relative holes observed here are up and in alongside middle away though Chisenhall has a nice average against those outside pitches- he just slaps them for hits rather than for power. In fact, even pitches off the plate on the outside have seen Chisenhall be able to reach base against.

How has Chisenhall been doing it?

“There’s no magic formula,” Chisenhall said as reported by the Akron Beacon Journal. “The most important thing for me is pitch selection. When I swing at strikes, I tend to be a better hitter. That goes for a lot of people. My aggressiveness at times could get in the way of certain things in the past. It’s picking those spots, swinging at better pitches.”

He is not lying. Fangraphs shows that his outside the strike zone swing percentage (O-swing%) is the lowest of his career (somewhere between eight to nine points lower than 2016 depending on which strike zone measure you prefer), while maintaining a similar contact percentage and swinging strike percentage. Chisenhall has also seen his walk to strikeout ratio increase by 17 points from his 2015 and 2016 levels (0.50 from 0.33 each of those seasons).

For most of Chisenhall’s career, he has been a moderate pull hitter (2014 to 2016: 39%, 40%, 38%) without a ton of fly balls (2014 to 2016: 38%, 40%, 41%) or a great hard-hit rate (2014 to 2016: 24%, 23%, 26%). The year of our Lord 2017 has seen Chisenhall remove his pull tendency, while putting the ball in the air more often and hitting the ball harder when doing so (pull% 35%, fb% 50%, hard% 33%). The new profile at those rates alone would make Chisenhall a more complete hitter than he has ever been.

Accounting for an April with a sore shoulder reveals that Chisenhall has been even better in 2017 than the overall numbers suggest. He is only pulling the ball 30% of the time, while putting well over 50% of the batted balls in the air and around 38% of them are registering as hard hits in May and June. There is a good chance his insane June wRC+ of 188 is higher than he can maintain, however his overall profile shows he should remain a well above average hitter the rest of the season (barring injury).

Limiting grounders with his current elevated batted ball rates mean that the Flyball Revolution Mafia needs to be alerted immediately. If you believe a hitter cannot change his profile so drastically and in this manner, then I direct you to the Fangraph pages of J.D. Martinez, Josh Donaldson, and Edwin Encarnacion. Chisenhall might not maintain his current efficiency at the plate, but it cannot be said that doing so would be the first of its kind.

Last Word

Because baseball means that Chisenhall could lose his current approach and revert to his old, poor habits of hitting weak ground balls as he attempts to pull pitches off the outside corner. Still, the first half of 2017 appears to be a big shift unlike the first half of 2014 when Chisenhall was merely getting better results from similar peripheral numbers. There are legitimate changes in his batting eye, batted ball spray, hard-hit rate, and fly ball rate. Even in his weakest month of April, his ISO was higher than those early months of 2014.

Chisenhall might considered be a PoP (Platoon-only Player), but only because he has not been given the opportunity to prove himself an everyday player. On Monday night, he started against left-handed starter Cole Hamels and proceeded to end the night 3-for-5. Regardless, the return of Chisen-kaze defense plus the great bat he has displayed throughout the 2017 season should be reason enough for him to make the 2017 All-Star Game.

And, for the Love of Lonnie, it is time Chisenhall is recognized among the fan-favorites on the Tribe.

Go, go, go, go, go
Hit the ball in the air
Go, go, go, go, go, go
Lon up!

Come on baby
Lon’s bat’s crazy
He ain’t never gonna stop
Lon up!

Come on baby
Lon’s bat’s crazy
He ain’t never gonna stop
Lon up!

Hit the ball in the air (Lon up)
We don’t care (Lon up)
Hit the ball in the air (Lon up)
We don’t care (Lon up)

  1. Lest you forget, I might have started the Lonnie Bandwagon in 2015 before he was called back up in August. []
  2. After missing 18 games due to shoulder soreness and a concussion in 2017. []
  3. 147 wRC+ was still above Jose Ramirez of 146 wRC+ at time of this writing due to an ISO that was 43 points higher. []