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Lonnie Chisenhall: An Undervalued Indian

As a disclaimer, this column was instigated by a few thoughts that John Grimm shared on Twitter, which essentially discussed Indian's fans tendencies towards recency bias.
Grimm sarcastically cuts to the heart of recency bias and one of the central things that blind us as fans: overvaluing recent performance over a body of work. For Chisenhall, his body of work in 2014 should leave fans excited that he took a step forward rather than clamoring for Giovanny Urshela (This is not a knock on Urshela as I am a big believer in his abilities).

Let's first take a look at Lonnie Chisenhall's line in 2014: .280/.343/.427, 13 home runs and other boring counting statistics. For advanced offensive measures, Chisenhall posted a wRC+ of 121, which was 7th among third baseman in MLB. Apparently a top ten offensive third baseman was not good enough to hold off the dogs calling for the next prospect in the pipeline.

Chisenhall has an incredible burden, that of being a top prospect, and that of a player cursed by expectation. For Chisenhall, the bat has long been the calling card; a prospect the prophets opined had a swing sweeter than the chorus of a thousand angels.  If you watch it now, it is hard to disagree.

lonnie chisenhall 3 run homerUnfortunately, when Chisenhall made the leap to league average,  maturing to competency at 25, people moved the bar. The fact the Chisenhall became an asset was boring because he didn't become what we dreamed of but outright criticism could no longer be accepted.

The criticism now is ticky-tacky, subliminal and eats at luck or the idea that second-half Chisenhall is the real Chisenhall because our most recent sample of his play was just plain hard to watch.
  • 1st half: 9 HR, 20 2B, wRC+ 163, OPS .915

  • 2nd half: 4 HR,  9 2B, wRC+ 68, OPS .591
One of the unfortunate biases that is particularly prevalent in baseball surrounds the value of a baseball game in mid-August versus late-April. This occurs because you can begin to see the existence of an elimination number which shows the scarcity of games as a resource, thus inordinately weighting the value of games remaining on a player's perceived overall value. When you perform as badly as Chisenhall did in the second half on a competing team, the perception will be both fair and incredibly unfair.

I suppose it is important to ask whether either half is an accurate representation of Chisenhall's offensive skills. The answer is neither and both. The cumulative total allows us a reasonable expectation.

One should reasonably expect Chisenhall to be a true talent: a .300-.310 BABIP type guy. In the first half it was obscenely high, .370 and in the second half it deflated down to .270. His cumulative total of .328 is not outside reason for Chisenhall. So that equates to a player whose cumulative offensive value was 7th best at the position among qualified starters. Pretty good.

Time to talk about what got better for Chisenhall in 2014 to see if it is sustainable as well as what his potential value is going forward.

The most noticeable increase is his walk rate which went from sitting in the 5% range in the big leagues to 7.3%.

If Chisenhall can maintain a walk rate of around 6.5% + combined with good extra-base hit, he will remain a very valuable offensive player. Whether he actually can though is a complex question without a clear answer.

Courtesy of Fangraphs Courtesy of Fangraphs

The first noticeable trend with Chisenhall is that he is a free swinger. He swings more frequently than league average at pitches, both inside and outside the zone.  However, Chisenhall makes up for this issue with an above-average ability to make contact inside the zone and foul pitches off outside the zone. It appears that his flaws marry his skills to create average plate discipline numbers, which means a walk rate close to 7% on either side is repeatable.

For Chisenhall, this is huge. It makes his ability to sustain his offensive growth much more likely but no certainty.

A few more thoughts regarding Chisenhall's potential value. He is a solid base runner with enjoyable athleticism, even though he likes to drive the bus sometimes.

LonnieBusinessGIFDefense is the greatest flaw which Chisenhall showed in 2014. Whether your measure is errors, UZR, DRS or your eyes, which are still recovering, his defense wasn't fun to watch.

Can it get better? Absolutely.

The Carlos Santana experiment at third base had many negative repercussions, one of which was supplying odd reps for Chisenhall at 3rd base. Obviously, Chiz has never graded out better than average at 3rd but never this poor either.

He is athletic with a plus arm, with stable reps, starting five or six days a week as well as regressing back to the norm, Chisenhall can improve significantly defensively. With just a step towards average defense while also maintaining his offensive production, he can push 3-3.5 WAR.

Chisenhall may just be solid but contending teams -- championship teams -- need solid players and his overall makeup and ability complements this team well.

Odd Stats that may only interest me:
  • Chisenhall as a 3rd baseman: OPS .702, wRC+ 96

  • Chisenhall as 1st baseman: .824, 132

  • Chisenhall as a DH: .890, 159
Samples small!!!!!

Yet, one former third baseman in Cleveland failed to make the leap offensively because of defensive issues at third until he was moved to first. Yes, you had to wait all the way to the end for a tiresome Jim Thome drop. However, if improved defense doesn't come, a move off third becomes a growing and possibly positive option.

As I mentioned with Danny Salazar earlier this week, lets not allow potential or prior prospect status distract us from appreciating when a player has matured into a legitimate big league ballplayer. Chisenhall is just that.
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