Nearly cast away, Chisenhall crafting feel-good story
Former top prospect's name likely to soon appear among AL's leading hitters
CLEVELAND -- Baseball's statistical leaderboard does not include Lonnie Chisenhall's name. Soon enough, probably before the All-Star Game at his current pace, the Indians third baseman will finally surface in the American League batting race.
When Chisenhall's name does appear among the league's top hitters -- expect to see it listed at or near the top of the chart -- it will be an official acknowledgement of what has been a special season. Once a top prospect, and more recently an afterthought, Chisenhall has seemingly revived his career and provided Cleveland with one of the game's best first-half stories.
"He's fun to watch hit right now," Indians hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo said. "He's really turned into a good hitter."
Heading into Monday's off-day, Chisenhall was batting .355 with eight home runs, 18 doubles, 33 RBIs and a .975 OPS through 62 games. To get there, the 25-year-old needed to earn the trust of Cleveland manager Terry Francona, who offered Chisenhall nothing more than a spot on the bench on Opening Day.
Things have changed a lot for Chisenhall over the past two months.
"That's kind of the fun part about younger players," Francona said. "You don't really know what they're going to turn into. ... When guys get confident, sometimes they surpass expectations. That gets exciting."
Here is a look at the numbers within Chisenhall's season:
• The national spotlight found Chisenhall in Texas on June 9, when the third baseman became the first player in Major League history to have at least three home runs, five hits and nine RBIs in only five plate appearances in a single game. That came amid a five-game streak with at least two hits for Chisenhall, whose average climbed to .393 on June 11.
"Shoot, he was hitting .380 going into that game," Francona said. "That was a terrific game, but up to that point, he was already a pretty hot hitter. That was just a phenomenal, once-in-a-lifetime game."
• On June 12, Francona gave Chisenhall a day off against the Red Sox. At that point, the third baseman had not sat for a full game since May 17 and he had been bombarded with a pile of media requests in light of his game against the Rangers. When Chisenhall returned to the lineup, he went 0-for-13 across four games and has hit just .156 (5-for-32) in the nine games since the day off.
"I didn't hit well in Boston," Chisenhall said. "I'm not swinging the bat awesome right now, or to what I feel like I can do, just as far as swinging at certain pitches or things like that."
• What Chisenhall has done better this season than ever before is remain selective. He has seen 47.9 percent of pitches in the strike zone (50 percent in his career). Even with fewer strikes to swing at, Chisenhall's contact rate is at 84.5 percent (83.3 in career). His contact rate is up both in the strike zone (94.4 percent this year compared to 91.9 in career) and outside the zone (68.3 compared to 67.6). The contact rate is improved, but Chisenhall's swing percentage has actually dropped this year (51.4 percent) compared to his career (52.2).
"He's really gotten to where he understands his swing," Van Burkleo said. "He knows how to shorten it up when it feels a little long. That allows him more time to where he is more selective and getting his pitch more. This year, his swing has been mechanically solid all year. And when it's not, he's quick to make the adjustment."
• Mechanically, Chisenhall has lowered his hands some this season as a reminder to get into a proper loading position before swinging. The third baseman has also used a slight forward lean in his initial setup to help with driving the ball more consistently. His line-drive rate has increased to 29 percent (24 percent in career) and his infield fly-ball rate has dropped dramatically (4.9 percent this year compared to 8.9 percent in career).
"I'm just taking hits. That's been my main focus," Chisenhall said. "Instead of trying to hit the ball out of the stadium, maybe just concentrate on getting it on the barrel and hitting it up the middle or the other way. On a 3-1 count, in the past, I'd think, 'Oh, I'm going to try to hit this ball out of the ballpark.' Now, it's, 'Make sure you're ready to hit, get the barrel on it and let it go somewhere.'"
• A byproduct of the success with getting hits has been an increase in walks for Chisenhall. Over his past 15 games, he's had seven walks in 63 plate appearances (11 percent). Chisenhall's career walk rate is 5.2 percent compared to 6.6 percent overall this season. Rather than looking to improve with walks, he has concentrated on waiting for a good pitch to hit.
"I'm not up there to walk," said Chisenhall, who is already one free pass shy of his career high of 16 in 2013. "You can hit your way into some walks. You can have long at-bats turn into walks, because you didn't swing at bad pitches. Or maybe there's an open base and you're hitting well."
• A player needs an average of 3.1 plate apperances per team game to qualify for the batting title. Due to having his exposure to left-handed pitching limited early in the season, Chisenhall is 10 plate appearances off that pace. If the third baseman continues to be a regular part of the starting lineup, he will likely pop up on the AL batting leaderboard at some point during the Indians' July 7-10 home series against the Yankees.
• According to Major League Baseball Rule 10.22 (a), a player who falls below the minimum requirement for plate appearances can still win a batting title if his average still ranks first after adding the missing plate appearances (sans hits). For example, Chisenhall would have a .338 average if an 0-for-10 was added to get him to the current requirement. He would still rank first in the AL, just ahead of Houston's Jose Altuve (.336).
• Francona limited Chisenhall to facing mainly righties early on this year due to the third baseman's .194 (24-for-124) career showing against lefties before 2014. From Sept. 1, 2013, through the end of April this year, he had just two at-bats against left-handers, and the result was a .321/.374/.536 slash line in 84 at-bats overall. Chisenhall has hit .389 through 36 at-bats against lefties this season. He credits Van Burkleo, who throws lefty in the cage, for helping.
• The last Indians player (minimum 200 plate appearances) to have at least a .350 average at the All-Star break was Roberto Alomar (.358) in 2001. That is also the last year a Cleveland player hit at least .340 at the break (Juan Gonzalez hit .347 in the first half of 2001, too). Ben Broussard (2006) was the last Tribe player to have at least a .330 average at the break.
• The last Indians player who was 25 or younger to end a season (minimum 200 plate appearances) batting at least .345 was Tito Francona, who hit .363 in 1959. Yes, Chisenhall is chasing a feat last achieved in Cleveland by the manager's father. Miguel Dilone (.341 in 1980) was the last Tribe player 25 or younger to hit at least .340 in a season.