First off, I would like to wish Lonnie a speedy recovery from that nasty ball to the face. It appears he suffered a fractured cheekbone, hopefully that will not keep him out of action too long.
Lonnie Chisenhall is an interesting player from a scouting and sabermetrics perspective. Some scouts love him and think he is without a doubt a future star, some say he is an average to above average player in the majors. His minor league numbers are underwhelming but his secondary statistics in the minors are somewhat encouraging. One thing everybody seems to agree on is that he has a sweet, smooth, and quiet swing. His defense projects to be average to above average which is also encouraging.
He is a player that has been a bit perplexing to me as well for all of the above mentioned reasons. I am normally the first person to call out an “overrated” prospect if their minor league numbers reflect some easily exploitable major league holes, but Chisenhall is not in that category. I am not particularly impressed with what he did in the minors, though he was dealing with some injury issues during some of that time. However, there are a lot of positive signs as well. Further, as there is not a lot of video available for his minor league at bats to the general public, I took to watching his major league at bats for a bit of information on his swing.
The reason scouts love Chisenhall are quickly apparent. He is 6’2” with a powerful but slender and athletic frame. He has a very very quick and smooth swing. His stance is very quiet and he generates a ton of bat speed coming through the zone. Furthermore, he has great plate coverage with his power as he stands just far enough inside to reach outside pitches powerfully with ease but not too far inside so as to be made helpless against inside pitching. Pitchers will have little success trying to blow him away with hard stuff. That said, he does seem to struggle a tad down and in, particularly on off speed pitches down and in. Tough left handers, particularly CC Sabathia, chewed him up with off speed pitches down and in but you cannot really fault a rookie player for letting CC dominate him. However, even in the 30 at bats that I watched, he already seemed to be making adjustments. He was able to lay off more off speed pitches inside and off the plate as he gained more experience. Further, his one home run came off a left hander on a down and in pitch (albeit a fastball), an encouraging sign for sure.
My hesitation about Chisenhall came mostly from his minor league production as all the scouting reports were exceptionally positive, for reasons I can now see. His final minor league triple slash line was .271/.344/.451. for a .795 OPS which was largely unchanged through the levels of the minors. Overall the line is underwhelming for a player who projects to be a superstar 3b. However, Chisenhall showed good contact skills as his strike out rate was never higher than 20%. Further Chisenhall showed a decent but unspectacular ability to take walks topping out at 8.8% BB/PA in his final full minor league season. In addition, Chisenhall showed decent, sustainable power hitting 22 home runs in 2009, and 17 in 2010 with over 500 PA. I say sustainable because he accumulated more doubles in both seasons indicating a fairly accurate balance between double and home run power for a young player. Overall, Chisenhall’s numbers are really marginally encouraging across the board but his final line is underwhelming. The reason it seems underwhelming is because Chisenhall only compiled a .271 career BA in the minors, a number that seems exceptionally low when you consider his good contact skills, ability to drive through the zone with power, and the fact that he was up against minor league level defense.
Generally speaking a players batting average will typically be higher in the minors due to inferior pitching and defense, sometimes substantially so. However, the encouraging sign is that players with superior contact skills generally translate their averages better. In Chisenhall’s case one might expect a corresponding drop in his BA when reaching the major league level but from watching him it is hard to tell why it was so low to begin with.
So now we see the conflict between Chisenhall’s appearance versus his production. So far in the majors, in a completely unreliable sample he is hitting similar to his minor league line with fewer walks and more power.
In this case, I think Chisenhall may be one of those players who outperforms his comparative minor league line and other minor league players who have performed better to this point both because he has a great skill set and because a lot of his peripheral stats in the minors were actually encouraging. This happens occasionally especially with players that have similar skills. Two players that come to mind immediately (I am not saying they are the same player on that they have similar traits) are Brennan Boesch and Matt Joyce (both actually featured even worse peripheral minor league numbers), both coming up from the Tigers system. Joyce had a quick, steady and powerful swing with decent although not spectacular plate coverage. His minor league numbers were underwhelming and his strike out numbers were very high even in the minors, but his powerful smooth swing would lead one to believe that he had more potential to be better than his numbers. In the majors Joyce has managed to hold his K rate close to his minor league K rate, even improving upon it, while increasing his walk rate and further developing his power. He is now is an above average major league corner outfielder with the Rays. Similarly Brennan Boesch was someone who sabermetricians loved to hate. He had a high K rate, low walk rate and low production in the minors. However, he did have a quick powerful swing with decent plate coverage and power. Since coming to the majors he has increased his walk rate and lowered his K rate from the minor leagues while increasing his overall level of production. The common denominator here is that all three players have quick, level, quiet and powerful swings, Chisenhall the best of the bunch.
The lesson here is that although the numbers are very very important, on occasion a player just demonstrates the tools necessary to overcome the flaws they are showing in the minor leagues. It is not unheard of and not unsurprising when such a player puts it all together. For this reason, I think a lot of the love for Chisenhall is completely justified despite some less than star level performances in the minors. He has clearly demonstrated the natural ability to overcome his shortcomings. I think Chisenhall’s low end is an average to above average 3b while his high end might just be a 3b star at the major league level. The reason I set his low end so high is simply because he has too much ability to believe he can produce at a level lower, especially given the overall weakness of the 3b position in the majors. I do believe his low end is more likely until he demonstrates improvement over a long period, but the high end potential is certainly there.