Lonnie Baseball vs. Supermanahan

I did a highly unscientific poll recently. I asked my followers in Twitter who they thought should be the Indians’ Opening Day third baseman: Lonnie Chisenhall or Jack Hannahan?

At the time that I cut off the responses, and tallied it all up, Hannahan got the nod from fans by a count of 95 to 93.

I figured it would be close, but that was surprisingly close. That alone is evidence of how difficult a decision this could be for Cleveland this spring. There will be battles for the rotation, bullpen and bench, but the situation at third base could be one of the more intriguing storylines to follow through February and March.

The case for Chisenhall: he is considered the long-term option for third base. He is believed to be a cornerstone piece within the club’s young core, and his Minor League track record seemingly indicates better success than he showed in his brief stay in the Majors last year.

The case against Chisenhall: he was rushed to the Majors in 2011 due to injury and offensive problems in Cleveland. He was inconsistent in his first tour with the Tribe and showed plenty of room for further development, especially in terms of his strike zone discipline.

The case for Hannahan: he is one of the best defensive third basemen in baseball and Cleveland has a pitching staff that relies heavily on creating contact and ground balls. He showed flashes of offensive improvement last season, especially over the final two months of the season.

The case against Hannahan: his career numbers in the batter’s box paint him as a subpar hitter who will continue to have flashes of success, but probably not sustained success. He is best used as a utility man off the bench or a late-inning defensive specialist.

The trick for the Indians is determining which of these pros and cons outweigh the others.

Examining Chisenhall

The biggest issue facing Chisenhall right now appears to be his strike zone discipline. Heading into last year — before he tasted the big leagues — the main concern was his transition to third base from shortstop. Chisenhall’s UZR/150 with the Tribe was 3.7, which is better than average, but not near Hannahan’s ability.

Right now, Cleveland isn’t as concerned with Chisenhall’s defense as it was a year ago. What was striking last season was the third baseman’s increased strikeout rate and decreased walk rate in the Majors compared to his Minor League performance. That is what will be monitored closely this spring.

“With Lonnie,” Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said recently, “clearly an area that he needs to improve is his strike zone discipline. In the Minor Leagues, he was a guy that didn’t strike out all that much. His strikeout rates were far lower than they were at the Major League level, so we have reason to believe that he’ll be better.

“That’s clearly an area of focus in his offensive development to be an effective Major League hitter.”

Consider that Chisenhall’s walk rate went from 9.6% at Triple-A last year to 3.6% in the Majors. His strikeout rate climbed from 16.1% at Triple-A to 22% with the Indians. As a result, Chisenhall’s on-base percentage dropped from .353 at Triple-A to just .284 in his time in the big leagues.

As a quick footnote, over the past 10 seasons, there have been 131 American League rookies to have at least as many at-bats (212) in a season as Chisenhall did in 2011. Among that group, Chisenhall’s .282 on-base percentage is the 14th-lowest single-season showing.

Worth noting is the fact that Chisenhall had a .300 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) at Triple-A and a .299 BABIP in the Majors in 2011. So his results when making contact were very similar. He just didn’t put the ball in play nearly as much in the Majors as he did in the Minors.

With all of this said, I will admit that 212 at-bats is hardly the kind of sample size that can accurately predict career production. It is also worth pointing out that the Indians admitted that Chisenhall was rushed to the big leagues slightly ahead of the team’s schedule.

There was also the fact that Chisenhall was hit in the face by a pitch on July 7 — only nine games into his time with the Indians. Following a week off, he returned and hit .211 (.574 OPS) over his next 38 games. In his last 19 games, however, Chisenhall rebounded to hit .315 (.854). That was a promising way to end the season.

Examining Hannahan

Hannahan joined the Indians on a Minor League contract last winter and a Spring Training injury to Jason Donald paved the way for the third baseman to make the Indians’ roster. Now, he’s signed to a $1.135 million deal and seems a lock to be on the Opening Day squad one way or another.

Hannahan’s skill on defense makes him an asset, whether that’s as a starter or as a role player off the bench. Don’t forget that he can also play first base and he’s manned shortstop a handful of times over the years. The Tribe even worked Hannahan out at short on occasion last spring.

His best attribute is clearly his defense. Last year, Hannahan’s 13.6 UZR/150 rated 4th-best among AL third basemen with at least 500 innings in the field. His 5.9 ErrR (visit fangraphs.com’s glossary for more info) was tied for the best in baseball. Hannahan’s .983 fielding percentage was the best in the Majors at third.

This is a bit of cherry picking here statistically, but this next number is interesting nonetheless. Last season, sinkerballer Justin Masterson had a 2.65 ERA in starts with Hannahan at third base and a 3.94 ERA in starts with someone else at third base.

With Hannahan at third base and Casey Kotchman (best all-time fielding percentage at first base among players with at least 700 games at the position) across the diamond, Indians pitchers would have a little more confidence out on that mound. Defense will be critical for this pitching staff.

There is the matter of Hannahan’s offense, though.

On the whole, Hannahan hit .250 with eight homers and 40 RBIs in 110 games. He lost some time due to hamstring and calf injuries, and a mid-season slump helped pave the way for Chisenhall’s arrival. Still, it was Hannahan’s best showing at the plate since 2007, when he was with the A’s.

You could break down Hannahan’s season into three parts. He hit .231 (.673 OPS) from April 1-June 2 before the hamstring injury popped up. He missed a few games and then played through the issue for much of the rest of the year. From June 6-Aug. 4, Hannahan hit .179 (.559). Chisenhall made his debut on June 27.

Following the birth of his son in early August, Hannahan had some time to rest before rejoining the team. Upon his return, Hannahan hit .368 (.991) from Aug. 12-Sept. 28. Within that stretch, he missed time due to a calf injury. But, his hamstring was feeling better and he made a change at the plate.

Hannahan started using a slightly heavier bat, which helped alter his timing.

“It’s almost like I’m starting my swing so early that it’s almost uncomfortable,” Hannahan explained at the end of the season. “But that’s really what gets me on time. I’ve had hitting coaches or my dad or my brother all tell me, ‘You’re not getting down on time.’ It took me getting a [heavier] bat in my hand.

“The only way I could swing that bat was to get down that early. Since I’ve been doing it, it’s like I’m a completely different hitter.”

Hannahan felt he turned a corner, but his career slash line still reads .231/.317/.358 no matter how he says he feels. Cleveland knows what he can do in the field. This spring, the team will be looking closely at his timing and approach at the plate  to find evidence that he did really turn the corner he thinks he did.

Who has the edge?

It’s hard to say who is the favorite for the everyday job at third this season. Like I said earlier, I think Hannahan is on the roster (barring injury) one way or the other. If Hannahan gets the nod as the starter, I think it’s unlikely that Chisenhall will make the team as a bench player.

Chisenhall is still viewed as the third baseman of the future for the Indians, so he needs to be playing every day — whether that’s in the Majors or Minors. If he is thrown into the fire with the Tribe, put Hannahan on the bench as a utility man. If Hannahan gets the job, send Chisenhall to Triple-A Columbus to continue his development.

It’ll be an interesting battle this spring.

–JB

3 Comments

Pingback: While We’re Waiting… Chisenhall vs Hannahan, All-Star snubs and local champion | WaitingForNextYear

If Lonnie doesn’t play this year when will he get the every day at bats at the big league level? 2014??? seriously Hannahan cant hit his weight!!

The Indians have a non-zero chance at winning the division, so whoever seems the best bet to help the most now should get the job. Especially with the ground ball rotation, that seems likely to be Hannahan. I’d love to see Chisenhall surprise me, really hit well in the spring, and end this debate. If not, I agree that he should be sent to Columbus, because he’s got to be playing everyday somewhere.

That said, I don’t think that “non-zero” shot at the division is a very likely one, and if the team is stumbling when June rolls around, I’d be in favor of bringing Chisenhall up, getting him another 400 big league PAs, and getting a better sense of just what it is he’s likely to be.

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