Sunday, March 18, 2012

A Lazy Sunday with Kipper & The Chiz

As Northeast Ohioans attempt to recover from a 70 degree St. Patrick’s Day in which the green beer and the Guinness likely flowed (though I stuck to my Conway’s Irish Ale and Left Hand Milk Stout), no surer sign of Spring exists for Clevelanders than the Emerald parade through downtown. With that as the local sign and the madness of March as the notification to the sports world that the most wonderful time of the year (NCAA, Masters, MLB Opening Day) is upon us, it’s hard not to rouse on this Sunday in good (if, perhaps, slightly “altered”) spirits. Sure, most brackets are busted, as The DiaTot is perhaps the only person in the world who had Lehigh, OU, and Norfolk State (he thought it sounded like “North Olmsted”) advancing into the 2nd round, but it’s that time of year – when the gloriousness of Spring has arrived and the feeling that anything can happen in our fair city nearly overwhelms.

In a way, that’s apropos for the Indians’ 2012 season that is nearly upon us as words like “unpredictable” and “volatile” have (rightfully) been attached to a number of players on the current roster and the sentiment that the 2012 season “could go in a number of different directions for the Tribe” is almost accepted as fact. Of course, that’s not unfair as there are so many things or players that could happen in the upcoming season, varying wildly from great (the return of Choo or Ubaldo, as they once were) to ugly (the downward slide of any young player, and Mike Brantley in particular) that the Indians’ 2012 season has a feel to it not unlike these NCAA games – either it’s going to be a LOT of fun, or there’s going to be some heartache involved.

It’s not an uncommon feeling for Indians’ fans, not quite knowing what to expect, but it’s hard not to see the similarities between the transition from 2011 to 2012 and the one from 2004 to 2005 that saw the Indians rise from “what could be” to “what’s about to be” as the Indians are flush with young talent and how that young talent adjusts and matures in 2012 is going to go a long way in determining where the 2012 season goes.
So with that, let’s get loose on a Lazy Sunday…

Just to provide the history lesson here (as I was a history major way back when), the 2004 Indians finished the season with a 80-82 record, with a team full of potential (CC, Jake, Victor, Pronk, etc.) even if that potential was not fully realized. In 2004, certain young players started to establish themselves or provided a peek into what the future could hold as the Indians began to look like a young team that had the potential to congeal into a legitimate contender, though that was far from a “sure thing” at that point. What happened the following year, in 2005, was the major step in the team establishing itself as a force to be reckoned with as a number of the young players took major steps forward and – this is important – a couple of young position players emerged to solidify a lineup that had potential.

In case you have forgotten, the 2005 season started with the “Killer B’s” (Broussard, Blake, Belliard, Boone) taking up nearly ½ of the lineup, with Victor and Hafner feeling like the only two “sure things” in the lineup. Beyond that sextet, the Indians had two young players who had seen limited time in 2004 (Sizemore and Jhonny) and a surprisingly effective young OF in Coco Crisp. What happened as 2005 was a revelation as it became apparent early on that Grady and Peralta would build off of their limited exposure in 2004 to serve as the compelling complementary pieces around Pronk and El Capitan.

Lest you forget, that 2005 team – the one that scored 790 runs – trotted out Broussard, Belliard, Boone, and Blake (or the “Killer B’s”, as they were once known) and while they got some solid years out of those players (namely Broussard and Belliard), the heavy lifting of the offense was done by Hafner and Martinez with the youngsters, Grady and Peralta, with Coco Crisp rounding out the lineup. In 2005, Hafner (168 OPS+), Peralta (137 OPS+), Victor (130 OPS+), and Grady (123 OPS+) were elite players, all finishing in the Top 17 in the AL in oWAR, something not many people would have predicted coming into the 2005 season. Certainly, promise was there for that quartet, but their performance in 2005, when their ages ranged from 28 (Hafner) to 22 (Sizemore) foretold of future success…even if that future success was never sustained.

Think now to this 2012 team, with a (hopefully) healthy Choo, a Santana who provided a glimpse of what he can be last year, and a (finally) healthy Cabrera who is looking to build on a career year…but even with those three, there is something that is lacking in terms of impact position players. Ultimately, what the Indians need is a couple young pieces to emerge on this 2012 team the way that Grady and Jhonny did on that 2005 team that finished the season with the 4th most runs scored in the AL. Maybe you know where this is going (and the title should have been a hint), but the Indians’ hope for ascending into a potentially elite offensive team in 2012 (as they did in 2005) depends upon the development of another pair of youngsters in Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall. Maybe you want to include Brantley in there, if you think of him as the top-of-the-order threat that he’s always looked like in the Minors, but it’s going to take a full season of health and on-base skills to even approach the impact that Coco Crisp did on those mid-2000’s teams. Regardless of Brantley, if the Indians can get a level of production from Kipnis and Lonnie that approaches what they received from Sizemore and Peralta those many years ago, concerns about Sizemore (current version) and his injury, the ensuing mess that is LF, whether Kotchman’s 2011 offensive numbers were an aberration, and what to expect from the aforementioned Brantley start to fade a little.

Certainly this is not an identical situation or an apples-to-apples comparison, but Kipnis and Chisenhall have been tabbed as ½ of the “Infield of the Future” since Kipnis made the transition to 2B in the Minors and as each thrived on their way up the ladder. Since it seems that we’ve been hearing about Kipper and The Chiz (which admittedly sounds too much like “Pinky and The Brain”, a cartoon my younger brother used to watch in grade school) since both of them were high draft picks, I’ll spare you the history on the duo as most know of their draft pedigree and their ascension through the Minor Leagues, all while being regularly ranked in Prospect lists – both those of just Tribe farmhands and among MLB Minor Leaguers in general.

Let’s not forget that The Chiz was 25th in BA’s Top 100 last year, with Kipnis coming in at #54 on that list and B-Pro’s Kevin Goldstein thinking enough of Kipnis prior to last year that he pegged him as the 25th best prospect in baseball, while slotting Chisenhall in his 40th slot. There is no question that these were highly-thought-of prospects going into 2011, who both started the year in Columbus as each attempted to force their way onto the parent club.

Not to rehash the past, but Chisenhall, then Kipnis arrived last year to much fanfare, with Kipnis’ promotion finally allowing my ulcer caused by the continued presence of Orlando Cabrera in the everyday lineup to subside. Each fought some minor injuries last year, but each showed why they were top prospects and Jason Kipnis, in particular, burst onto the scene, providing an offensive spark that was sorely in need of one when he arrived. Despite being sidelined for a brief time, the numbers that Kipnis put up in his limited time with the parent club are hard to ignore, particularly if you place them in the context of the rest of the AL, plate appearances considered. In his few months on the Tribe last year, Kipnis was an exceptional hitter and if you think that’s hyperbole, check out where Kipnis ranked in the AL last year among players with 125 or more PA on the year:
6th (Tied) in XBH% - 11.3%
The only players who posted a higher % of XBH per plate appearance in the AL last year with 125 PA or more were Napoli, Beltre, Lawrie, Cano, Ortiz, and Quentin. Those also posting an 11.3 XBH% (tying them with Kipnis) were Miggy, Nelson Cruz, Ellsbury, and Hamilton…

15th in SLG - .507 SLG
He shows up on this list that measures power just beneath Konerko and Nelson Cruz…

15th in ISO - .235 ISO
In another metric that quantifies power, he came in just beneath Miggy and Hamilton, just ahead of Josh Willingham…

16th (tied) in wOBA - .371 wOBA
Tied with Josh Hamilton and Andruw Jones, with the names coming after his reading “Ian Kinsler”, “Mike Young”, “Vic Martinez”, “Kevin Youkilis”, and “Evan Longoria”…

19th in OPS+ - 131 OPS+
This tied him with Pedroia at 131 OPS+ and put him one slot above Robbie Cano, who finished the year with a 129 OPS+…

22nd in OPS - .841 OPS
Names that appear around Kipnis’ include Longoria, Victor, Teixeira, Youkilis, and Kinzler…

Certainly, the small sample size siren is blaring as 150 MLB plate appearances a career does not make, but…seriously, he was THAT good in his brief time with the Tribe last year and just like Santana’s 2010 provided a glimpse into what The Axe Man could be (prior to that unfortunate Ryan Kalish incident), it’s hard not to see the potential there. Given his pedigree and his success last year (and go mess around on the Fangraphs leaderboard and see where Kipnis shows up in some of the advanced hitting metrics, percentages, or rates that are not “counting” stats, which are colored by plate appearances, if you want to be impressed), the idea that Kipnis is poised to become a top-to-middle-of-the-order presence is hard to ignore.

Apparently, it’s not a unique opinion these days as Manny Acta told Pete Gammons this week that Kipnis was a “cross between Pedroia and Utley” and – while I attempt to compose myself and fight every urge that I have to order a Kipnis jersey online on the basis of that quote – the success that Kipnis enjoyed last year seems to portend that kind of impactful bat from the middle of the infield. Really, I think that gets to the crux of what Kipnis could do for the 2012 offense as guys like Kinsler, Utley, and Pedroia are the engines that make their offenses run. Sure, they’re surrounded by some talent, but just to use Utley (since Acta invoked his name) as an example, from 2005 to 2010, Utley had either the highest OPS+ on Philadelphia in (2007, 2008) or the 2nd highest OPS+ on the team (2005, 2006, 2009, 2010), so as much attention as has been paid to Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins, among others, Utley has been the straw that stirs the drink that is Philly’s offense for the better part of the 7 years that he’s been there.

Think about Kipnis in that vein and it’s impossible not to get excited and while it becomes difficult to temper expectations and enthusiasm after reading that Acta thinks that Kipnis is a “cross between Pedroia and Utley”, particularly if you remember the impact that he had on the team last year when he arrived. Immediately, he was electric, flying around 2B, trying to advance to 3B on a single, showing those signs of personality that…frankly, this team needs. As great as Santana and Choo and Cabrera can be on the field, this current incarnation of the offense lacks a “poster boy” the way that the mid-2000s had Grady, flying around the bases. Of course, Grady’s personality was largely an on-the-field projection, and it seems like…well, like Kipnis has some personality and a sense of humor to go along with the grit. What comes out is a personable and likable player that perhaps can become the personality of this offense.

Maybe that’s a lot to put on a player with 150 career MLB plate appearances who will turn 25 in April of this year, but if his manager is comparing him to players that have won MVP’s from the middle of the diamond, perhaps the impact bat that this offense needs so badly to emerge has already started to emerge.

As for Kipnis’ counterpart in the infield that made his debut last year, 2011 was much more uneven for The Chiz as Lonnie struggled to adjust to MLB and was slowed by a pitch hitting him in the face. While there were certainly positives for Chisenhall in 2011, a major red flag is too obvious to ignore as Lonnie didn’t have very good pitch selection last year.
How bad was it?

Well, he um…walked 8 times in 223 PA, meaning that he walked in 3.6% of his plate appearances. If that number seems wildly low, consider that only one player with more than 200 PA last year walked at a lower rate – Vlad Guerrero, who walked 17 times in 590 PA. While this certainly raises the eyebrows, it’s worth noting that The Chiz walked in 9.6% of his plate appearances in Columbus last year prior to his call-up and walked in 13.3% of his plate appearances in his time in Akron, spanning a short stint there in 2009 and his 2010 season.

Thus, there’s reason to believe that Chisenhall’s eye at the plate will improve as he adjusts to MLB, although it is worth noting that Chisenhall’s selectivity actually worsened as the 2011 closed out. That is, in his final 148 plate appearances over 48 games, he walked…wait for it…TWO times, or in about 1.4% of the times he stepped to the plate. Granted, he had 13 XBH over that final 48 game stretch, but he’s going to have to improve his approach at the plate.

Meanwhile, he whiffed a whopping 22% of the time he stepped to the plate last year and, as Adam Burke pointed out, The Chiz has struck out in 10 of his 21 plate appearances this Spring while walking only once. Spring Training numbers are just that (and remember that there was nearly a mutiny last year when Lonnie got sent down as I think a PD columnist called him the Indians’ best hitting prospect since Manny), but it’s not a good sign. Again, that K rate from 2011 in MLB is wildly different from what Chisenhall put forth in the Minors, but if you go back to a piece that I’ve linked to before as The Chiz sat down with David Laurila of Fangraphs for a little give-and-take, with this answer being particularly interesting in terms of making that transition and perhaps providing a clue as to where Lonnie starts the 2012 season:
David Laurila: What is the biggest difference between Triple-A pitchers and big-league pitchers?

Lonnie Chisenhall: I’d say it’s the ability to throw any pitch in any count. You see a lot more 2-0 changeups. It seems like everybody has a cutter now, so you see 2-0 cutters. They try not to give you the pitch that you’re expecting, so you basically have to stay back on the ball and try not to do too much. You have to hit what they give you to hit, because you may only get one pitch to hit in an at bat.

The stuff is also better at this level. The fastballs are faster. Everything else seems a little bit sharper. It’s not too overwhelming, though. I’m kind of going through an adjustment period right now where I’m trying to get to know the pitchers.

Perhaps the Indians feel that Chisenhall needs to improve his pitch selection in Columbus to start the year, though it would stand to reason that at some point the Chiz needs to make the adjustments that he’s going to eventually have to make to succeed in MLB. This may be obvious, but those adjustments are going to have to happen in MLB, against MLB pitching. Maybe they want to get him into a groove to start the year, then call him up when he’s more comfortable, but I’ve written before about how I’d like to see Chisenhall (and Santana) essentially in the lineup everyday this year to continue their development with Hannahan (and Marson) spelling them when they move to DH to protect Hafner against LHP, with Hannahan spelling Kotchman at 1B against LHP.

While it’s going to be debated over and over these final few weeks whether Chisenhall should make the team or if he should start the season in Columbus, ceding 3B to the defensively-minded Jack Hannahan, let’s remember that Lonnie posted an .838 OPS over the final 3 weeks of the season. Maybe you’re saying that seeing that performance in the final 3 weeks and looking at it as a positive sign while discounting Shelley Duncan’s 2nd half is unfair and maybe you’re saying that looking at Lonnie’s final 17 games is just cherry-picking, realize that age is important here.

By that I mean that Lonnie Chisenhall didn’t turn 23 until last October, which means that he spent 2011 in MLB in his age-22 season. That’s not insignificant here as these are 11 the players that were 22 or younger last year that had more than 200 PA and, yes…I’m using that PA number because The Chiz had 223 PA in 2011.

Eleven players last year…with most of the names – Stanton, Freddie Freeman, Hosmer, Starlin Castro, Tabata, Heyward, Andrus, and Moustakas – probably being familiar to you as they’re looked at as major prospects that are being exposed to MLB at an early age with the idea that they’re only going to improve because of that exposure at an age when a good majority of baseball players are still in college.

If you want to continue on this idea that age is important and what Chisenhall did last year, as a 22-year-old, realize that since MLB expansion in 1961, there have been NINE players for the Cleveland Indians that have been 22 or younger in their first season as an Indian, logging at least 200 PA in those debut seasons. They are, in order of OPS+ for those seasons:
Chris Chambliss, Age 22 (1971) – 104 OPS+ in 458 PA
Rick Manning, Age 20 (1975) – 101 OPS+ in 480 PA
Buddy Bell, Age 20 (1972) – 97 OPS+ in 466 PA
Lonnie Chisenhall, Age 22 (2011) – 93 OPS+ in 223 PA
Carlos Baerga, Age 21 (1990) – 93 OPS+ in 312 PA
Albert Belle, Age 22 (1989) – 85 OPS+ in 218 PA
Mark Lewis, Age 21 (1991) – 69 OPS+ in 314 PA
Jhonny Peralta, Age 22 (2003) – 67 OPS+ in 242 PA
Jack Brohamer, Age 22 (1972) – 66 OPS+ in 527 PA

Going further and keeping this related to the organization, there have only been 16 Indians’ players since 1961 that have logged more than 200 PA in their Age-22 season, with The Chiz’s 93 OPS+ putting him right in the middle of the list. Seriously, look at that list of players and see who posted an OPS over .650 in their Age-22 seasons as Indians – Manny, Grady, Tony Horton, Baerga, Chambliss, Charlie Spikes, Buddy Bell, Chisenhall, Asdrubal, Mark Lewis, and Albert Belle. Sure, a couple of those guys never fulfilled their potential (Horton, Spikes, Lewis), but the majority of those 11 names enjoyed (or are enjoying) a level of success at MLB and it’s not hard to imagine a similar fate for Chisenhall.

Whether he can make those adjustments this year (in MLB) or whether his path slows a little, the Indians could benefit greatly from Chisenhall taking a major step forward as they know what Hannahan is going to do with the bat. What The Chiz CAN do with the bat is what is intriguing, particularly when you consider that the player to whom Chisenhall is often compared to (Travis Fryman, who never walked a lot either) belted 21 HR and 60 XBH in his first full season in MLB.

That kind of performance would do wonders for the Indians’ offense in 2012, as would Kipnis continuing the torrid pace that he blaze out to last year. While questions exist up and down the Indians’ lineup, the answers that could come from Kipnis and Chisenhall could pleasantly surprise and could go a long way to catapulting the Tribe offense to another level the way that a couple of youngsters surprisingly did in 2005. The answers provided by Kipper and The Chiz could also bring an end to the question that has plagued the Tribe since Robby Alomar and the aforementioned Fryman left as long-term solutions to the persistent issues at 2B and 3B may be knocking at the door.

Perhaps in 2012, they’ll both barrel right through that door…


karloso said...

Thanks, Paul,
As usual, nice analyses! Can you comment on Russ Canzler, who I think is receiving less press than I would otherwise expect. He is 25 and hitting over .390. Last year he hit .314 and had 18 homers, 40 doubles and 83 RBIs in 131 games. He posted a .401 on-base percentage and a .530 slugging percentage for an OPS of .931. I know that he has 3 options left, but should that matter on a team that is struggling to figure out who to play LF?

Al Ciammaichella said...

Not to speak for Paul, but I did a writeup on Canzler as part of this piece:

That includes a link to a good article that a Rays writer did on him when he was still part of the Tampa Bay org as well.

For the most part, people think the bat should play but the defense is so bad (even at 1B) that it offsets whatever his bat does bring to the table. I haven't personally seen him play yet except for the few snippets of spring training coverage, so looking forward to seeing what can do with my own eyes.

MTF said...

Maybe you’re saying that seeing that performance in the final 3 weeks and looking at it as a positive sign while discounting Shelley Duncan’s 2nd half is unfair and maybe you’re saying that looking at Lonnie’s final 17 games is just cherry-picking, realize that age is important here.

I absolutely agree with this great point- in the rush to judge Chiz, please let no one forget he's young. Our offense is highly questionable this year and his bat has so much upside that we might have to rush him, even if he's not ready. Happily, he seems like he can handle it.

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