Everyone knows projections are not guarantees. Anything is possible. But even those alternate possibilities can be surprising in themselves. For example, some people, prior to the season, picked the Royals as dark horse contenders. However, how many of them said Kansas City would be on top of American League Central by midseason despite Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Billy Butler all being almost completely worthless at the plate?
Along the same lines, it was not inconceivable for Cleveland to have a pretty good offense in 2014. In 2013, Cleveland hit pretty well. But again, who would have thought that the 2014 team would have one of the better offenses in the American League about halfway through the season despite Jason Kipnis missing time with injury and (to date) not playing well, Carlos Santana hitting .193, and Nick Swisher sporting a 76 wRC+? Kansas City’s ascension and Detroit’s struggles are rightfully getting the attention, but Cleveland is hanging in there. Much of the credit has to go to two players having shockingly monstrous seasons at the plate: Lonnie Chisenhall and Michael Brantley.
Even for players performing on a level mostly unprecedented in their prior major league history, the best way to get a grasp on how any player might perform going forward is just to look at the rest-of-season projections, since it does all the work of properly weighting and regressing prior and current performance of each component and making the proper adjustments. Sure, as the players under examination highlight, projections are far from perfect predictions, but as a look at the whole, they are the best bet. Nevertheless, it is worth looking more closely at Chisenhall and Brantley’s hitting this year to see what has and has not changed.
At least on a narrative level, Chisenhall’s story is more immediately compelling. A few years ago, he and Jason Kipnis were regarded as Cleveland’s top prospects. While Kipnis held his own and then became a very good player, Chisenhall struggled to to hit in the majors in 2011, 2012, and 2013. His 2013 was so disappointing (.225/.270/.398, 86 wRC+) that Cleveland decided to give DH/catcher Carlos Santana, hardly the model of athleticism, a shot a third base. Chisenhall only made the 2014 major league roster at all as a last-minute decision, and then as a bench player.
Circumstances gave Chisenhall playing time, and he has more than been up to the challenge. So far this season he has destroyed the ball, sporting a .368/.420/.589 line (including a three home run game on June 9). His 186 wRC+ leads the American League for all players with at least 200 plate appearances. Sure, the performance is pretty obviously over Chisenhall’s true talent level. Even so, these 209 plate appearances so far this season have restored plenty of hope in his future. How has he done it thus far this season?
BABIP is the first place many of us look when a hitter is having a surprise season like Chisenhall’s. His BABIP is currently .405. One need not look at how poorly BABIP correlates year-to-year relative to other hitting metrics to see this as extremely unlikely to be close to Chisenhall’s true talent level (for his career, his has a .305 BABIP in the majors). Take a look at seasons by qualified hitters since 2000 with a BABIP over .400 since 2000. It has only happened twice: Manny Ramirez in 2000 and Jose Hernandez in 2002. Not even Ichiro has done it (.399 in 2004). Chisenhall may turn out to be a high BABIP hitter (though until this year, there was little evidence of it), but probably nothing close to .400.
Although BABIP is a primary factor behind Chisenhall’s 2014, it is not the only factor. He also has a .222 isolated power, seemingly far beyond his previous performance in the major leagues. Yet, when we look at his rates of home runs on contact and extra base hits on balls in play, they are roughly in line with his rates from 2013 (five percent and three percent, respectively). Given the relatively low number of plate appearances (and in itself, this should remind us that we are still at a pretty small sample size), just the small uptick in home run rate gives us an exaggerated isolated power.
None of this should be taken to dismiss Chisenhall’s improvements this season. He is still just 25 (even if 25 is not as young as it used to be), and his fly balls seem to be going further this year than last year. And finally, his plate discipline so far this year seems to have improved. His walk rate is up a bit, but his strikeout rate has dropped by almost three percent. Strikeout rate in particular correlates more closely than just about anything else. So even if Chisenhall’s BABIP is a big fluke and his power is only slightly better, the improved strikeout rate is a very good sign.
Chisenhall’s big year has garnered some attention, but arguably even more surprising is Michael Brantley’s. Although Brantley is only two years older, is at least seems like he has been around a lot longer. Brantley struggled in his first couple shots in the majors leagues, and from 2011-2013 he mostly played as a solid if unexceptional major league player. A roughly league-average hitting left fielder without many walks or much power does not attract much attention. Like Chisenhall, though, he has exploded this season, hitting .323/.391/.519 (159 wRC+) over 297 plate appearances. (Here is hoping his recent head injury is nothing too serious.)
Like Chisenhall, Brantley is probably playing a fair bit over his head. Brantley has also shown an improvement in both his walk and strikeout rates. In other ways, though, Brantley’s 2014 numbers are even more promising (as promising as less than 300 plate appearances can be, at least). For example, Brantley’s .329 BABIP, while a bit above average, is nothing extreme.
A more significant difference can be found in Brantley’s 2014 power surge. Although his .195 isolated power is lower than Chisenhall’s, it breaks down differently. Like Chisenhall, Brantley’s fly balls are going further this year. But although Brantley is seeing a slight uptick on his doubles on balls in play (which correlates even less than BABIP), his home run on contact rate has more than doubled. In 2013, that rate was just two percent, and that was easily the best of his career. This season, his home run on contact rate is 4.6 percent. Given that home runs on contact correlate better year-to-year than just about everything other than strikeouts, this is quite promising.
Chisenhall and Brantley are both much more likely to return to earth than stay in impressive orbit. Even half of a season of great performance does not overrule the projections, although it does modify them. Chisenhall has seemingly made some improvements, but his BABIP is on indicator that this is more of a streak than a general change. Brantley’s power surge, on the other hand, offers more hope going forward (assuming his head injury is not lingering). In both cases, their 2014 performances are good news. And, as is likely, even as they both come back closer to reality, Cleveland has other hitters who are probably going to hit better as the season continues. Even with likely regression, it is good news for a team that is only three games back in the division.
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