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Q&A: Lonnie Chisenhall

In his recent FanGraphs interview, Manny Acta said that Lonnie Chisenhall is “going to probably be the most important piece of the puzzle in our infield.” The Indians skipper was referring primarily to the young third baseman’s defense, but he obviously will have to produce with the bat as well. Despite Chisenhall’s less-than-impressive rookie numbers — .255/.284/.415, in 223 plate appearances — that isn’t expected to be a problem. The former first-round pick went into last season rated as the top prospect in the organization, with Baseball America calling him “one of the best pure hitters in the minors.”

Chisenhall talked about his approach to hitting when the Indians visited Boston last August.

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David Laurila: I first talked to you in 2008 when you were playing in the New York-Penn League. How much have you changed as a hitter since then?

Lonnie Chisenhall: I don’t think I’ve changed all that much. I do have a better feel of what to do in certain counts — what I’m going to get and things like that — so I can take advantage in hitter’s counts. I used to be basically see-the-ball-hit-the-ball, but now I’m up there with a better plan. I’m putting myself in better situations. But I don’t think that my stance or swing has changed too much.

DL: How would describe your hitting approach?

LC: I just go up there and try to get hits. I don’t try to hit the ball out of the ballpark. I don’t try to pull the ball, I don’t try to hit the ball the other way. I just battle and try to keep it as simple as I can.

DL: What is your pre-game routine?

LC: I’m kind of a creature of habit, although I wouldn’t say I’m superstitious. Hitting-wise, I like to start out real slow, just working off the tee. Some days I get a little soft toss in. I take BP seriously. Overall, you want to get a feel for what you like to do and how to get ready.

The hitting coach sometimes dictates your rounds. You have a hit-and-run round, moving a guy from second to third with no outs, scoring a guy from third with less than two. After that, you focus on… I focus on hitting the top inside part of the ball and driving the ball to all fields. If it’s inside, I pull it. If it’s away, I try to go the other way. I’m not too particular; I just try to get a good pitch and put a good swing on it.

DL: Can you elaborate on “hitting the top inside part of the ball”?

LC: It’s basically letting the ball travel, seeing the ball. Avoid chasing balls out in front. You let it get deep and use the other side of the field. Basically, you’re trying to avoid rolling balls over — you’re giving yourself a chance to the big part of the ballpark.

It’s also repetition, doing it over and over. You have to see the ball. You have to really focus on it in BP. They just feed you meatballs in there, so you can kind of get into a bad habit of pulling the ball and hitting it out of the ballpark. You have to focus on it, because in the game, they’re spinning stuff and working the ball inside and outside. You have to really focus on keeping your hands above the ball. I eliminate most of my movement — I don’t have too much movement in my set-up or in my swing. I eliminate and get to the ball.

Keeping your hands inside the ball is part of it. You can’t really hit the top inside part of the ball without the hands being in. That’s my way of dumbing it down for myself. I don’t want to get too caught and up make it too complicated.

When I pull the ball it’s more of a surprise than anything else. I’m trying to work the ball to the big part of the field. It’s more the pitch speed and location that dictate that, so it’s more of a reaction. I’ll pull a lot more off-speed stuff to the right side of the field. On fastballs, I usually stay up the middle, from right center to left center.

DL: What is the key to pitch recognition?

LC: I just try to pick the ball up as soon as possible. You pick up the pitcher‘s release point. If his curveball pops out of his hand early, you’ll notice that. Or if you see a pitch down, spinning in like a slider, you know to lay off it. Video helps a lot with pitch recognition. You know what the pitcher has and what he is trying to do.

What you see out of the hand varies guy to guy. Some guys throw a 12-to-6er where you see it pop out of their hand. Some guys throw a slider that’s really close to a cutter and you can’t really pick up the seams. It looks like a fastball. If you’re doing your job to hit the right part of the ball, that’s where you hit those ground balls through the infield. The ball has that little movement at the end, so you have to just trust your swing and let it happen.

With some guys you can pick up the seams, and with other guys it’s kind of hard. The ball is coming in there pretty fast and you might not be able to see it.

DL: What is the biggest difference between Triple-A pitchers and big-league pitchers?

LC: 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. But the environment is great up here. The lights are great; the balls are white.

One thing you have up here is guys coming out of the bullpen who aren’t just eating up innings. They bring in tough lefties to face lefties, guys who throw 92-95. Or they bring in guys like Daniel Bard who throw 95-plus. You don’t have those easy moments where you can sit back and take a breath. You have to really focus and take advantage of everything you get.

As for the game speeding up, it took me about a week to really realize that I’m in the big leagues. That first week is kind of a whirlwind. You’re worried about things like getting people to and from the game, as well as getting your work in. But the game takes care of itself. It’s the same game, so it’s more the things away from the field that are moving kind of fast for you.

DL: Have you been able to make any adjustments in your short time up here?

LC: When I first came up, I felt like I was swinging at everything. The pitchers got ahead and they put me away early. Now I feel that I’m putting together some pretty good at bats. I’m laying off stuff that I wasn’t earlier, and I’m obviously happy with that. For me, it’s about putting up quality at bats and every time I step into the box, I‘m feeling more comfortable.

DL: Do you view hitting as more of an art or more of a science?

LC: I see it as more of an art. If you get too scientific with it — if you try to make it too calculated — you may lose the feel for it. Sometimes you need to go up there and be see-the-ball-hit-the-ball and not try to create things, or do things that you can’t do. Like I said earlier, I like to keep it simple.

Maybe I’m looking for something out over the plate and once I get that pitch it’s see-the-ball-hit-the-ball. If it’s a curveball, it’s the same swing. Same with a slider or a changeup. You recognize what the pitch is and you hit it.

DL: Which of your teammates do you talk hitting with the most?

LC: It’s everybody, really. Everybody has their own hitting style; nobody is exactly the same. [Jason] Kipnis came up recently and we go back and forth about hitting. His style is a little bit different than mine, but it’s nice to get feedback from everybody. I try to pick everybody’s brain, because if I want to get better, I have to keep learning.