Maybe it is beginner’s luck. After all, before Lonnie Chisenhall made his latest reemergence from the minor leagues at the end of July, the former first round pick, who seemingly brought a sieve out to the hot corner instead of a mitt, had never appeared in the outfield as big league player. Never mind that his MiLB resume consisted of just four games – all starts – as a right fielder. And ignore the fact that his move was basically happenstance: according to Paul Hoynes, Chisenhall requested the defensive shift as an effort to increase his value to the team – or any team, for that matter.
But since July 30th, Lonnie Chisenhall has looked like the defensive incarnation of Kenny Lofton – with a much better arm – while manning right field. He threw out Max Muncy on a one-hop bullet to the plate in his third game. He followed that up four days later with a diving grab on a sinking Trevor Plouffe line drive. A couple weeks later he unleashed another one-hopper – while throwing off his back foot – to double up Kurt Suzuki at first base on a hit-and-run. Then there’s this leaping grab off Jackie Bradley’s bat, or his dive to snare a Carlos Beltran bloop, or a fairly difficult play near the railing to rob Jordan Schafer of at least another pitch from Zack McAllister.
And what do the metrics say?
Well, in the briefest of brief sample sizes – only 203.1 innings in right field so far – Chisenhall has sparkled: he’s sporting a 41.1 UZR/150, a 5.7 UZR, and a 7 DRS all the while totaling 1.5 defensive WAR according to Baseball Reference. That's a pretty big defensive improvement over Brandon Moss. In addition, Chisenhall's Inside Edge numbers don't show anything terrible yet; he's made 100 percent of the routine and likely plays (which totals only 45 plays).
So is it beginner’s luck? Absolutely. Only one outfielder this season – Kevin Kiermaier – owns a UZR/150 above 20.9. But there’s no reason to believe that Chisenhall can’t consistently develop into an above-average defender given the video evidence. There's also quite a bit of history regarding infielders switching to the outfield; Hanley Ramirez notwithstanding, it can often go well.
Let’s just say Chisenhall’s defensive ability ultimately falls around the 20th spots among outfielders, which is in the neighborhood of 6.5- to 7.0-UZR/150. Let’s also assume that his offensive production is roughly league average, which it’s been through his first 1,500+ plate appearances in his career. Chisenhall then becomes a 3.0-win player per 162-games. With an outfield of Michael Brantley, Abraham Almonte, and Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor up the middle infield, there's a legitimate chance of the Indians defense being a plus rather than a minus.
While being a 3 win per 162 game player doesn’t make him an All-Star, it does, however, make him an incredibly valuable big league commodity – something he was striving for when he offered up the position switch.
Joe Werner is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. For more analysis check out Joe Werner's site: ProspectDigest.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoltinJoey.