Lonnie Chisenhall was the Indians’ first round pick in 2008 and thus far he’s had a very successful campaign in his first full season of professional baseball. He’s hitting .283/.355/.504 with 13 home runs in 70 games and has been one of the high Class A Carolina League’s best players. And he’s doing while playing close to home for Kinston. Chisenhall was born and raised in Newport, N.C.
“It’s (Kinston) an hour from my hometown," said Chisenhall. "Every night I have a handful of people here to watch. Around ten family and friends (each game). It’s exciting. I’ve had my parents, grandparents, and all my other relatives get to see me play until I move up and am farther away where it’s harder for them to see me play."
Interestingly enough, Chisenhall is hitting much better on the road in a similar number of at bats than at his home ballpark. Kinston’s ballpark is a very neutral park. In front of the friendly home crowds Chisenhall is just hitting .255/.333/.430 while he’s mashing to the tune of .315/.379/.591 on the road.
"I don’t think it helps me or hurts me that they’re (family) here," Chisenhall said. "It’s obviously a little more on my mind while they’re here and I enjoy them being here and playing at home. My road average is a lot higher than my home average but I don’t think that has anything to do with it. I would say it’s a coincidence.”
Chisenhall was kicked off South Carolina’s baseball team after he was charged with larceny after the 2007 season. Chisenhall then transferred to Pitt (N.C.) Community College where he starred on the field for a year before being drafted by the Indians.
“It was a big part of my career," Chisenhall said. "I learned a lot about myself and baseball. (Pitt head coach Tommy Eason) played professional baseball so he knew what I was getting into. He helped me become prepared for what was next. He knew what was going to happen in the future. He did a great job with the team and with myself. He helped out a lot.”
The Indians were well aware of Chisenhall’s past but showed no fear by making him the 29th overall selection in the 2008 draft.
"We did the work on that (the larceny incident) and found out that it was an isolated incident," said Ross Atkins, the Indians Director of Player Development. "He made a mistake and was with the wrong guy at the wrong time. We didn’t feel like it was an issue that the Cleveland Indians were going to have to deal with. We feel that his makeup is a strength. We think his makeup is a separator. We can tell that baseball is genuinely one of the most important things in Lonnie’s life.”
Last fall in the instructional league the Indians decided to move Chisenhall from shortstop to third base. The Indians felt that Chisenhall’s 6-foot-2, 203 pound frame would fit better at the hot corner in the long run.
“Lonnie has a lot of ability and a lot of skills," Atkins said. "We saw clearly that the defining skill was his ability to hit. We feel like that is going to be an above average skill. And we also think he has a good chance to have some power. He probably could have worked very hard to be an average major league shortstop. But that would have meant that he would have had to work very hard at staying lean and agile. And we didn’t want his focus to become staying lean and agile."
The move to third hasn’t been seamless for Chisenhall and he leads his team with 19 errors this season.
"The angles are different at third and I’m learning a lot over there," Chisenhall said. “You have so many plays to make. You have bunt plays, slow rollers, and hot shots. You don’t get true hops over at third. Most things are top spun or just hit really on the screws. The most difficult thing has been reading hops and getting good angles and jumps. Your offensive expectations are a little different too. You’re expected to have more power numbers."
The Indians organization has been pleased with Chisenhall’s defensive development this year even at the expense of some extra errors.
“We have been very encouraged," Atkins said. "He’s learning his limits. He’s fielding balls that shortstops are supposed to field. He’s making near spectacular plays. He’s making spectacular plays and near spectacular plays that turn into errors. He’s learning the limits of what he can try to do and what he can’t. We’re going to encourage him to do that. We want him to find that fine line of peak performance and you can’t do that without some mistakes and errors.”
With Chisenhall excelling in the Carolina League a promotion to Double-A might be in order before the year is over.
“It’s realistic to think that he could see some Double-A exposure this year," Atkins said.
“I’m going to let (Cleveland) worry about that," Chisenhall said. "I just go out there and play as hard as I can every game. Hopefully they’ll make the move sooner rather than later but I’ll just let them worry about it. It’s best if I don’t worry about it at all.”
Chisenhall’s first professional season has been encouraging and he’s still learning the ropes.
“It’s definitely a grind every day," Chisenhall said. "We are about 70 games in right now. You definitely feel the effects and you learn to play tired. I’ll go out there every day and give it everything I’ve got whether I’m at 70 percent one day or 100 percent another day. You just got to go out there and be consistent."
The Indians couldn’t be more pleased with the production, development, and makeup Chisenhall has exhibited this season and he appears to be on the fast track.
“I think what stands out about Lonnie is that he just enjoys playing baseball," Atkins said. "It’s not important to him that he’s in Double-A or Single-A. To him, it’s that he wants to be a major league player. He’s focused on the process of that. He makes very unselfish decisions daily and in his long term goals he will benefit from them. That’s just innate maturity and not something we taught him. Thankfully our scouts identified that."