Brent Lillibridge hit his 11th home run of the season during the White Sox 10-0 old-fashioned whoopin’ of the Rangers yesterday. It was just another highlight in a shocking power outburst for the utility infielder, who looked like a marginal major leaguer coming into the season. Lillibridge started off the season hot, cooled down in June and July, and is having his best month yet so far in August. Lillibridge is only 27 — not terribly young, but not old, either. Could this be another lasting power surge (.245 ISO with a .370 wOBA) out of nowhere in the vein of Ben Zobrist or Jose Bautista?
Lillibridge only has 186 plate appearances so far in 2011, which says a bit about how confident the White Sox are (not) in his abilities to keep this up. More importantly, it’s (wait for it…) a really small sample size. Frankly, I usually don’t bother taking a player’s single season overall hitting performance seriously until at least 240 plate appearances, and even then it’s not too meaningful. Some specific hitting abilities stabilize earlier than that, but home run rate doesn’t seem to be one of them. However, these power surges are fun to check out, especially when it’s a guy like Lillibridge, who never hit for power at any level above low-A.
Using the right denominator to isolate home runs on plays ending in contact [HR/(AB-K+SF)], Lillibridge stacks up pretty well. His rate is .099. If he qualified, that would tie him with Mark Reynolds, behind only JOse Bautista (.112), Curtis Granderson (.103), and Mike Stanton (.102). It would place him ahead of hitters like Mark Teixeira (.087) and Prince Fielder (.074), to pick out two notable names. So, to fulfill my own prophecy about posts that warn about sample size then proceed to ignore it, let’s pursue this a bit further with a historical approach.
I decided to look at recent players who had a home run-on-contact rate similar to Lillibridge’s in limited playing time. Originally, I thought this would bring up a number of part-timers who then receded into the background, thus showing that performances like Lillibridge’s 2011 “happen all the time.” But that is not exactly what happened. The query searched all hitter-seasons since 2001 with between 180 and 280 plate appearances (limited playing time). It was also limited to players between 25 and 29 years old during those seasons (to cut down on hot prospects being called-up, since that wouldn’t make for a good comparison to Lillibridge; I wanted guys in his general age group). I set the minimum homer-on-contact rate at .09. The query returned eight player-seasons. It is a curious group.
The highest HR/FB from the group of part-timers was Mike Napoli in 2008 (.123), who has mainly been a part-timer because of defensive problems at catcher. He had hit for power before, though, so that isn’t a good comp for Lillibridge’s 2011. Russell Branyan‘s 2004 (.120) and 2005 (.098) aren’t good comparisons, either, as he always hit for power, teams either wouldn’t give him a chance or he got hurt. Troy Glaus‘s 2004 is also on the list, but mainly because his plate appearances were limited by injury (shocking, I know). Erubiel Durazo had part-time seasons with a similar home run rate to Lillibridge in 2001 (.094) and 2002 (.097), but he was a first baseman who was blocked in Arizona, until Billy Beane finally attained his short-armed Holy Grail (I heard he’s going to be played by a T-Rex in the Moneyball movie).
The only player somewhat similar to Lillibridge that made my list was Jeff Liefer (remember him? Me neither) in 2001. He was a left-handed hitting first baseman/outfielder, but he did sort of come out of nowhere serious power (.264 ISO) in part-time play for the… wait for it… White Sox. He then proceeded to bomb in 224 plate appearance for Chicago the following season and last saw the majors in 2005. That’s the closest thing to a comparison to Lillibridge. It doesn’t bode well, but it is far from the greatest comparison for Lillibridge. If anything, it just backs up the “sample size” issue.
I cast my net somewhat narrowly, but I thought it would turn up more than Leifer as “power hitter out of nowhere” part-timer. Honestly, I’m not sure if this lack of decent comparisons means good or bad things for Lillibridge’s future. The ZiPS rest-of-season projection isn’t too keen on Lillibridge. His Hit Tracker data doesn’t show him squeeking too many just over the wall, but he isn’t hitting them exceptionally far, either. His walk and strikeout rates don’t indicate that he has the sort of plate discipline that might have allowed Zobrist and Bautista to succeed with power swings. Most likely, this is a small sample blip. But it stands out enough that Lillibridge will quite probably (and justifiably) get more chances to prove whether or not he’s a fluke.
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