After collecting a double and a home run last night in a White Sox victory, career backup Brent Lillibridge is sporting a very un-backup-like .307/.387/.662 batting line. Add in some excellent outfield defense and a declining Juan Pierre, and some are clamoring for an every-day job for the slight former middle infielder. Would his performance hold up in such a role?
It’s unclear how much luck plays into his current performance. His .333 BABIP doesn’t appear to be outlandish at first. But then you might see his 10.4% line drive rate, career .285 BABIP, and batted ball mix (he’s hitting two fly balls for every ground ball), and some warning lights might go off. Using this calculator, his expected BABIP is only .261. So yeah, between his high strikeout rate (27.7% currently, 30.5% career) and xBABIP, we can say that some of his current performance is luck-aided.
There’s also the matter of his power. A 27-year-old, five-foot-eleven, 185-pound middle-infield type, Lillibridge currently has an ISO that would rank second in the major leagues if he qualified for the batting title. He also had a .141 ISO in the minor leagues. Maybe Martin Prado has shown us that svelte middle infielders can add a little power once the major league pitchers are providing the velocity, but even then it would be folly to expect much more power than ZiPS has projected for the rest of the year (.140 ISO).
Combine that work at the plate with a glove that hasn’t proven to be capable of manning a major league middle infield. The only position where he’s managed a positive UZR/150 over his career is in right field. Given how positive that number is (+35.3), it would be surprising if he couldn’t also handle center field. And given his minor league history, second and third base shouldn’t be a problem for him either. He hasn’t seen more than 100 balls in any of the zones he’s played, so take his UZRs with a grain of salt – perhaps he can be better than a backup corner outfielder. His team seems to see him as a jack of all trades – he’s played 23 games in the corner outfield, five in center, and five at second.
Our projection systems are smart, but perhaps one way to ‘outsmart’ them might be to use a player in the best possible situations. For example, we know that Lillibridge has a .240/.286/.424 line against lefties (.184 ISO), which beats his .202/.278/.333 line against righties (.131 ISO). Over his career he’s also struck out less with a southpaw on the mound (28% versus 31.9%). We also know that since that split against lefties has come in fewer than 150 plate appearances, we’d have to regress it heavily to get his true talent platoon split. Then again, looking at the major league equivalencies (MLE) of his minor league numbers, supplied by drivelinebaseball.com, we see that this split is a long time coming. He had a .256/.327/.385 MLE against lefties compared to a .206/.288/.278 MLE against righties. We can say with some confidence that he’s better versus left-handed pitchers.
So now we come to the titular question. What would be the best way to use Lillibridge to take advantage of his skillset? Looks like we want to use him against lefties, for one. If he can handle right field so well, why not left field? Juan Pierre is a lefty, though he doesn’t have a real career platoon split (.319 wOBA vs LHP, .312 wOBA vs RHP). Still, Pierre’s production has been so weak this year (.278 wOBA) that playing him in a platoon role at least limits the damage he’s doing with his below-average bat. This presupposes that the team has decided that Lillibridge cannot play third base – he hasn’t started there this year, despite the fact that the White Sox have run out Brent Morel, Mark Teahen, Dallas McPherson, and Omar Vizquel at the position. They’ve accrued -0.8 WAR collectively, and if Lillibridge’s glove could play there, he could make a platoon partner for the best of that crew. Perhaps the lefty-batting Teahen?
It’s easy to get excited about a young man finally playing well in his fourth major league season. It might be just as easy to discount the performance as a fluke, especially when there are clues that it is at least slightly luck-aided. But the truth is most often in shades of gray. Using Lillibridge in the outfield and at second base, primarily against lefties, is probably the best course of action. The only wrinkle on his current usage might be a trial at third base. But considering what an offensive sinkhole the position has been so far, and the fact that the team hasn’t tried him there yet, they must see a flaw in his defense that won’t translate well at the hot corner. In this case, the team is most likely using their player the correct way.