The Correct Way to Use Brent Lillibridge

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.




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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.


23 Responses to “The Correct Way to Use Brent Lillibridge”

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  1. ian says:

    On the one hand, I love to see under-the-radar guys like Lilligridge break out, and it would be great to see him get prolonged playing time to see if he’s for real.

    On the other hand, if it means having to listen to Hawk Harrelson say “Lilly-bridge” on a regular basis, then, well, he can continue to sit.

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    • Nik says:

      Watching a White Sox game on mute is the only way to maintain your sanity.

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      • steex says:

        But then you miss the amazing catch phrases, like his newest one for Konerko: “And that’s how you get a 16,000 s.f. house in Scottsdale!” Said it twice last night (after Paulie’s RBI single and 2R HR).

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    • Bryz says:

      Sounds like Bert Blyleven with pronouncing Danny Valencia as “Valenshia” and tomahawked as “tommy-hawked.”

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  2. eric says:

    I think Juan Pierre is going to be fine (for him).

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  3. brett says:

    Am I the only one who read this and thought poor-man’s Ben Zobrist?

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  4. Eminor3rd says:

    I’ll add the following:

    – Mark Teahen is on the DL
    – Lillibridge’s infield experience has been a lot of big errors, he should not be playing the infield
    – He’s very fast, and his UZR is probably catapulted by a couple really nice Fuld-esque diving plays in RF this season that come to mind
    – All his homeruns have come on fastballs right down the middle.

    I hate Lillibridge, he’s been absolutely horrible until this season and I’ve always wanted him to be released. Based on his previous body of work, I still haven’t seen enough this year to believe that he’s figured it out.

    All of that being said, I HOPE he’s somehow figured it out, because Juan Pierre has no business on a baseball field anymore. If he continues to hit well, it would be great to let Pierre walk after this season and use Lillibridge, but it’s more likely that Lilli gets exposed with regular playing time.

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      Just some responses:

      Teahen is close to his return. Rehab begins this weekend.

      Lillibridge has been up for four years, but his UZR/defensive history is probably about the same as one year. You are comfortable saying he cannot be an infielder going forward? I’m not as sure.

      That speed should help him in center, and even on the infield, no? Or are you saying he’s only fast at top speed and not a good accelerator?

      Still home runs!

      I don’t think he’s great, but I do think there’s a role for him v LHP.

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      • Eminor3rd says:

        Eno:

        Yes, the speed will help him in center. He has good range overall; both top speed and acceleration. My point wasn’t that he can’t play OF, in fact, I’d call him above average. I just wanted to say that I think the +30 UZR is way high, likely affected by a few outstanding plays over a very small sample. He’s good, not elite.

        His range would help him in the infield too, but he has shown no sign of being able to handle the glove there whatsoever. Certainly, he could improve with practice, but he’s looked very bad so far and I wouldn’t put him there if it could be avoided.

        Homeruns are indeed homeruns regardless of the pitch, but I think he’s getting meatballs because he’s been bad historically. Now that he;s shown he can hammer fastballs, I think he;s going to start seeing some tougher pitches as pitchers no longer think they can just blow it by him.

        Let me be clear: I hope he’s figured it out. I’m rooting for him no matter how many boneheaded plays he’s made in the past. I just think it’s way early to call him the next Zobrist. Platooner with Pierre? Perhaps, although Ozzie would never do it. Platooner with Teahen? That would imply he’d play the infield, and I think that’s less of a good idea.

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    • MikeS says:

      I couldn’t agree more. He had 300 PA in his career and 3 HR until this year. He is the flavor of the month based on 77 PA in 2011. Why should I believe this is the real Lillibridge and not the guy who used to make me change the channel every time he came up to bat? I hope he’s becoming a dependable reserve and I can’t wait for Juan Pierre to be gone but I think a full time gig will expose him.

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  5. Sophist says:

    Coupla things: they’ve found out that Lillibridge is more of an outfielder than an infielder. Third base is Morel’s job unless they absolutely need to put a bat there–Teahen showed he is an awful thirdbaseman, so that platoon will not work.

    The Pierre platoon would make more sense, but Pierre has actually hit pretty well in May (his fielding and baserunning have been atrocious).

    Finally, Lillibridge is a little guy, but at least one local commentator claims, pound-for-pound, he’s the strongest guy on the club. Ozzie criticized him a lot the last couple years for always swinging for the fences, and sent him down for that reason. Looks like they don’t mind, now that there are results.

    All that said, if he becomes an everyday player, he’ll be exposed . . .

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      But the book is not closed on Morel, right? I mean, he has little enough upside that they may not stick with him when they have Teahen, right? I don’t see that third base situation as settled in any way.

      I also agree he’s not an everyday player.

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      • Sophist says:

        They didn’t expect Morel to hit much, but he’s done worse than thought, and when everyone else but Konerko had such a horrible start, Morel’s hold on the position was thrown into question. He’s started to hit more, though, as has the team, so Morel may be set now (unless Ken Williams decides this is the one spot he can manage to upgrade).

        Teahen has been terrible at the position, though. He’s not a third-baseman at all. All you need to know is that they handed him the position last year, along with an unnecessary, overgenerous extension, and yet still took the spot away this year for a light-hitting prospect.

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      • MatManz says:

        Morel still has potential. He’s yet to get hot, the guy never hit under .300 in his minor league career.

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      • Yinka Double Dare says:

        Well, Morel finally drew a walk, maybe that will get him going the rest of the way. It was getting rather ridiculous, I’m assuming he’s going to “walk” away with this year’s DiSar.

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    • Steve from Rockford says:

      Lillibridge isn’t swinging for the fences like he used to, he’s gets ahold of the ball once and awhile but he has really improved his intelligence at the plate. He is not as good as he looks right now, but last year he started showing some big improvement, so this isn’t all that surprising. He is also most likely at his physical peak right now.

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  6. dave says:

    ok good job team, now need an article on gordon beckham, allen craig and jon jay.

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  7. MatManz says:

    Nothing lucky slamming doubles off the green monster. Two of said doubles would be home runs in any other park.

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  8. Sox27 says:

    Juan Pierre to the Joliet Jackhammers for a new infield tarp, 3 boxes of balls, and fungo…Lil’ Bridge can at least give you an extra base hit, something Juan Pierre can’t even spell.

    Is Bridge the answer everyday no, but he’s still a better option than Juan Pierre. Then when he begins to slump, you call up Viciedo.

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  9. JT Grace says:

    Martin Prado is a lot of things, but “svelte” is not one of them. He has power because he is built like a little tank……totally different body type than Lillibridge.

    But I’m glad that Lillibridge is having a good season. I hope it continues for him.

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  10. gonfalon says:

    Nice article! Even though he never played a game for the Pirates, I’m rooting for Lillibridge too.

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