On Talent, Perception, and Brent Lillibridge

In his first go-round with the White Sox in 2009, Brent Lillibridge wasn’t good, and that September he turned 26. Lillibridge knew he needed to make changes, and his coaches knew he needed to make changes, and so that offseason Lillibridge re-tooled his swing. In the minors, in 2010, he was more or less the same as he was in 2009. In the majors, in 2010, he was a little better than he was in 2009. Yet he posted a 60 wRC+, and a negative WAR.

In the majors in 2011, Lillibridge posted a 125 wRC+, and a strongly positive WAR.

In the majors in 2012, Lillibridge posted a 43 wRC+, and a negative WAR.

I’m bringing this up now because Lillibridge recently opted for free agency after being designated for assignment by the Indians, and outrighted to the minors. Lillibridge is 29, and this is part of the blurb at the top of his Rotoworld page:

Coming off a disappointing 2012, he could struggle to find a guaranteed contract this offseason.

That doesn’t seem un-sensible. Most recently, Brent Lillibridge was an unhelpful player, and positional flexibility doesn’t mean that much if you aren’t actually making some sort of positive contribution. But let’s rewind. One year ago, the expectation was that the White Sox would have a busy winter, and this is an excerpt from something posted by Ken Rosenthal last December:

But as of mid-afternoon on Wednesday the team had traded only closer Sergio Santos in what many in the industry perceive to be a curious move. And, surprisingly, the White Sox player drawing the most interest was utility man Brent Lillibridge, according to major-league sources.

The White Sox didn’t trade Lillibridge last offseason. As a matter of fact, here’s Jon Heyman from March:

The White Sox traded Lillibridge in late June, in a package to the Red Sox for Kevin Youkilis. The Red Sox shortly designated Lillibridge for assignment and dealt him to the Indians. The Indians just let Lillibridge go, and he’s free to explore the market.

Right now, Lillibridge is the very definition of available. A year ago, Lillibridge was not very available. A year before that, Lillibridge was more available, and he went to spring training on the roster bubble, as an unproven player out of minor-league options. Lillibridge was locked in a spring-training job competition against Lastings Milledge before they both ultimately made the team. Said Lillibridge in March 2012:

“It’s funny how one year can change what people think of you,” said Lillibridge.


The Brent Lillibridge stock was low, then it shot up. Now it’s low again, and though Lillibridge will certainly find work and a spring-training opportunity, nothing’s going to be handed to him. This is a player who isn’t old, and who just one year ago was in pretty high demand league-wide. It is funny how one year can change what people think of you. Maybe “funny” isn’t the right word, for Brent Lillibridge.

On a general level, the Lillibridge valuation curve makes sense. In the majors in 2009, he hit zero home runs. Then he hit two home runs, then he hit 13 home runs, then he hit three home runs. Obviously those numbers were posted over different numbers of plate appearances, but for one season — the 2011 season — Brent Lillibridge hit for power. In his other season, he hasn’t, really. You always try to gauge a player’s true-talent level, and what’s most important is recent performance. Your true-talent estimation for a player coming off a mediocre year will be different than for a player coming off a surprisingly impressive year. There’s no question about this.

But take Lillibridge. In three years, he went from slugging .378 to .505 to .274. True-talent estimations will have changed, for good reason. Here, though, are those plate-appearance samples:

  • 101
  • 216
  • 209

Together, that’s 526 plate appearances. For Lillibridge’s entire major-league career, he has 723 plate appearances. We always caution that one year of data usually isn’t enough. In a way, Lillibridge has five years of data, but in truth, he has one year of data, spread over five seasons. The actual individual seasons were simply performances over small samples, and we’re aware of the problems with small-sample interpretation.

It’s true that evaluations of Lillibridge’s true talent should’ve changed. But it seems to me they shouldn’t have changed very much, because the magnitude by which one is willing to change a true-talent estimation should be directly related to sample size. After 2011, people should’ve though a little more of Lillibridge than they did before 2011. After 2012, people should’ve thought a little less of Lillibridge than they did before 2012. But, “a little”. I don’t think, based on the numbers, that it makes rational sense that Lillibridge has gone from being in-demand to being freely available.

Put it this way: look at Lillibridge’s FanGraphs player page, and think about whatever else you might know about him. Do you think that, over the past few years, Lillibridge has meaningfully changed as a player? He frequently strikes out, and he infrequently walks. He’s capable of playing the majority of positions on the field. He can run decently well. For a kind of little dude, he swings hard, and his swing is long, so there’s power potential, and swing-and-miss potential. Lillibridge can put everything he has into a swing and drive the ball out to left or left-center. As a consequence, he whiffs more than a quarter of the time that he swings. This is a trade-off.

Brent Lillibridge has not changed his skillset since re-tooling his swing. It’s arguable whether that even made too much of a difference. Based on that skillset, you can make your Lillibridge projections, and I don’t think the last few years of data should have changed the projections that much. There comes a point at which you can put a lot more weight on the numbers than on the scouting information. There’s a point at which the results are almost all that matters. Lillibridge hasn’t gotten to that point in his individual seasons. People overreacted to his productive 2011, because they believed in his numbers without so much considering their staying power. Lillibridge’s 2012 has caused everyone to calm down. His value now might even be too low, although it probably isn’t.

For three years, I don’t think that Brent Lillibridge has changed very much. Over three years, Lillibridge has had his perceived value change quite a bit. This could just be worthless, opportunistic hindsight on my part, but I think it also speaks to a very human flaw. We want to make something of the numbers, all of the numbers. And we’re a lot more willing to accept that two months is a small sample than a whole season being a small sample, even if a player’s whole season includes only one or two months’ worth of plate appearances. In a way, a baseball season just gives us numbers in between arbitrary endpoints. Over the last three seasons, Lillibridge has batted .226. Over the last three seasons, Lillibridge has fallen short of one full, actual season.

One small sample ago, Brent Lillibridge was somewhat highly valued. Now things have changed, while things probably haven’t really changed at all.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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11 years ago

This is so many more words on Lilli than I ever thought I’d read.

I feel bad for Brent, he seems like a genuinely nice guy. He just isn’t that good.

I’ll never forget how you out-homered Adam Dunn, though, Brent!