A broken hand ended Brent Lillibridge's season last night, which will serve as one of the true bright spots of 2011 for the White Sox.
If someone came up to me before the season and told me Brent Lilllibridge would hit more home runs than Adam Dunn this season, I would've probably assumed Dunn was being held captive in a West Virginia strip mine or something.
I can't say I had a high opinion of Lillibridge back in March, when I was leading the "Lastings Milledge for Roster Spot" cavalry in spring training. When Milledge was DFA'd after an early-April game in Kansas City, it left me scratching my head as to why Lillibridge was on the roster instead of Milledge.
My skepticism was founded in Lillibridge's -1.4 WAR in 298 career plate appearances in the majors. The guy, simply put, had been awful in previous stints in the big leagues, striking out at an alarmingly high rate for someone with just three career home runs to his name.
I was wrong.
The legend of Lillibridge was in its nascent, small-sample-size stages when the White Sox traveled to New York in late April, in desperate need of a win during their horrid early-season stretch. Lillibridge entered the Bronx with one home run in 19 plate appearances and a .978 OPS -- hey, good numbers, but in 19 trips to the plate.
It wasn't what Lillibridge did at the plate that impressed in New York, though.
You still gotta be bleepin' me. Via 30fps.
By the end of May, Lillibridge had smacked five home runs with a 1.002 OPS in 72 plate appearances. Cries of "give that man his playing time!" began to rise as boos for Dunn and Alex Rios became more prevalent and as Juan Pierre continued to slide toward the abyss. But it was just 72 plate appearances.
Lillibridge's season peaked June 11, when in a rare start in place of Pierre, he went 1-3 with two walks and, more importantly, took a home run away from Coco Crisp to effective save a White Sox win against Oakland.
Then, for an odd combination of terrible weather and questionable benchings, Lillibridge didn't start again until June 18. Maybe it was a simple regression, or maybe Lillibridge really did lose his mojo in that week off. But from June 18 through the end of July, Lillibridge struck out 16 times and didn't walk en route to a .463 OPS, lowering his season mark below .800 for the first time since early April.
Even his fielding prowess seemed to be affected. His slow jog to a Ty Wigginton bloop single June 28 in Colorado allowed Troy Tulowitzki to score from first on the play, pulling a modern-day Enos Slaughter minus the World Series context and a name like Enos Slaughter.
But since the trade deadline passed, the Lillibridge of yore returned, with six home runs coming off his bat with a .945 OPS. As the White Sox have faded into oblivion, Lillibridge has recharged his season, ensuring it'll end on a high note. Or, as high a note as a season can end on with an injury.
The future is murky for Lillibridge, as regardless of how awesome they were, 216 plate appearances don't make a player. Hopefully, Lillibridge doesn't see a sample size regression back to being a replacement-level or worse player, because he played such an important role on the Sox this season.
No level of mediocre team results can take away from what Lillibridge did for the Sox this season. A toast to you, sir.