By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — Good things may come to those who wait, but Brent Lillibridge knew that it was going to take more than patience to earn his spoils.
And so the 26-year-old Mill Creek native, who was coming off another year of demotions, offensive struggles and shaken confidence as a professional baseball player, jumped at the chance when Chicago White Sox hitting coach Greg Walker offered to give him a little extra tutoring last winter.
In November, Lillibridge left his Bothell home and flew to Burbank, Calif., where Walker met him at a batting cage run by friend of Walker’s. The three of them broke down every aspect of Lillibridge’s swing, then started rebuilding from the bottom up.
And thanks in large part to that session, and another in Burbank three months later, Lillibridge returned to his home state this week as confident as he’s ever been as a Major Leaguer.
“I’ve become an actual contributor to this offense, and I feel like I’ve earned it,” said Lillibridge, a former Jackson High School star who was hitting .423 with the White Sox before Wednesday’s game against the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field. “It’s been a true blessing. I don’t think I could’ve had a better June and July. If I didn’t do this whole crazy re-tool offensively, I don’t know where I’d be right now.”
Once considered a fountain of offensive potential, Lillibridge has seen his first six seasons of professional baseball get inundated with roster moves, underachievement and, eventually, a bad reputation for trying too hard to swing for the fences. Now with his third organization after being involved in two multi-player trades, Lillibridge hit .200 and .158, respectively, in his past two seasons as a Major League call-up.
But after getting only limited exposure to him at spring training of 2009, Walker saw something in Lillibridge’s swing that looked easily correctable. He believed bad mechanics, not a desire to hit a home run every time, was what led to Lillibridge’s over-swing approach. And so Walker, who lives in Georgia during the offseason, invited Lillibridge to meet him in Burbank, along with struggling White Sox outfielder Carlos Quentin.
A two-day session in November allowed Walker to break down Lillibridge’s swing in front of a video screen. He altered his grip, re-positioned his stance for better balance and worked on improving bat speed.
“It was an accumulation of things,” Lillibridge said. “It helps to see some results.”
Lillibridge returned to Burbank in February, putting in a few finishing touches on the eve of spring training. In between the sessions, he emailed video of his swing to Walker for further evaluation.
Lillibridge showed enough offensive potential while hitting .270 at Class AAA Charlotte that the White Sox called him up in early June. Since then, he’s gotten at least one hit in 10 of the 20 games he’s played, including seven of the nine games in which he appeared leading up to Wednesday’s contest against the Mariners. In the meantime, the White Sox have gone a Major League-best 30-13 since his call-up.
“It’s been fun,” he said. “I’ve never been on a team that’s won this much, almost every night.”
Walker said the key to the turnaround was Lillibridge’s willingness to improve.
“He was smart enough to realize he needed to make some changes,” Walker said. “It’s just the point he’s at in his career. Two years ago, he might not have been in the same frame of mind. But he was in the perfect stage, where he wanted to make changes. Then you have a chance.”
Before this season, Lillibridge was veering dangerously close to a road known as Journeyman Highway. His first six seasons as a professional included stops in nine cities, and he’s already been traded by the Pittsburgh Pirates — they drafted him in the fourth round of the 2005 amateur draft — and the Atlanta Braves.
“When you first get drafted, you think: This is my team; I’m going to ride it out to free agency,” Lillibridge said this week. “But here I am, I’ve already been traded twice. What I’ve learned is that the grass isn’t always greener. There’s not always a better opportunity somewhere else if you’re not doing all you can do to make yourself better.”
Walker is among those who have seen the improvements.
“Ever since he’s gotten here, he’s been really good for us,” Walker said. “He hasn’t gotten a lot of at-bats, but when he has, he’s been really good. He’s a talented guy, and now he’s got a real simple, mechanical swing. So it just comes down to the mental part of the game. There’s no reason he doesn’t play in this game for a long time.”
For now, Lillibridge is just happy to be back in the Seattle area. The former Jackson High star still calls the area home — he and wife Stephanie live in Bothell — and intends on living here year-round.
“I love it,” he said. “Being able to come here two years in a row, to come to Seattle and play, is a lot of fun. It’s a great stadium, a great atmosphere. And it’s fun to beat up on the Mariners every once in awhile.”
Had it not been for some winter tutoring, Lillibridge might not have made it back to Seattle as a big leaguer.
“That’s the best time to work on it,” Lillibridge said of his winter sessions with Walker. “There’s no pressure, so you can figure it out. By the time spring training comes around, you’re fighting for a job, so it’s hard to work on mechanics. So he went out of way to help me, and it’s paid dividends. I owe a lot to him.”
Walker was glad to help out.
“I know somebody would’ve done it for me,” he said. “That’s why I’m still in this business: because somebody did it for me.”