What To Do With Alex Liddi
Eric Wedge has been talking about trying to get Alex Liddi into the line-up more often, even experimenting with him in the outfield – a position he had never played before this season. Today, Liddi was inserted into left field even with a right-hander on the mound, and he rewarded the team with a grand slam, essentially ensuring that he’ll be in the line-up again tomorrow.
But the question is where? Once again, the Mariners are going to be facing a right-handed pitcher, so giving Seager or Ackley a day off (which opens up third base and is the simplest way to get Liddi at-bats) is probably off the table. With Jason Vargas on the mound, playing left field should be a non-starter, as Vargas needs all the outfield defense he can get – especially in Safeco – and as Liddi showed today, he’s an adventure out there right now.
So, in reality, there are three options:
1. DH him. This is the easy answer, as it doesn’t require any kind of defensive gymnastics in order to get him in the line-up, and with John Jaso taking a foul ball off his shoulder on Monday, the team has a built-in excuse to give him another day off and keep Montero behind the plate. Of course, they may not want Montero to have to catch a third straight game, and Jaso has been the team’s best hitter against right-handed pitchers this year. If Jaso is physically able to play, the team would have a better chance of winning with him in the line-up. Benching Montero is an option, but he’s supposed to be a franchise building block, and he just got a couple of days off last week. So, while this is the easy option, it doesn’t come without its own set of problems.
2. Play him at first base. While Justin Smoak got a few hits in New York last week, he hasn’t done a whole lot since, and he’s still looking pretty lost at the plate on most nights. Liddi has experience at first and another night off wouldn’t kill Smoak, especially against a guy who throws a lot of bendy pitches that Smoak has so many problems with. I don’t think the club is near giving up on Smoak yet, but he’s played poorly enough that taking him out of the line-up for a night isn’t a big deal.
3. Play him at shortstop. Wedge has talked about getting Liddi some time at short, but this isn’t the night to do it. With a left-handed starter facing a predominantly right-handed line-up, there are going to be a lot of ground balls to the left side, and replacing Brendan Ryan with Alex Liddi is just not fair to Jason Vargas. If you’re going to start Liddi at shortstop, you need to do it when a righty takes the mound. I know there’s still a few of you out there who think Ryan’s offensive struggles mean he should be on the bench, but in reality, his defense at shortstop is valuable enough to support even a weak bat, and his ability to draw walks means that he’s not the offensive liability that his batting average suggests. If the team ends up trading Ryan, then maybe you experiment with Liddi there in the second half, but right now, the team is best served with Ryan playing shortstop – especially when there’s a lefty on the mound.
So, it’s 1B or DH, with either Smoak or Jaso being the most likely to be displaced in order to give Liddi another shot. However, that’s just one game, and doesn’t really answer the question about what the team should do with Liddi over the rest of the season.
I’m sure there’s going to be some sentiment that he’s done enough to earn regular playing time, regardless of who has to sit in order to make it happen. After all, he’s hitting .273/.333/.455, good for a 120 wRC+, which would make him the team’s best hitter if he could sustain that kind of performance over the whole season. However, despite his strong overall line, Liddi’s performing pretty much dead on preseason expectations in the core metrics that project future performance.
Here’s what the ZIPS projections forecasted for Liddi before the season began:
7.6% BB%, 29.5% K%, .158 ISO
Now, here’s what Liddi is actually doing in those three categories:
8.3% BB%, 29.8% K%, .182 ISO
Liddi’s walking and striking out at almost exactly the rates that ZIPS suggested we should have expected, and if that fly ball to left today would have hit the top of the wall instead of going over it, his ISO would be almost exactly the same as well. ZIPS has basically nailed Liddi’s skillset to a tee. So, why is he posting a .341 wOBA instead of the .298 mark that ZIPS projected? His BABIP is .367, the highest mark on the team by over 50 points.
Hitters have more control over their hit rates on balls in play than pitchers do, but there’s still no real predictive ability in a hitter’s BABIP over smaller samples. We saw this exact same thing from Mike Carp last year, actually, as he posted a 117 wRC+ on the strength of a .343 BABIP that masked a poor BB/K rate. While people tried to justify the mark as evidence that Carp just hit the ball hard a lot (the standard explanation for any BABIP variance), there wasn’t much evidence to suggest that Carp would be able to keep hitting balls to fall in that often, and sure enough, he’s been bitten by the regression fairy to start the 2012 season.
Liddi’s performance so far this year is a near mirror for what Carp did last summer, and just like that performance shouldn’t have gotten you too excited, neither should this one. That’s not to say that Liddi’s not useful, or that he should never play, but he’s not really doing anything that should make us rethink our opinion of his ability to produce at the big league level. After showing some better contact rates in April, he’s been the same swing-and-miss guy that he’s always been in May, and there’s not enough there to offset the lack of contact to make him an impact bat.
Liddi should play against left-handers and perhaps pinch-hit for Brendan Ryan in certain situations, but he’s not a guy that the team should be looking at rearranging the roster to get into the line-up everyday. Unless he can significantly increase the rate at which he puts bat on ball, he’s probably going to top out as a nice role player, and right now, he’s just stuck behind players who are simply better than he is – or, in Justin Smoak’s case, should be.