This year, despite their off-season purchase of Prince Fielder, the Detroit Tigers’ offense has often been disillusioning and perplexing. Regulars Delmon Young, Brennan Boesch, Alex Avila, and Jhonny Peralta have been insipid and sometimes painful to watch at the plate. Carried by disproportionating stars like Miguel Cabrera, Fielder, and Austin Jackson as well as a galvanizing serendipity in Quintin Berry, they’ve scored 459 runs, only seven more than the American League average. Their wild lineup inconsistency has caused fans to become covetous of long-injured hitters Victor Martinez and Andy Dirks.
Martinez continues to stagnate on the 60-day disabled list and his projected return date seems to grow more distant, so we should attempt to view that hypothetical comeback as manager Jim Leyland does: “strictly a bonus.” The wishful nature of penning Martinez’s name into a speculative September lineup has caused masses to pin their hopes for Detroit’s offensive resurgence on Dirks.
The 26-year-old outfielder, capable with both his left-handed bat and glove, acquired fame over the winter by delivering two game-winning hits for his winter league club, Leones del Escogido, during their run to a Dominican Republic Professional Baseball League championship and a subsequent victory in the Caribbean Series. The esteem Dirks gained from being dubbed a “Dominican Hero” was validated over the first two months of the major league season by an .894 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) over 37 games.
But a deeper look into Dirks’ history raises some questions about his new regard as a player whose addition will certainly aggrandize the Tigers’ offense. His only major league experience prior to this year consisted of 78 games in Detroit’s 2011 campaign, during which he batted a pedestrian .251 with an OPS of .703. An eight-round draft pick selected out of Wichita State University in 2008, Dirks never cracked a notable top prospects list and was always regarded as a high floor, low ceiling guy.
His minor league numbers, including a .290 average and a .778 OPS, are respectable and have been posted mostly at the higher levels of the Tigers’ system, but a player like Dirks shouldn’t expect to exceed his minor league performance in the big leagues—not by as much as he has lately. Sure enough, there’s evidence that this year’s small sample success was driven, to some extent, by batting average on balls in play (BABIP). That figure for this season is at .357, which far exceeds the .273 he posted in the majors last year and the .319 he’s had for his minor league career.
Conversely, you could support a claim that Dirks has simply made significant strides as a hitter in recent past. His xBABIP (expected batting average on balls in play, according to the formula found here) sits at .332, up from .295 last year, on the strength of a prodigious increase in line drive rate, from 18.9% to 26.1%. Further, his walk rate is up to 6.2% from 4.7% last year and his previously decent strikeout rate of 15.3% has dropped a few ticks to 12.3%, both encouraging signs of sustainable improvement.
Still, BABIP is hugely important in Dirks’ case because he puts the ball in play a lot (76.71% balls in play rate this year, higher than 65 of 79 qualified AL batters) and has only marginal home run power. Replacing his .357 BABIP with his .332 xBABIP, he would lose three of his 44 hits from his current line, a deprivation which sounds somewhat trivial until you consider that it would knock his current average down from .328 to .306 and his .379 on-base percentage (OBP) down to .359.
The latter numbers, a .306 average and a .359 OBP, are a lot closer to what we can expect for Dirks, assuming full health, when he comes back. If he can come anywhere close to that, he will, in fact, provide Detroit with a significant upgrade with the bat in addition to the great help he can provide on defense compared to the alternatives. Temper your expectations a bit, but Dirks, who could be up from his Toledo rehabilitation assignment any day now, should help this team considerably.