Andy Dirks has jumped out to a pretty good start with the bat this season. He’s collected nine hits in 32 at-bats for a rather good .281 batting average. His contact ability and low strikeout rate (just 9.1% this year) appear to make him a prime candidate to hit at the top of the lineup (perhaps number two behind Austin Jackson), but Dirks’ inability to draw a walk would be a hindrance to the club in that position.
Dirks has drawn a walk in only 4.1% of his plate appearances in his major league career (none yet this season). That rate is about half that of what a league average hitter would draw. If he continues his career with that type of a walk rate, then he would need to be a .290-.300 hitter in order to maintain an on-base percentage in the .330-.340 range that’s considered to be league average.
But in order to maintain that type of batting average, even with his fairly low 14.6% career strikeout rate, Dirks would have to maintain a BABIP in the .335-.340 range. That’s not impossibly high, but only 47 players have maintained a career BABIP at or above .335 since 1990. That’s only 4.6% of all batters that have played in that timeframe.
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It’s easy to get stuck on batting averages when players seem to be hitting well, but the real name of the game, especially for a ‘table-setting’ number one or number two hitter, is on-base percentage. Here’s what I mean: Alex Avila
walks at an above average rate. He seems to be struggling at the plate a bit this year with only a .220 batting average, but his on-base percentage is .303. That’s not a particularly good OBP, but it’s not awful considering how bad his batting average is. I’ve already mentioned Dirks’ .281 average, which is well above the league average rate (typically around .250 or .255), but his OBP is the same sub-par .303. That’s worse than the OBP Austin Jackson put up while racking up all those strikeouts a season ago (his was .317)*.
*Some folks I talk to think on-base percentage is only good for Brad Pitt movies about the Oakland A’s, but it’s a far better metric than batting average for a top of the order hitter. Because what OBP tells us is quite simply this: how often a player doesn’t make an out when he comes to the plate. And that’s what we want to know. How often is he on base, and not on the bench, when the big boppers come up to bat.
Dirks' batting profile isn't necessarily similar to that of Delmon Young (Dirks strikes out a bit less), but they share a similarly low walk rate (and good contact skills). Young steps up to the plate with intent to swing, and while his career .287 batting average suggests that he's a pretty good hitter, his .321 OBP tells us that he's below average when it comes to avoiding outs.
It’s obviously too early in the season (and too early in his career) to pass final judgment on Dirks as a low-OBP player, but he’s going to have limited value as a hitter if he can’t find the patience to draw more than the occasional walk.
Matt Snyder is the editor of The Tigers Den. He can be reached on Twitter @snyder_matthew.