Early in the season -- and I truly hate to bring this up -- the Tigers were, er, not so good. At least, not good compared to the expectations many (most? all?) of us had before the season. There were holes all over the lineup as players failed to meet expectations.
Then there was Andy Dirks. After last season he appeared to be at best a fourth or fifth outfielder, as he batted just .256 (.291 OBP) while his fielding was a bit disappointing. When he headed to the Dominican Winter League and caught fire, you could only hope he could somehow ride that streak into 2012.
He did just that, until an Achilles injury knocked him to the disabled list in late May. At that time he was batting .328 with .379 OBP and .515 slugging. He'd moved up in the batting order from the eighth or ninth position at the start of the year to the second spot in early May.
If Dirks could return from injury batting that well, there would be no need for the Tigers to go out and find a player to trade for. The problem was, Dirks' injury just kept lingering, frustrating him as much as everyone else. One day he added a walking boot. Then his return went from late June to the All-Star Break to who knows when.
Dirks was back in the Tigers' lineup on Aug. 3. Since then, he has six hits in 11 at bats, including a three-hit performance on Tuesday. He has scored three runs and he has driven in four. In the field, manager Jim Leyland has used him in both corner outfield positions.
With Dirks, the nagging doubt that his true talent might be closer to his 2011 figures than 2012 always remains for me. However, there might be reason to believe he can continue at this rate -- just as the Tigers need.
For instance, his isolated power (ISO) of .179 is in line with his figures from the past few years. He's also been making solid contact this year, as you can see in his 27.9 line drive percentage. Those line drives have been coming in place of the fly balls he hit last year. I would caution against predicting Dirks will continue that line drive rate for years to come. Often times when there's a sudden jump one year it's followed by a drop the next. But as Austin Jackson showed in 2010, it is possible for a player to remain hot throughout the rest of the season. Maybe that will be the case with Dirks.
Even if he does suffer a bit of regression during the final two months of the year -- his ZiPS projection is .273 / .319 / .414 (Fangraphs) and I feel like there's reason to doubt his BABIP will plunge that hard -- he'll still be putting up pretty solid numbers compared to the level of production the Tigers saw in the corners for most of the season or compared to what they might have expected from other players. Quintin Berry has come back to earth with a .642 OPS during the past 28 days, for instance. Brennan Boesch's entire career has been streaky. The added depth can only help.
The emergence of Andy Dirks this season -- and his continued success after returning from his injury -- could be a key in rescuing what some thought could be a disappointingly lost season.