With 12 days left until Spring Training, we're going to get the last bit of controversy out of the way early. Andy Dirks, he of the endless left field debate -- well, until people decided that Jhonny Peralta was no longer an adequate shortstop -- is today's topic of discussion.
What happened last season?
Dirks gave a figurative middle finger to everyone who said that he was only a fourth outfielder with a spectacular, albeit limited 2012 season. He hit .322/.370/.487 in 88 games with 31 extra base hits and 56 runs scored. While Dirks' numbers suggest that he was a decent table-setter, his best stats came when he was hitting lower in the order. Dirks hit a whopping .415/.419/.585 as the #6 hitter in 2012 -- although in only 12 games -- a role that I wouldn't mind seeing him reprise in 2013.
The interesting thing about Dirks' platoon splits isn't that he hit right-handed pitchers much better than lefties in 2012, it's how he achieved those splits. Dirks hit .274/.354/.397 off of left-handed pitchers in 83 plate appearances last season. Granted, this is a very small sample size, but I would take those numbers* in a heartbeat from any left fielder on the roster not named Avisail Garcia.
*Yes, I realize that Brennan Boesch would have to hit roughly .340 to have an on-base percentage of .354, but that's not the point.
Oh yeah, and he also did this.
What needs to happen in 2013?
I think it's safe to say that Dirks won't hit .322 again next season, but his other trends were very encouraging. Dirks increased his walk rate from 4.7% in 2011 to 6.7% in 2012. Another increase would be nice, but avoiding regression in this area is crucial, especially if his power dips. Dirks had an ISO of .166 last year, a slight improvement over his .155 from 2011. However, this jump in ISO doesn't exactly translate to an 81-point leap in slugging percentage, leading me to believe that we will see a slightly lower figure from Dirks in 2013.
Dirks' career splits against lefties suggest that he could perform well in a full-time role, but there are two reasons why I'm hesitant to get too excited about this idea. Dirks only has 114 career plate appearances against lefties, which means that (a) clearly, the coaching staff doesn't like using him against lefties, and (b) SMALL SAMPLE SIZE. Unless Jim Leyland is forced to use Dirks against lefties due to injuries and/or ineffectiveness of other outfielders -- and let's face it, the latter option is the more likely -- I would expect Dirks to be used in a platoon role at the beginning of the season.
Also, expect Dirks to be running more in 2012. I'd go into more, but I don't want to ruin any potential fluff pieces about the new baserunning guru during Spring Training. My bet is that we see 10-15 steals from Dirks this year, especially if he is hitting 8th or 9th in the batting order.
2012 stats and 2013 Bill James projections
The part where I predict pretty much the same thing Bill James does
If Dirks aficionados are going to be pleased with any of the projections above, it should be the 132 games played. While there has been plenty of bickering this offseason about whether Dirks is a legitimate starter or better suited for a platoon role, I don't think anyone would balk at the idea of Dirks putting up those numbers while playing in 80% of the Tigers' games this year. Honestly, if he performs like that, there should be some questions as to why he's not playing more often, not less. If Dirks can continue to hit lefties like he has in his first two seasons, I don't see why he won't be penciled into the lineup on a daily basis.