April 15, 2013 at 1:00 am

Kurt Mensching

Tigers' Martinez, Dirks and Avila haven't been up to par at plate

Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez has no extra-base hits this season. (Robin Buckson/Detroit News)

The Tigers have started the season well, but there's no denying they've missed opportunities to win more games during the first two weeks.

It would be easy to blame the bullpen for all the team's woes. But that's only part of the story.

In their five losses so far, the Tigers scored two runs twice and were shut out once.

"Well, if Ol' Smokey didn't play his buddies Don Kelly and Ramon Santiago so much, maybe they'd score some runs," would likely be the gut reaction of some.

It's fair to say that's part of the story. But if you want to know what has truly cost the Tigers, it's not Kelly or Santiago in the lineup.

It's Victor Martinez, Andy Dirks and Alex Avila -- and if their struggles continue, it's going to be a lot harder to replace any of them.

Troublesome trio

Martinez, the No. 5 hitter, is batting .146 with no extra-base hits and a .265 on-base percentage.

Following him in the lineup is usually Dirks, with a .194 average and .316 OBP. Drop down to the No. 8 spot and you'll find Avila at a .194 average and .233 OBP.

The bottom half of the Tigers' lineup has not taken advantage of the opportunities Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder have given it.

Santiago and Kelly may make convenient targets -- and each has done little in the lineup to justify much playing time -- but blame so far has to be placed on the everyday starters who struggled to open the season.

It's definitely too early to ring the alarm bell on Martinez, Dirks and Avila.

The reason we can say that is our old friend BABIP -- batting average on balls in play.

This early in the season, putting too much emphasis on stats can be dangerous. A nice play or two turned by fielders, a bad call by the ump or a poor decision by a scorekeeper will show up more now than it would later in the year.

Short of any visual clues the trio are simply overpowered at the plate, and there haven't been any, BABIP might explain why the trio's stats haven't been up to par this year.

That stat basically tells you what it sounds like: what a player's batting average is when the ball stays in play.

Different types of batters will have BABIP fall in different areas.

Speedy, line-drive hitters tend to be able to carry a higher BABIP. Think Jackson, whose career BABIP is .372 according to Fangraphs.com.

A player like Adam Dunn who hits a lot of fly balls and home runs will lag behind with a career .287 BABIP.

Our trio of Martinez, Dirks and Avila all have BABIP figures about 100 points worse than their career norms, so you have to expect better output by each player going forward.

Fly, fly away

Still, it's not completely luck-driven.

Martinez and Avila have seen spikes in their fly-ball rate compared to their career averages, and subsequently both have hit fewer liners.

Martinez entered play Sunday with a fly ball rate of 51 percent, compared to a career average closer to 36 percent.

Avila this season has hit fly balls 48 percent of the time compared to a similar career average of 36 percent.

If those two can straighten things out, it'll contribute positively, especially for Martinez, who has yet to hit a home run.

Dirks' problem has been just the opposite. His fly ball rate is 19 percent, but he's hit ground balls 62 percent of the time -- and he doesn't have the speed to beat those out all that often.

Entering Sunday, he had not yet turned a single fly ball into a hit.

Once this trio gets back on track, and they will, it's going to be hard keeping this Tigers lineup off the board.

Then you can get back to worrying about the bullpen.

Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at bybtigers@gmail.com.

More Kurt Mensching