What McKinstry brings to top of Tigers' order

May 30th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Jason Beck’s Tigers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

DETROIT -- Tigers president of baseball operations Scott Harris sounded bold in March when he discussed acquiring Zach McKinstry from the Cubs.

“Zach has dominated Minor League pitching since 2018,” Harris said after the deal. “He has a strong track record of controlling the strike zone, and he plays above-average defense at multiple spots around the diamond. That performance hasn’t translated to the big leagues yet.

“He’s not the first prospect that has raked in the Minor Leagues and struggled to translate that performance in the first 300 or so plate appearances in the big leagues. He won’t be the last. We think we can build an environment that can maximize his chances of translating that performance to the big leagues here in Detroit, and we intend to do that.”

Two months later, that assessment looks spot on. Yet, if McKinstry was compelled to fit the strike-zone-control philosophy Harris and manager A.J. Hinch have preached all year, it doesn’t sound intentional.

“I mean, that’s awesome,” McKinstry said Sunday. “I didn’t know that, but it’s definitely a good feeling if they’re preaching that.”

McKinstry’s .412 on-base percentage would rank second among American League hitters if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. His walk rate ranks among the top five percent of Major League hitters, according to Statcast, while his whiff rate ranks in the top 17 percent.

McKinstry has reached base safely in 15 of his last 25 plate appearances, including every other plate appearance for the last two games. He tormented White Sox pitching last weekend by going 6-for-12 with six walks, two doubles, a home run and five runs scored.

Yet the Tigers supposedly didn’t tell him to be an on-base machine.

“Ironically one of the things that we told him when he went to the top of the order,” said Hinch, “was, ‘You don't have to change a thing. We don't want you to try to draw a walk. We don't want you to try to be patient hitter or try to be an ambush hitter. We just want you to be you.'

“When he's bounced around from team to team before us, he's tried to fit a mold. He tried to fill a role that the team wanted him to be, whether it's power, whether it's try not to strike out or try to be a certain style hitter. Just be you. And ironically, the leadoff spot where you would want the most walks or the zone-control guy, he's been that way.”

McKinstry is more than an on-base guy. He’s hitting .296 with seven doubles and four homers, and his metrics suggest he should be even better. His barrel rate is just outside the top quarter of MLB hitters. He’s crushing fastballs for a higher average and exit velocity than even his Dodgers days, but he’s hitting breaking balls as well.

“I feel like whenever I play consistently throughout my career, that’s kind of what I fade towards the most,” he said. “I definitely ride that approach and just keep having good at-bats and hit the ball hard.”

So, what he does think when he draws a tough walk?

“That I missed the fastball,” he joked. “But, I mean, it’s a good thing to have in your back pocket, to be able to get on first base for those guys behind you. But at the end of the day, we’re trying to put the ball in play.”