TORONTO — Zack Short took so many early batting practice swings one afternoon during the Tigers’ recent homestand, his hands had to be hurting. He began with a nearly empty stadium and finally ended when the rest of the team needed to get its swings in.
All that work seemed worth it in the Tigers’ eventual 4-1 win over the Blue Jays on Friday, as Short hit a leadoff single off Robbie Ray and eventually scored the tying run.
“It’s nice to see results, even though they’re not resulting in hits for the most part,” Short said. “Seeing the flight is better. Even in batting practice, it’s better. It’s rewarding to work on something like that, even during the game, especially at the highest level, to see some changes. Obviously there’s a long way to go, but I can’t credit [hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh] enough. It’s been awesome.”
Few players take struggles harder than the 26-year-old Short, who has worked hard to counter the stereotype of a defense-first shortstop. He was a three-true-outcomes type of hitter for most of his way up the Cubs’ system, providing a surprising amount of home run power and balancing a high strikeout walk with a similarly strong amount of walks. He fanned 136 times in 524 plate appearances at Double-A Tennessee in 2018, but also slugged 17 homers and drew 82 walks.
Short talked about trying to hit for better contact after the Tigers acquired him from the Cubs last summer at the Trade Deadline, but the results didn’t change dramatically. Then came his first Major League callup and a home run binge in Detroit.
At one point, more than half of Short’s plate appearances in Detroit were ending in a home run, walk or strikeout. Then came an 0-for-30 slump from July 28 until Aug. 14 that included four walks and 13 strikeouts.
“Even in my career, it’s been .232 [pro batting average] or whatever,” he said. “And it’s like I’m very streaky, where I’ll get hits in bunches but then I’ll go 0-for-a-month. And that doesn’t play. It’s tough where it got to the point where it was a month or month-plus where it’s like I couldn’t even walk. I was swinging at everything. First time in the big leagues and you’re trying to swing your way out of it as opposed to still having that same approach, seeing your pitches.
“I would swing at the rosin bag. If you would throw me something, I was swinging at it as soon as I saw it down in the zone. Even if it’s a slider that’s bouncing, I’m trying to yank it somewhere. And the last two weeks or so, I’ve been trying to be more [hitting to right-center]. Even though they haven’t been hits, there’s been a lot of line drives.”
Short’s swing is more compact now, with less of a loop. He’s trying to punch at the ball a little more, keeping his arms tight. The trick for Short, and the reason behind all the extra swings, is finding the balance between staying on top of the ball and not pounding the ball into the ground.
“It’s uncomfortable sometimes when it’s in the big leagues that you’re doing it, and everybody’s watching,” he said. “Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, this guy can’t hit.’ But when you’re trying to change at the highest level, it’s hard.”
Short is making those changes in the Majors because his defense is valuable enough to exercise patience. He started three inning-ending double plays Friday, including one to send the game to extra innings. He also had an acrobatic throw from the hole to take a hit away from Lourdes Gurriel Jr. in the sixth inning.
It was Short’s second incredible performance this season on turf, following up a similar game last month in Texas. It’s a faster surface than the grass at Comerica Park, but Short said it reminds him of the turf he played on in high school and college.