How Zach McKinstry went from ‘the kid in the dirty uniform’ to a productive Detroit Tiger

Detroit Free Press

What has changed in Zach McKinstry?

How did he become such an integral, productive member of the Detroit Tigers in such a short period of time?

It’s obvious to those who know him best.

“My wife and I talk about it all the time,” Alex McKinstry, Zach’s father, said. “He seems like a different kid now that he’s (in Detroit), mostly because he’s got a smile on his face. I think before he was always worried about going up (to the big leagues) and going down (to the minors), and what was going to happen. Then he would put pressure on himself in order to do well, and that was never good.”

But that has changed dramatically.

Suddenly, McKinstry is playing for a manager, not to mention an organization, that believes in him.

“It just feels like the manager has done a really good job of saying, ‘Hey, you’re our guy,’” Alex McKinstry said. “That’s the first guy who has really done that.”

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Call it the A.J. Hinch effect.

We don’t know what Hinch has told McKinstry in private moments.

But Hinch’s actions have spoken volumes.

Hinch has taken this player who was always the smallest kid on his travel teams growing up, wasn’t ranked in the top 20 in his high school class in Indiana by Perfect Game, was considered too small to play in the Big Ten, was drafted out of Central Michigan in the 33rd round (pick No. 1,001) by the Los Angeles Dodgers and traded by two organizations — in essence, after they had given up on him — and Hinch has pumped him up with confidence, playing him all over the field.

And McKinstry, acquired by the Tigers via trade just before the start of this season, has responded.

Entering Saturday’s game, McKinstry led the Tigers in on-base percentage (.364), OPS (.785) and was tied for first with five steals. He had the team’s second-highest batting average (.274) and was third in runs scored (15). He’s also third among Tigers position players in WAR and tied for fifth with three homers.

McKinstry has become so productive, so reliable, that he has become an effective leadoff hitter, lengthening the lineup.

But here’s the cool part. When I asked Hinch what has impressed him the most about McKinstry, Hinch didn’t mention any of the numbers.

Because the numbers are just a reflection of something deeper in Hinch’s eyes.

“His overall vibe as a player,” Hinch said. “It’s the consistency that he brings every day, not quite knowing where he’s going to play or not quite knowing how long he’s going to play or what his role is on this team (on any day). His kind of worker bee mentality has been very, very good from day one. The more I’m around him, the more I understand it’s part of his overall demeanor. It’s not something he’s trying to be; it’s just kind of who he is. He does his part. He’s got a pretty quick wit; he’s a pretty even-keeled guy, he is very selfless. He’ll do whatever we ask: One day it’s right field, one day it’s second, one day it’s third, the next day it’s on the bench. I think his consistency and his approach — and that can be life approach to hitting approach — has impressed me.”

So yes, McKinstry is smiling.

Because he’s finally playing on a team that believes in him.

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A lesson for everybody

I love McKinstry’s story.

Everything he represents.

And I love the message it sends to young players, not just in baseball, but in every sport, in every walk of life.

As Hinch said, the impressive part is his “life approach.”

So here are the life lessons every young player can learn from McKinstry:

Don’t pay any attention to all those prospect rankings.

Don’t worry if you are the smallest guy on your team.

Don’t worry if you don’t get picked to be on the best travel team.

Don’t listen to those who don’t believe in you.

Don’t give up when somebody gives up on you.

Don’t get discouraged when others have a far easier path.

Don’t freak out if you start out on the bench.

Don’t let anybody label you — for years, McKinstry would get passed over because, well, he was a 33rd-rounder.

Just prove them wrong.

Keep plugging away, getting dirty.

“If there is any way to explain Zach, he just always wanted to be the dirtiest kid when he got off the field,” Alex McKinstry said. “He was always that guy that wanted to be known as the hardest worker, the toughest guy and with the dirtiest uniform.”

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Proving them wrong

McKinstry has faced so many slights during his career that they are too numerous to mention here.

During different times in his career, he’s had coaches tell him: “You are going to be the next one called up.”

And then, he wasn’t.

He’s had a member of an organization say: “They just don’t believe in you.”

“It crushed his confidence,” his father said.

That’s why it’s significant that Hinch is so honest and direct with his players, in everything he does, not just his words but his actions.

“I’ll praise A.J. Hinch for life,” Alex McKinstry said. “You can see right now that somebody has said, ‘I believe in you,’ for the first time, really. Even the Cubs were, ‘Yeah, we believe in you.’ But then they go out and they trade and spend all this money to not believe in him.”

At the end of spring training, when the Tigers traded with the Cubs for McKinstry, it offered a sudden fresh start.

“Coming over here was pretty cool,” Zach McKinstry said. “I didn’t really know anything about anybody here because we don’t play the Tigers very often. But it couldn’t be a better group of guys.”

Instead of being labeled as the 33rd-round pick and being told — “Oh, you can’t play as well as a first-rounder!” — he’s being judged by what he does on the field.

And he’s played so well that he has forced Hinch to play him even more. Confidence can be like jet fuel, and it’s lifting McKinstry to new heights. This is a guy who hit .199 last year for two teams and is suddenly playing with a smile instead of being weighted down with worry and uncertainty.

“It’s been a lot of fun getting to know these guys,” McKinstry said. “There’s a lot of ups and downs and this team is pretty consistent on how they handle their ups and handle their downs. It’s a lot of fun.”

McKinstry has a laid-back personality.

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His parents have to drill him with questions to get more than a one-word answer out of him.

But don’t let that fool you.

He’s got a fire burning inside him. He’s got a long memory of everybody who doubted him, everybody who slammed a door in his face, everybody who gave up on him, everybody who passed him by in the draft.

Which is everybody.

“He’s never going to say it,” his father said. “He’s never going to show it. But in the back of his head, there’s always that thought: ‘I remember when they sent me back to Low-A after I did all this stuff. And they still sent me back.’

“He remembers that. It’s in the back of his head. You’re never gonna hear him say it. He’s gonna smile in front of folks and say the right stuff. But deep down, when he’s taking cuts on a Tuesday in January, that’s what he’s thinking about. Or when he’s in the weight room, lifting weights, that’s what he’s thinking about.”

More Seidel: Why these Detroit Tigers prospects have a rock-star feel: They can hit, and they can win

Talk to any successful athlete and you hear the same thing. They use any slight, whether it’s real or just perceived, as fuel.

For McKinstry, it’s all real.

The smallest kid on the team, the one with the dirty uniform, after so many gave up on him; yes, that kid, he’s played so well that he just keeps getting more time.

What a wonderful testament to hard work and determination and refusing to quit.

Representing some of the most important lessons in sports.

So, heck yes, he’s smiling more.

Contact Jeff Seidel at jseidel@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.

To read Seidel’s recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.

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1 Comment

  1. Wonderful Young Man, And a very talented, personable Detroit tiger; that is my Family’ s fav. “Zach Mckinistry”

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