Detroit Tigers’ Zach McKinstry takes over at shortstop because Javier Báez needs mental reset

Detroit Free Press

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Zach McKinstry, a left-handed hitter, joined the Detroit Tigers before Opening Day with expectations of playing third base and second base in matchups against right-handed pitchers.

But McKinstry has played all over the field.

The 28-year-old has logged more innings in right field than any other position, but for Monday’s series opener against the Kansas City Royals, the Tigers started McKinstry at shortstop — replacing Javier Báez — for the third time this season.

Báez said he requested an off day to “clear my mind” amid season-long struggles.

“He’s so valuable to us,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said of McKinstry. “Not just because he can go stand there, but he’s actually pretty good at (shortstop). He’s good at these positions. … He doesn’t ask a lot of questions. He’s not very high-maintenance about it. He does prepare and get his work done, which is not easy to do when you’re playing virtually every day.”

McKinstry, who has appeared in 84 of the Tigers’ 92 games, is hitting .246 with six home runs, 28 walks and 60 strikeouts, plus 12 stolen bases in 13 attempts. His defensive versatility, even when he slumps, keeps him in the lineup and allows him to make adjustments at the plate.

McKinstry is playing more in the big leagues than ever before in his young career. He has accrued 294 plate appearances with the Tigers this season, nearly as many as the 364 plate appearances in his first three MLB seasons combined with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago Cubs.

“I have a good, open communication with the training staff,” McKinstry said, when asked about staying healthy. “The wear and tear, we’re making sure that we’re staying on top of that, and then also in the weight room, I’m making sure I let them know how my body is feeling.”

The Tigers planned to keep Báez out of the lineup for Thursday’s finale of the four-game series against the Royals as a scheduled off day, but Báez — struggling to recognize pitches and hit the ball — asked if he could spend Monday’s series opener working in the batting cage.

So, Hinch changed the plan.

“He told me take the day today and switch it with the other one (the scheduled off day),” Báez said. “I said, ‘Yeah, I’m fine with that.’ I’m going to clear my mind and restart with the approach again.”

Báez is hitting .220 with six home runs, 13 walks and 84 strikeouts in 88 games this season, posting a .575 OPS. His 57 wRC+ ranks second-to-last, ahead of only Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson, among 150 qualified position players.

He will be available to pinch-hit Monday before returning to the starting lineup Tuesday against Royals left-hander Daniel Lynch.

“I just got to make adjustments,” Báez said. “I got to play better. The boys are playing good.”

The problem: Báez is hitting .192 with a 27.9% whiff rate on four-seam fastballs inside the strike zone. Almost every four-seamer that he hits in the air has traveled to right field, meaning his swing is late.

(For comparison, McKinstry is hitting .259 with a 12.6% whiff rate on four-seam fastballs inside the strike zone.)

The 30-year-old, a right-handed hitter, also owns a .169 batting average with one home run and a 34.4% whiff rate against all four-seam fastballs, both inside the strike zone and outside of the strike zone.

He chases too many down-and-away sliders, as well.

“I think some of that is mechanical and him getting in a good position,” Hinch said. “I think the majority of it is trying to cover every bit of the strike zone and areas around the strike zone at the same time. Once we can get his mentality to shift, to stick with his plan, it can click for him. When he gets hot, he gets white-hot. That’s obviously something we’re looking for.”

Riley rakes vs. Royals

Entering Monday, Riley Greene has at least one hit in all 18 games against the Royals throughout his two-year career. He has a .324 batting average with two home runs, 10 walks and 23 strikeouts in those 18 games, with an .891 OPS.

Greene has played in five games — but only two games in center field — since his return from a stress reaction in his left fibula. The 22-year-old isn’t expected to start Tuesday as the Tigers ease him back into a full workload.

He is hitting .333 with one home run, three walks and seven strikeouts over those five games, with the Tigers going 3-2.

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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