Swiping bags: Tigers’ Zach McKinstry starting to tap into his disruptive ways on the bases

Detroit News

Detroit — The Tigers were holding on to a skinny one-run lead Tuesday night and the top of the Cubs order was coming up in the top of the ninth. A tack-on run would be very comforting.

Zach McKinstry got hit by a pitch to start the bottom of the eighth. When he promptly stole second base, it completely changed the inning. It took the double play off the table and it put reliever Jose Cuas, shaky already, in obvious distress.

He ended up walking the bases loaded and then hitting Kerry Carpenter to force in the insurance run.

McKinstry reached base in the bottom of the ninth Wednesday. It was a much different situation — the Tigers trailed 6-4 — but, again, his presence added another layer of stress on Cubs closer Adbert Alzolay.

With one out, McKinstry singled Parker Meadows to third base. And even though he represented the tying run, McKinstry was able to swipe second base without a throw. It gave the Tigers two chances to tie the game with a base hit.

Alzolay was up for the challenge, though, punching out Andy Ibanez and Jake Rogers.

Still, it’s clear why that disruptive base running element that McKinstry, Akil Baddoo, Javier Báez and others provide is something manager AJ Hinch and president Scott Harris are trying to build into the club’s offensive profile.

“Zach is part of an athletic team that we’re trying to build to put pressure on the other side,” Hinch said. “And he wants to run even more than we let him, honestly.”

McKinstry has stolen a career-high 15 bases in 18 attempts this season. The number of attempts is low for several reasons. For one, he wasn’t getting on base much in June and July. He went through a 180-plate appearance stretch where he hit .199 with a .235 on-base percentage. Proven fact: You can’t steal a base if you don’t get on base.

Secondly, when he was leading off and getting on base at a .400 clip in April and May, he had left-handed swinging Riley Greene hitting behind him. There weren’t many green lights in that scenario. With the first baseman holding McKinstry, the Tigers wanted Greene to have that extra space to pull the ball through the right side.

It was never about Hinch not trusting McKinstry on the bases.

“We like his speed and his instincts on the bases are good,” Hinch said. “He reads (pitchers’) moves well. He reads subtle things like when guys move their elbows before they move their feet so he can get even a better jump than if he was just looking at the pitcher’s feet.”

That part of it, the baseball part of it, McKinstry said, is second nature. The base-stealing instincts are part of his baseball DNA. Even if they haven’t, until now, been fully exploited. The other part, though, the speed component, that’s been hard-earned. And he leaned on a couple of former football players to set him right.

“Five years ago when I was moved to the 40-man roster (with the Dodgers), I hit up one of my buddies who played football at Indiana University,” McKinstry said. “I said, ‘Hey man, I’m trying to get faster. It’s part of my game I really need to work on and improve and help me get to the next level.’”

His buddy from Fort Wayne, Donovan Clark, played cornerback at Indiana. He immediately went to work on McKinstry’s running mechanics, which, at that time, were raw, to say the least.

“We went to a park and he videotaped me running and started breaking it down,” McKinstry said. “He showed me all the different parts of running. It’s almost like a swing. There’s so much to it, so many moving parts.

“It’s something he really got me interested in. I started pulling up Instagram videos of U.S. Olympic runners and sprinters and really studied them. Working with (Clark), I could really understand what I was watching.”

What stuck out to him about those Olympic-level sprinters was the length of their strides, how it was almost like their feet weren’t touching the track. They were so smooth but yet so powerful.

“I worked hard on staying low and getting those long strides,” he said. “A lot of people think about more strides. But the longer your stride is early, the more you are pushing to gain distance and ground. And then it’s like that cycle, push then pull, push and pull.”

Still, there was no evidence he’d be a base stealer early in his pro career. He stole 16 bags at Central Michigan one season but he didn’t do much of it through the minor leagues. He was good at it, but didn’t do it much.

In Double-A and Triple-A in 2019, he was 8-for-9 in swiping bags.

The breakthrough came after he was traded to the Cubs last season and he hooked up with one of the team’s strength coaches. College football fans may know the name: Mark Weisman. As in Weisman for Heisman, who rushed for 2,602 career yards at Iowa.

He saw McKinstry go 7-for-7 in stolen base attempts for the Cubs last season and was itching to help him tap into that asset.

“I starting working with him this offseason,” McKinstry said. “He has this machine, the 1080.”

The 1080 Motion is a computer-controlled resistance system. McKinstry would tie the cord onto his waist and do a battery of sprints three or four times a week. It essentially does for runners, in terms of collecting data, what TrackMan does for pitchers.

“It basically times every step,” McKinstry said. “You can see every step on an iPad. It tells you how much you are pushing out, how much force you’re putting into it, every step. It shows you where you are losing momentum.”

The 1080 showed McKinstry that he was losing force on his third step.

“So I started focusing on that and making sure I would keep gaining ground and keep going,” he said. “By the end of the offseason, I was pushing the top of the organization with Nico Hoerner. We’d be measured in 10-yard increments and I was at the top of the organization with that.”

Presently, his average sprint speed ranks in the top 79 percentile in baseball. And even if it seems counterintuitive, he’s gotten faster as he’s gotten older. His sprint speed in 2021 when he was 26 years old was 27.9 feet per second. After working with Clark and Weisman, his sprint speed now at age 28 is 28.4 feet per second.

His time from home to first has improved, as well, from 4.31 seconds in 2021 to 4.26 seconds this season.

“It’s just something I knew was going to be important for me,” McKinstry said. “And once I started diving in, I really got into the mechanics of it. It’s pretty fun.”

There was a time not that long ago when the Tigers were a slow, slugging, station-to-station baseball team. Right now, they have eight players with above-average sprint speed: Matt Vierling (93 percentile), Baddoo (92), Meadows (84, short sample), McKinstry (79), Greene (75), Báez (74), Zack Short (72) and Carpenter (70).

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

On deck: Astros

Series: Three games at Comerica Park, Detroit

First pitch: Friday — 6:40 p.m.; Saturday — 6:10 p.m.; Sunday — 1:40 p.m.

TV/radio: All three games on BSD/97.1

Probables: Friday — LHP Framber Valdez (9-9, 3.55) vs. RHP Matt Manning (5-4, 4.31); Saturday — RHP Hunter Brown (9-9, 4.50) vs. LHP Eduardo Rodriguez (9-6, 3.03); Sunday — RHP Justin Verlander (9-6, 3.19) vs. RHP Alex Faedo (2-4, 4.91)

Valdez, Astros: He’s scuffled a bit since he threw a no-hitter against Cleveland on Aug. 1. In his last three starts he’s allowed 15 earned runs and five home runs in 19⅔ innings. Opponents are hitting .308 and slugging .603 against him in those three outings. He’s not been throwing his cutter much recently and his curveball and changeup, nasty weapons for him, have been getting hit hard.

Manning, Tigers: After a bit of a stumble earlier this month, he’s starting to unlock his full, four-pitch repertoire. He’s allowed just one earned run in his last two starts covering 11⅓ innings. Both the Red Sox and Guardians stacked their lineups with left-handed hitters and Manning, still pitching off his long-extension fastball, effectively countered with a much-improved changeup. He wasn’t using that pitch hardly at all earlier. The last two games, hitters were 1-for-8 against it.

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