Detroit — As Tigers’ manager AJ Hinch was talking about the challenges of trying to get everybody at-bats these final four weeks, especially at third base now that Andre Lipcius and Tyler Nevin have joined the mix, he stopped himself.
“We still need to get Matty reps there, too,” he said. “It’s very important we continue to give him playing time at third base.”
It was maybe a quick glimpse at what might happen going into spring training next season. Lipcius and Nevin, both corner infielders, are certainly auditioning for next season. Prospect Colt Keith, who plays primarily third base and second base, is also likely to get a long look next spring. Zach McKinstry already has carved his niche as a multi-positional, everyday player.
And the Tigers hope, expect, Matt Vierling to be the right-handed-hitting version of McKinstry, if not a more regular fixture at third base at least at the start of games.
“One of the things we’ve worked hard on is being able to make any decision in game that’s needed to give us the best advantage to win,” Hinch said. “You’ve seen guys play the infield and then go to the outfield or vice versa because I pinch-hit for somebody. Matty being able to move around the field is incredibly useful.”
Hitting from the right side is as important as his positional flexibility.
“If you start to look at some of our mainstays, guys we expect to be in our lineup, we’re going to be pretty left-handed,” Hinch said, indirectly referencing McKinstry, Riley Greene, Kerry Carpenter, Akil Baddoo and Parker Meadows. Keith also bats left-handed. “Matt being right-handed and being a guy who plays average to plus defense at three, four and five positions — and he’s still an everyday player, still a player who is impacting decisions I make every day.
“But he’s not stuck in one place.”
Hinch has spent the better part of his first three seasons in Detroit changing players’ perceptions about the value of utility. A utility player isn’t a reserve player or an extra player. It’s a contributing player. Just because you don’t start the game doesn’t mean you won’t end up playing a key role late in the game.
“One of the things that we established this year that I’m really proud of is the communication that there are so many different ways to contribute to a win,” Hinch said. “I’ve talked to Vierling about this about breaking the mindset of, ‘I have to play one position to be a primary player or an everyday player.’”
Hinch showed Vierling the game logs of Baddoo, McKinstry, Short and his own. What they show is that they are playing in just about every game, even though it’s at multiple spots and in multiple situations as he tries to create and exploit various favorable matchups that present themselves within a game.
“That mindset is important for them to value,” he said. “The day you don’t start you could get the most important at-bat of the game. It’s taken time for that to sink in, but they’ve seen it in practice now. When you start at third base, and I hit for somebody in the outfield, Matty can move out there and a plus defender like Shorty come in and play the infield.
“It’s how the puzzle gets put together to strengthen decisions both offensively and defensively.”
Vierling, who is a plus-3 defensive runs saved in both corner outfield positions, is fully onboard with this. He played three innings at third base earlier in the season, but it’s become a regular part of his existence since Aug. 1.
“I always have put a decent amount of time into it (working on infield defense), but this offseason I will do more,” Vierling said. “I see how things are shaking out. It helps the team in a few good ways being able to do that, and play other positions, too.
“I’ve talked to AJ about it a bunch. He thinks it’s really good for me and I do, too.”
Despite spending two weeks on the injured list in early June with a back issue, Vierling has played in 111 games and had a career-high 428 plate appearances. And although he’s an outfielder by trade, he’s looked remarkably natural at third base.
“I think it helps that I’ve made some plays, that gives you confidence,” he said. “And all these guys are giving me confidence, too. I feel I can hold my own and every game I play I get more comfortable.”
The athleticism, reflexes, quick hands and strong arm are part of Vierling’s package, regardless of position. The challenge at third base is getting acclimated to the nuances of the position. There are many.
“The game comes around in certain ways and you have to get use to certain situations,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing. Knowing how to think and what to do like when it’s first and second and a bunt situation. Or first and third and one out, where is the catcher going to throw the ball if they steal. Runner at third and playing a left-handed shift and I’m the only one on the left side.”
Or figuring out when how far going to his left is too far? Vierling’s range at third base is well above average, but there have been a couple of times when he’s strayed too far and either screened the shortstop or turned a routine play for the shortstop into a tough play for himself.
“On those types of plays, I think it’s best for me to go for everything,” he said. “It keeps me aggressive going for balls and not being afraid of like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to get in Javy (Baez’s) way.’ I’m just going to go get them and if I screw it up, I screw it up.
“I like playing aggressively. That’s my best way to play infield. And the more you do it, the more feel you have for it.”
Who knows what happens when Keith arrives. Who knows what happens if Lipcius or Nevin hit their way into the mix for 2024. What seems certain, though, regardless of which cogs are in the wheel, Vierling will be one of the linchpins holding things together.
On deck: New York Yankees
▶ Series: Three games at Yankee Stadium, New York
▶ First pitch: Tuesday-Thursday — 7:05 p.m.
▶ TV/radio: All three games on Bally Sports Detroit, 97.1 FM
▶ Probables: Tuesday — RHP Alex Faedo (2-5, 4.89) vs. RHP Gerrit Cole (12-4, 2.45); Wednesday — RHP Matt Manning (5-4, 3.62) vs. RHP Clarke Schmidt (8-8, 4.56); Thursday — LHP Eduardo Rodriguez (10-7, 3.11) vs. LHP Carlos Rodon (2-4, 5.70).
▶ Faedo, Tigers: Coming off the first true bullpen stint of his career — he pitched a scoreless ninth inning in Chicago Saturday — he’s back in his normal spot, starting a game. He’s still going get most of his outings out of the bullpen the rest of the way. This is more of a strategic start, going with a right-handed pitcher against the Yankees’ heavy right-handed lineup instead of lefty Joey Wentz, whose turn this would’ve been.
▶ Cole, Yankees: Just the Tigers’ luck, getting to face the presumptive American League Cy Young award winner twice in a span of six days. He didn’t have his best fastball at Comerica Park last Wednesday and still punched out seven in six innings. Solo homers by Jake Rogers and Spencer Torkelson was the extent of the damage. Cole is 8-1 against the Tigers in 12 career starts with a 2.03 ERA and 0.958 WHIP.