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The long and short of Zack Short

His diminutive career provides a little insight into his current role and the Tiger’s master plan.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

A brief time ago, Zack Short was just another player in the Detroit Tigers’ system who was easy to overlook. His minuscule stats didn’t really stack up next to other infielders on the roster and it seemed his chances were low of being more than a temporary fill-in in case of injury. That impression was only heightened when Short held a 40-man roster spot all last season but barely cracked the roster despite the Tigers’ struggles.

There was little reason to pay attention to him and most fans had him on their abbreviated list of players to be cut in the near-term future. But despite his meager profile and truncated major league experience, he has seen his role sprout into a valuable piece of the offense early in this season. Through carefully selected matchups he has made the most of his small opportunities.

(Okay, I’ll stop with the short puns now. Just wanted to have a wee bit of fun.)

Short was a 17th-round pick in the 2016 draft by the Chicago Cubs out of Sacred Heart University. He and Tigers’ reliever Jason Foley were college teammates, with the latter signing with the Tigers as an undrafted free agent in 2016. That both would reach the majors and be on the same team no less, is quite remarkable considering their small private college backgrounds.

Short never had a very remarkable scouting profile and didn’t generate much if any significant interest from scouts when he turned pro. He was generally regarded as a utility infielder at best, who shows a surprising amount of power and has a good feel for the zone to get walks, but with plenty of swing and miss in his bat.

The “three true outcomes” profile followed him for a while in the Cubs system. His defensive versatility and all-around baseball intelligence had some projecting him to go into coaching rather than reach the major leagues, but he was always the type of player that managers love. The Detroit Tigers acquired him in a 2020 deadline trade in a deal for Cameron Maybin, and in 2021 hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh started working with him to shorten his swing in the hopes of giving him a bit more decision time. They brought his hands closer to his chest in an effort to take some loop out of his swing and tried to get him focused on letting his strengths play up.

Short made these adjustments while playing through his rookie season in the majors but the results didn’t really show up in 2021, nor in his brief time in 2022. He flashed the occasional burst of power and showed a penchant for the highlight reel play, but those moments were few and far between. By then, most Tiger fans, myself included had nearly forgotten about him, except for when looking up and down the 40-man roster, wondering who should be cut to make room for a more exciting player. Short survived the initial end-of-the-year purge from new team president Scott Harris, surprising many, but even with a hot spring training this year he was sent to AAA Toledo to begin the year.

Then on April 27th, prior to a doubleheader, he was called up to serve as the 27th man for the day, but after the games, the Tigers sent Tyler Nevin down. At the time, it looked like simply a roster-churning move to give Zack one last look in the majors while sending down a struggling Tyler Nevin. But, AJ Hinch had a plan for Zack, and it personifies the method behind the aggressive pinch-hitting philosophy Hinch and Harris have brought to the team this year.

Since his recall, he’s had only seven games where he’s started, two of those being a doubleheader. His other ten games have been pinch-hitting appearances, usually against a lefty. That in itself isn’t unusual, but what is interesting is when you look at the pitch-type profile he’s seen this year.

He’s not seeing any changeups this year, compared to past years. This is because in his current role, his hitting situations can be carefully controlled to exclude certain pitch types, in this case, change-ups. While it’s impossible for an outside observer to be sure of the exact plan, what I suspect is that the Tigers have done this to help simplify his approach at the plate. If they can simply manipulate the circumstances to keep him from seeing many, if any, change-ups, he can just sit on harder fastball-type pitches, and pickup breaking pitches early, which is something he’s always been strong in, given his high walk rate in professional ball. And it appears to be working beautifully, in this small sample of 18 games.

In a sense, this is sort of a classic pinch-hitter profile because fewer relievers feature a changeup as one of their main offerings.

The sample size is still too small to make too much of the individual numbers, but the sharp trend is noticeable, especially with the purposeful exclusion of off-speed pitches this year. I will point out that Short still has a heavy left-right split to his numbers, despite seeing more or less an equal number of each pitcher so that will be something to keep an eye on to see if he can improve his numbers vs right-handed pitchers in the chances he's given against them.

For example, at the time of this writing, he was given the start against White Sox rookie Jesse Scholtens, a RHP who throws mostly fastballs and sliders, with the occasional curveball. He does have a changeup but throws it so rarely (3.2%) of the time, it fits the theory of having Short simply put the pitch out of his mind. In fact, in both of Short’s at-bats vs Schlotens today, he did not see a change-up. Short played the entire game, drawing 2 walks, and slugging a big late two-run home run off RHP Jimmy Lambert to put the game out of reach.

So what does this all mean for Short going forward? Probably a solidifying grip on the role of bench infielder, with regular appearances late in games as the pitching matchup dictates. If they really are committed to keeping him from facing off-speed pitches, it's unlikely he will get many starting assignments, barring injury. Starting pitchers tend to have a deeper pitching repertoire than relievers, which means they are more likely to have a useable changeup. But, having a guy currently sporting a .943 OPS available for specific late-inning matchups is still incredibly valuable, especially when you consider his versatility as a defender.

Furthermore, it is an excellent example of how the Tigers are approaching their team-building philosophy and the system they have gotten the players to buy into. Everyone on the team has a specific role to play and everyone will get their turn as the situation dictates. It's a fine line to walk but the Tigers are showing they are capable of exploiting specific matchups to play to the strengths of their players. Even the humblest of prospects can become a statistical giant in a given situation.

To really become a contender, the Tigers need more high quality everyday players. But they’re showing a lot of ability to do more with less, and that bodes well for the organization’s future even as they work to acquire the talent they need.