When the star-studded Dodgers played their season-opening series against the Rockies at Coors Field, it would be fair to expect homers to be hit. Mookie Betts, Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager and Max Muncy alone would make for an impressive Home Run Derby lineup, one of them is bound to hit the Dodgers first (of many) homers in 2021 right? Wrong. The Dodgers’ first homer of the year belonged to Zach McKinstry — and it didn’t even leave the yard.
With the offseason departures of Kiké Hernandez and Joc Pederson, the Dodgers went to their endless supply of depth once more. Along with a 3-hit, 3 RBI performance on Monday, McKinstry is further solidifying a major league role for the reigning world champs. This is what separates the Dodgers from merely good teams. Drafting and developing a core of stars helps. The willingness to spend on established stars certainly doesn’t hurt. But the Dodgers ability to develop quality roll players, and turn roll players into above-average starters is even more impressive to me. From Justin Turner, to Chris Taylor, to Max Muncy, to Blake Treinen, every year the list gets bigger. They all play multiple positions, they all hit well, and they all fit seamlessly into the Dodgers’ star-laden roster. Quite frankly, it’s annoying and unfair. Zach McKinstry is the next in line, so let’s take a look at what to expect from the Dodgers’ rookie utility man.
McKinstry was taken by the Dodgers in 33rd round of the 2016 draft. Despite a productive high school career in Indiana, the Fort Wayne native was never considered much of a prospect. He attended Central Michigan University — which is not exactly a college baseball powerhouse — and went homerless in 118 collegiate games. His scouting report was similarly uninspiring, describing him as a scrawny slap-hitter with a lack of exciting tools. All told, it’s easy to see how someone like McKinstry fell to pick number 1001 in the draft.
If a 33rd rounder was to make it for any team though, the Dodgers are the team to do it. From their 2016 draft class alone, Los Angeles has already seen Gavin Lux, Will Smith, Dustin May, Tony Gonsolin, Dean Kremer, Mitch White, Andre Scrubb, and McKinstry make their major league debuts. Sheesh.
McKinstry tried to carve out value from the get-go. The natural shortstop moved around the infield in his first minor league season, splitting time between 2B and 3B at both High-A and Double-A. The problem was he didn’t hit, slashing a paltry .226/.299/.295 with 87 strikeouts in 82 games at High-A. He marginally improved (.239/.331/.324) while repeating the lower levels in 2018, but once again struggled upon reaching Double-A and was limited to a bench role. That was when things started to change.
He spent the 2018 offseason training in Arizona, working with the Dodgers coaching staff to revamp his swing. The goal wasn’t to become a power hitter but increase his power enough to provide at least some value with the bat. The results were immediate. He hit a much more respectable .283/.403/.458 (126 wRC+) at Double-A in 2019 and for the first time in his minor league career, he flourished after that late-season promotion to Triple-A. Granted the 2019 Pacific Coast League was a hitter’s paradise, McKinstry raked to a .382/.421/.753 slash and hit 7 HRs in just 26 games after hitting 12 in 95 games at Double-A. His 19 HRs in 2019 nearly doubled his 11 total from the three seasons prior. Along with the newfound offense McKinstry added further defensive versatility, seeing 10 games in the outfield in addition to his time at every infield position. The major league profile was beginning to take shape.
Although 2020 was a disruption to minor league development for many players, McKinstry continued his expected progression. He spent the majority of 2020 at the Dodgers alternate site, and was again rewarded with a late season promotion — making his major league debut and recording a pair of hits in a brief 4 game stint towards the season’s end. After making the club out of spring training in 2021, the 25-year old looks like he’s here to stay.
What to Expect
It’s tough to know what to expect from McKinstry. On one hand the mechanical changes seem to be working, but his offensive breakout in 2019 is at least partially aided by the juiced PCL and there is no data from the 2020 season to compare. Lets take a look at a few players who have a similar minor league track record:
Those comparisons pass the eye test. Gimenez easily has the most prospect pedigree of the bunch and is quite a bit younger, but his overall performance is comparable. The best fits though are Cronenworth and Edman, major league utility players who have similar track records, are similar ages, and have similar skillsets. Now let’s compare how that has translated to the big leagues:
While McKinstry has yet to accumulate a usable major league sample size, this can give us a pretty good idea of what his production might look like. I wouldn’t read too much into specific comparisons given the varying sample sizes, but league-average production looks to be a reasonable expectation.
Like Edman and Cronenworth, McKinstry also provides defensive versatility. Though it is less quantifiable, positional flexibility is an important factor for players on the roster fringes. It might not be a fantasy-relevant factor on the surface, but the only way a player can have a chance at fantasy-relevance is with playing time. For players like McKinstry, Edman, and Cronenworth — whose defense helps maximize their playing time — versatility might actually be the most important factor.
Defensive versatility is seemly a prerequisite to make the Dodgers roster and McKinstry is the perfect LHH compliment to fellow utility man Chris Taylor. He will likely see the majority of his time in the OF corners, though he is more than capable of spelling Corey Seager and Gavin Lux up the middle. From a fantasy perspective, the projected league average production isn’t particularly appealing in a part-time role, but he’s one injury away from having a relevant role in a loaded Dodger lineup. In fact, he’s now started the Dodgers past 4 games (one at 2B, three in RF) with Cody Bellinger nursing a calf injury.
Regardless of fantasy relevance though, McKinstry is a 33rd round success story and a microcosm of the Dodgers recent greatness.
Photo by Adam Davis/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Aaron Polcare