The Cubs are really high on a certain middle infield prospect who boasts decent pop and speed, along with a developing plate approach that could make him an impact player. They also like Nico Hoerner, but that’s a different story. Zack Short has moved up through the system at a steady pace and was added to the 40-man roster in November despite being limited to 234 plate appearances by a broken hand suffered just a week into the season.
Short came out of the gate hot, batting .368 with a .903 OPS that jumped 26 points when he took a pitch to the left hand during the first plate appearance of his sixth game with Triple-A Iowa. After missing about two and a half months, Short rehabbed for six games with one of the Cubs’ rookie league teams before playing another six with Double-A Tennessee. Then it was back to Iowa, where he struggled to get comfortable at the plate and in the field.
“I was really scared to test it when I came back, and…it was obviously tough to deal with, but dealing with that adversity earlier in my career is nice,” Short said during an interview with Cubs Insider and the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. “Not nice, but you learn how to roll with the punches. Hopefully — knock on wood — I never get hurt again, but I can deal with it a little bit better.”
Being able grow from adversity is something the Cubs prioritize as part of their development program and it’s something we heard from Short’s fellow 40-man member, Tyson Miller. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy for the players who are going through it at the time. Short was particularly disappointed because of what he’d done before the injury and what his peers were doing while he was on the shelf.
“I was expecting to hit the ground running as soon as I came back and some things don’t work out like that,” Short said. “So I kind of expected to hit .400, hit 30 home runs in one swing. Especially in the PCL, all the numbers are so inflated with all the parks out on the West Coast.
“So I came back and I’m like, ‘Oh, all these guys have got 30 home runs, I gotta hit some homers.’ But down the road, God forbid [I get injured again], I think I can deal with it a little better and I kinda treat it as a blessing in disguise.”
Speaking of hitting home runs in bunches, Short did experience a power surge shortly after getting back to Iowa. He smacked all six of his dingers for the season in a span of 21 games, including a stretch of four in eight games, but saw his batting average plummet 106 points in the process. His OBP likewise tumbled by 130 points, though things would get even worse before a second stint at Tennessee helped him regain his confidence.
“My head really wasn’t where it needed to be when I first came back, but going into the (Arizona) Fall League and everything like that, I kinda took a step back and I thought a lot about what I went through,” Short explained.
Taking part in the AFL was a way to help Short make up for time lost due to the injury and it paid off for him, even if box score scouts didn’t notice. His .234 average over 92 plate appearances was actually a few points below his career average as a pro, but his robust .359 OBP was 16th in the league. As evidenced by his aggregate .377 OBP in the minors, Short has long been known for his ability to get on base even if the hits aren’t falling.
There can, however, be a downside to a young hitter working a ton of deep counts. If that hitter happens to be selling out for power a bit too often, which the Cubs development team felt was the case with Short, he’s going to rack up his fair share of strikeouts. For instance, a career-high 17 homers in 2018 came at the expense of a career-high 26% K-rate. That number then jumped to 31.3% at Triple-A last season.
A lot of that more recent mark can be attributed to the injury and having a hand that Short said felt delayed from his brain when he first came back, but it’s also about his approach.
“Obviously I want to keep the walks, but it’s also a testament of trying to hit for power,” Short explained. “You foul off a pitch you’re supposed to hit and you’re like, ‘Damn, I’m in a 1-2 count already and I had two good pitches to hit.’ And I think with the work I put in last offseason, with your swing you’re not gonna miss as many of those pitches and I might not get in too deep of counts. But if I can keep the walks and lower the strikeouts, that helps everybody.”
That might sound easy, but power can be incredibly intoxicating. That’s perhaps doubly true for a guy who goes about 5-foot-10 and a fair bit shy of two bills and who only hit one home run in three years of high school ball. Throw in the hitter-friendly PCL parks and an MLB ball that was flying out them with 60% greater frequency than before and you can imagine how easy it’d be to fall in love with the power game.
Though he is admittedly a student of stats and a believer that maximizing exit velocity is the best way to increase offensive production, Short knows that his strength isn’t in trying to leave the yard as often as possible.
“It’s a learning curve in terms of how to take a step back and not try to hit all those home runs,” the Kingston, NY native said. “You’re down 1-2, obviously you’re not trying to take a ball off the scoreboard. Take your single to right and find a way to help the team, move a guy over. Again, that’s all part of the learning curve of being a pro.”
Another part of that learning curve is understanding what information to soak in and what to tune out as noise. The Cubs have data on everything, both on their own players and those they’re going to be facing. That information is available to the minor leaguers as well, to the point that prospects can get scouting reports on an opposing pitcher’s spin rate and tendencies by batter or by inning. But too much focus on the minutia can leave you paralyzed at the plate and unable to react to the reality of the game.
For Short, it’s a matter of getting more of a big-picture snapshot of a pitcher’s velocity and general tendencies and then developing his own gameplan around that. Not quite “see ball, hit ball,” more an evolution of that process to something more informed. For evolution to continue, he’ll need to put into practice the approach he explained above.
This coming season is a big one for Short, who will turn 25 at the end of May. He’ll be just a phone call away from a roster spot in Chicago and could serve as an injury replacement or infield depth should he make good on those plans to cut back on the strikeouts. You think the Cubs could use a guy who sprays the ball around and reaches base at a high rate while playing sterling defense at as many as three infield positions?
“I’m kinda in that mode now where I’m like, ‘Let’s go, we can do this.'”