Hill: Jays prospect Collins a surprising strikeout machine

Will Hill
8/19/2009 7:35:37 PM
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Here's a short story that you're sure to think is a tall tale.

It's about the most interesting prospect in all of Minor League Baseball, a pitcher who's blazing his way through the Blue Jays farm system. He made his Double-A debut last night and picked up the win, striking out a pair of batters in an inning of work.

This gave 19-year-old Tim Collins 101 strikeouts on the season, in just 65.2 innings pitched. Go ahead -- I defy you to try and match that strikeout rate on any video game. It simply can't be done...even with the computer set on "Dunce" mode.  For comparison's sake, Roy Halladay had 109 strikeouts in his second year in the minors. But he needed almost exactly 100 more innings of work -- 164.2 to be precise -- to get there.

A 12-6 record with 17 saves in two years in the minors...a sparkling career ERA of 1.95...199 strikeouts and only 60 walks -- these are numbers scouts love about Tim Collins.

5'7'' and 155 -- these are numbers scouts hate about Tim Collins.

That's the listed height and weight for the lefty reliever. But, according to Jays insiders that I know and trust, those might both be generous estimates. One team staffer who has seen the pitcher up close told me, "I'd be surprised if he was taller than 5'5"".

"When I arrived here in Florida back in the spring, the driver that picked me up at the airport guessed that I was a middle infielder," says Collins. "I told him I was a pitcher. He said the last guy he picked up was also a pitcher, but he was 6'5". He kind of gave me this look like he didn't believe me."

Collins is used to those looks by now. He was the star of a high school team at Worcester Vocational that went 91-5 in his four years. They made it to the Massachusetts State Final one year and as far as the semis in another. And yet, pro scouts tended to overlook him, I guess you could say both figuratively and literally. There were 1,453 names called in the 50 rounds of Major League Baseball's 2007 June Draft. Amazingly, Tim Collins was not among them.

Actually, maybe it's not so amazing. A recent review shows there are 365 pitchers currently residing on active Major League rosters. Only 26 of them are listed as being shorter than 6'0", with just one player -- coincidentally enough, Toronto's very own Jason Frasor -- checking in as short as 5'9". It's almost like Major League Baseball has its own virtual amusement park sign declaring, "You must be at least this tall to go on this ride." Thanks for your interest, but candidates under 6 feet tall need not apply.

"I know I'm not the prototypical pitcher and that I'm not 6'5''," says Collins. "But all that means is that I have go out and work that much harder and pitch that much better than them."

So far, he's succeeded...wildly.

The funny thing is none of this would have happened if general manager J.P. Ricciardi hadn't taken his two sons out to watch a summer league game in the hometown he and Collins share.

Says Ricciardi, "I knew about Timmy because all my friends in Worcester kept telling me about him. But I was actually there to see a kid named [Keith] Landers who got picked by the Orioles late but went to school at Louisville. I started to watch Tim warming up and could hear his fastball pop and thought, 'Whoa, that fastball is coming out of him!'"

Collins picks up the story from there -- "I got in to the game in the fourth inning and faced 12 batters and I think I struck out 11. No, wait -- now that I think of it I struck out all 12. A couple of days later I threw a bullpen session for them and they liked me and signed me."

Instead of packing his bags for CCRI (Community College of Rhode Island), Collins was heading off to the Blue Jays farm system with a $10,000 signing bonus cheque in his back pocket. Considering the outlandish amounts most draft picks get these days that might prove to be the most cost-effective ten grand the Jays have ever spent.

Collins made his pro debut pitching in the Gulf Coast League in the late summer days of 2007. One official in the Jays minor league system was on hand for it and says members of the Indians Gulf Coast League affiliate were laughing as he came into the game to warm up. As this staffer relates, "The laughter stopped when he buzzed a 95-mile-per-hour heater past the first guy and struck him out". Collins has been breaking bats with his fastball and buckling knees with his curve and change ever since. No one snickers now at a 19-year-old pitching in Double-A ball.

"He pitched really well for us in the Midwest [League] last year and down in Florida this year, so he deserved this promotion," says Ricciardi. "Now at Double-A we're going to get a real litmus test to see if he's getting closer."

Interim President Paul Beeston had no idea of the amazing statistics being authored by Collins in the Blue Jays minor league system. "That is a good story already", says Beeston. "But it would be a great one, the kind they make movies about, if he pitches even one inning in the big leagues."

Wilt Chamberlain once famously said, "Nobody roots for Goliath."

He's right. We are conditioned to cheer for the little guy and Tim Collins fits that role perfectly. At 5'7'', he's standing tall defying what scouts think they know about pitching. And as an undrafted free agent, he's reaching new heights in his bid to make an unlikely trip to the Major Leagues.

"There's absolutely nothing better than coming out of the bullpen to pitch the ninth inning and finishing a game off," says Collins.

So here's hoping Collins gets to experience that thrill of coming out of the bullpen in a big league ballpark. Big league -- that phrase seems so very ironic when you think of this Tiny Tim and his over-sized success.

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