Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The most desired midget in baseball

Tiny Tim Collins has been traded twice this year. Listed at 5'7" (and heights are often padded) and between 180 pounds (up from 155), the diminutive Collins has been a strikeout machine since turning pro back in 2007.

Actually, he was a strikeout machine before that. Before he hit his growth spurt, Collins was a mere 5'6" in high school at Worcester (MA) Technical High. He dominated opposing hitters, though, averaging over 16 strikeouts a game his senior year (in seven inning games). He struck out 20 in one game and fanned thirteen while pitching a no-hitter in the Division 2 Central Massachusetts title game.

Despite all the K's, he drew as much attention as he allowed contact. Collins wasn't drafted by a major league team, no college programs were interested in him and if not for a fluke viewing by Toronto Blue Jays general manager J.P. Riccardi, he would have ended up pitching for a community college in Rhode Island. Riccardi was scouting an American Legion game and Collins came into pitch. The story is that Collins fanned all twelve batters he faced. The Jays signed him as an undrafted free agent and he was sent to the Gulf Coast League where he pitched all of six relief innings.

In 2008, Collins pitched for the Lansing Lugnuts of the Midwest League. Despite being the youngest American-born pitcher in the league, the lefty Collins made pro hitters look like high schoolers. Collins went 4-2 with 14 saves and a 1.58 ERA, struck out 98 in 68.1 innings and allowed a mere 36 hits. None of this garnered him much respect. He did not make the All-Star team and was not considered a prospect by Baseball America.

The Blue Jays moved him up the ladder in 2009, sending him to Dunedin of the Florida State League. Collins led the league in strikeouts per nine innings, as he K'ed 99 in 64.2 innings. His performance led to a promotion to AA where he was the youngest pitcher in the Eastern League. The Blue Jays were using him more in a setup role than a closer but he still merited some more press. Baseball America said he had the best curveball in the Blue Jays organization.

In the offseason, Collins, a notorious hard worker, worked hard to add muscle to his frame. Here's a clip of him hurling medicine balls:

The Jays returned him to the New Hampshire Fisher Cats this season. Once again he was one of the youngest players in the league and one of the most dominant. In 43 innings, he struck out 73 and allowed just 27 hits. The Atlanta Braves acquired him on July 14th as part of the Yunel Escobar-Alex Gonzalez shortstop swap. Collins was one of two minor leaguers included in the trade and the one most overlooked in trade reports. At least the Braves wanted him.

They didn't want him as much as the Royals, apparently. Braves fans didn't get to enjoy him long. Assigned to Mississippi, Collins pitched in six games, saving two of them, striking out 14 in eight innings and surrendering just one run. For two weeks he was part of the Atlanta organization and then he was sent packing again to Kansas City as part of the package to bring Rick Ankiel and Kyle Farnsworth to the Braves.

The Royals didn't fool around, assigning Collins immediately to AAA Omaha. So far, he is the third youngest pitcher to hurl in the Pacific Coast League this year. The only two younger are former first round picks Madison Bumgarner of the Giants and Jordan Lyles of the Astros. Bumgarner was the tenth pick in the 2007 draft, the same draft that went 1,453 picks without Collins being chosen.

In twelve games, Collins has pitched well. He is 2-1 with three saves with 19 K in 18 innings and just nine hits allowed. His ERA is 1.50.

With Joakim Soria potentially under contract until 2014, the Royals could have one dandy of a bullpen.

It will be interesting to see if Collins can continue to dominate professional hitters. I've been trying to think of other minor league pitchers who have struck out as many batters as Collins has. In 220.2 professional innings, Collins has whiffed 327 batters, or 13.3 per nine innings.

Here are the minor league ratios of some guys who I thought might challenge that mark:

Stephen Strasburg 10.6
Francisco Rodriguez 11.9
Billy Wagner 10.9
Aroldis Chapman 11.8
Dwight Gooden 11.7
Tim Lincecum 14.9 (finally!)

Lincecum only pitched 62.2 innings in the minors before he got the call to the show. I would not be surprised to see Collins be on the Major League team on Opening Day 2011. Hopefully he will then get some of the recognition he deserves. And for those who like underdogs, I can't think of anyone better for whom to root.

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