Blue Jays Score Big With Little Lefty Collins

MANCHESTER, N.H.—Tim Collins is building a career in the largest city of New Hampshire, but his profession doesn't involve a hammer and nails.

That was the original plan.

Undersized and undrafted, Collins was set to become a carpenter upon graduation from Worcester (Mass.) Technical High in 2007. He enrolled at Rhode Island CC, but two weeks before classes an American Legion baseball game changed everything.

The 5-foot-7 lefty made a relief appearance on a mound in Worcester, striking out 11 of 12 batters and freezing them with a big league curveball.

Luckily for Collins, then-Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi was attending the game to scout 6-foot-7 lefty Keith Landers, now a sophomore at Louisville.

Within days, the Blue Jays signed Collins, who, despite not having an agent, landed a $10,000 signing bonus and a contract that includes four years of college tuition ($7,500 per semester) down the road.

"I was never on the radar," said Collins, who went 91-5 and threw a no-hitter in high school. "I was all set to work a construction job for the summer and the rest of my life. That's what I went to (Worcester Technical High) for. Baseball was kind of a hobby."

Little Guy, Big Numbers

The skinny southpaw reported to the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League at age 17 and created a Disney-like story with every strikeout. In  the past three seasons, Collins struck out 221 batters in his first 152 pro innings. Lefties hit a paltry .117 against Collins, primarily a setup man for Double-A New Hampshire this season.

Collins, 20, is one of the youngest players in the league, and, though small in stature, his strikeouts per nine innings (13.6 the past two seasons) stands head and shoulders above most full-time relievers in the minors.

Collins can get ahead with a four-seam fastball, clocked at 90-92 mph and occasionally touching 93, and deceive hitters with his 12-to-6 bending curve. The curve's unique action makes it difficult to distinguish from a high fastball—until it's too late.

"If you look at his career numbers, they're actually pretty sick," said Blue Jays pitching coordinator Dane Johnson. "They're better than Hall of Fame numbers, though, obviously, it's been done in the minor leagues. As long as he keeps counts in his favor and incorporates that curveball into the game plan, it's going to be a long day for hitters. Down the road, I see him as a guy that's not only capable of getting lefties out but righties as well."

Collins mixes in a changeup and is working on a cutter he has yet to use in a game this year. An extremely high leg kick helps him generate velocity from his small frame. Imagine a whip that starts at his feet and ends at his hand, explained Fisher Cats pitching coach Tom Signore.

Collins can't help but admire Tim Lincecum and Billy Wagner, with whom he shares much in common. And not just a lively fastball.

"Obviously, they are not your average pitchers, being a little shorter, but they are really hard throwers," Collins said. "I'm the same way as far as trying to get everything I can out of my body."

Rigorous offseason workouts at Cressey Performance in Hudson, Mass., helped Collins increase his weight to 172 pounds and his vertical leap from 33 to 37 inches.

An outstanding athlete, Collins was also his high school's quarterback. Only a lack of size kept him off big league draft boards in 2007.

'A Crazy Story'

If Collins hadn't pitched that night in Worcester, he'd probably be framing a house this summer. Instead he's building another career with the Blue Jays.

"It's a crazy story. I was 17 years old. I'd never been out of the Northeast," Collins said. "Suddenly I'm down there in the Gulf Coast League trying to find an apartment.

The diminutive southpaw was mistaken for an infielder on his first cab ride in Florida, and Indians minor leaguers reportedly poked fun at Collins—presumably for his lack of size—before an outing in the GCL.

"He's a smaller guy, but he pitches like he's 6-foot-5," Fisher Cats catcher Brian Jeroloman said. "He has a pitcher's mentality that when he steps on the mound, it's his game."

Last season, high Class A Florida State League hitters batted .199 against Collins, who earned a promotion to the Eastern League and at 19 was the youngest player in the Fisher Cats' seven-year history. Collins in Double-A was knocked around for the first time as a pro, going 2-3, 5.68 in nine appearances last year, but he entered 2010 as Toronto's No. 19 prospect.

He breezed through his first nine relief innings this season, allowing two hits and no runs. He hopes to reach the majors as a setup man or lefty specialist.

"It would be awesome. I feel like anybody in Double-A is close," Collins said. "I'm only 20. I have a lot more to work on, but I guess my goal would be to get there within the next couple of years.

Johnson joked that Collins hopefully will stretch another six inches. Such comments are part of clubhouse culture—and nothing Collins hasn't heard for his entire life.
"That's always going to be part of the story," he said. "I can't say it doesn't get old sometimes, but I do get a good laugh out of some of the jokes."

Kevin Gray covers pro baseball for the New Hampshire Union Leader.