GLENDALE, Ariz. — After a first full season that saw him catch 87 games in the regular season, and probably enough in minor league spring training to push his workload past 100 games, Zack Collins is back at the White Sox’s minor league complex at Camelback Ranch continuing to work.
Like all catchers in the early stages of their pro careers, Collins is refining all aspects of his defense. From receiving, to blocking, to receiving and footwork, he’s adding more polish to the lessons he learned this season between high Class A and Double-A.
But the most noticeable difference in Collins involves the way he sets up at the plate. During the season, Collins held his bat high over his shoulders and waggled his bat. In instructs, he begins his approach with his bat rested flat on his shoulders. From there, he brings it straight up, then cocks it back and forth before starting his swing.
It’s still a busy swing, but the newer version helps him get ready more quickly.
“I guess you could say I’m getting ready to hit the ball a little bit quicker,” Collins said after his team’s instructional league game, during which he was the DH, against the Reds on Tuesday afternoon. “I’m trying to have the bat rested on my shoulder kind of Freddie Freeman-like. He kind of does the same move as we’re loading. It kind of cuts it down a little bit and it gets me on time a little bit more.”
As with any change, the new load has felt awkward in the early stages of its installation. By his count, Collins has played in just four games so far this fall, so there’s been very little time to get comfortable. Even in that limited sample size, though, he’s felt the benefits.
“I definitely feel a difference,” he said. “I’m staying through balls a little bit better, hitting the offspeed better and seeing the ball better, so I feel good. … Right now it feels a little awkward, but we’re getting there.”
Collins also felt he improved defensively this year as well. And though evaluators rated him mostly fringy throughout the season, most believed he showed improvement. Collins himself was particularly proud of how well he controlled the running game this season.
During his pro debut after being drafted out of Miami in the first round in 2016, Collins caught just 15.8 percent (3 of 19) of runners trying to steal. This year, back at high Class A Winston-Salem, that figure jumped to 41 percent (45 of 101).
“I threw out not a lot of runners in my first half-year … I think this year, just being able to throw every day and work on my footwork helped me a lot,” Collins said. “I threw out a lot higher percentage and I felt good.”
He worked relentlessly throughout the season with his own coaching staff and with White Sox catching instructor John Orton on getting better behind the plate. With his already impressive power, sticking behind the plate would improve his profile by plenty.
He’s worked hard from February to October to make the strides necessary, and he’s ready to continue turning the corner next year to keep himself firmly in the top tier of one of baseball’s most prospect-rich systems.
The most impressive pitcher on Tuesday was the Reds’ lefthander Jacob Heatherly. Cincinnati’s third-rounder from the 2017 draft out of Cullman (Ala.) HS showed three pitches on Tuesday—a low-90s fastball that touched 94, a 2-to-7 curveball that fluctuated between 69-78 mph and a scarcely thrown changeup that showed late fade at times.
The Reds gave him a bonus of $1,047,500 to forego his commitment to Alabama. He got hit hard in his pro debut, going 2-2, 4.99 between the Rookie-level Arizona League and the Pioneer League, but on Tuesday fared well against a White Sox lineup stocked with high end prospects.
Perhaps the most impressive part of his game involved the ability to add and subtract on his pitches. He varied the velocity on his curveball, using the lower end of its range to get called strikes and the higher end to bury in the dirt for a third strike. He also reached back for 94 mph with his fastball to get a third strike.
Righthander Hunter Greene—whose fastball sat between 98-102 mph on Monday—is the star of the Reds’ instructional league roster, but Heatherly is certainly a name to watch as well.
After five innings of rehab from righthander Anthony DeScalfani to begin the game, the Reds called on another rehabber for the sixth inning. Righthander Nick Howard missed all of 2016 while rehabbing shoulder surgery and hasn’t pitched in a game that counted since June 20, 2016.
Understandably, his velocity was down considerably on Tuesday. His fastball sat between 88-91 and touched 92, but his hard curveball still showed signature sharp break. He got two strikeouts on the pitch, both swinging, in his lone inning.
New Rules For The AFL
The Arizona Fall League, which gets going a week from Tuesday, will continue to serve as a testing ground for new rules. This year the AFL will utilize a variation of the international tiebreaker rule. If a game goes into extra innings, the player who made the last out of the ninth inning will be placed on second base to begin the 10th inning. The same will happen in the 11th inning if necessary. If the game is still tied after the 11th, the game will end in a tie.
The league is also altering its pitch clocks as part of MLB’s continued effort to speed up play. With nobody on base, pitchers will get 12 seconds to come set before delivering. With runners on base, that time will increase to 15 seconds. The clock starts once the pitcher receives the ball. If the pitcher does not comply, he will be charged with a ball.
If a hitter doesn’t get in the batter’s box before five seconds remain on the clock, a strike will be added to his count. Additionally, there will be a 2:15 break between innings, a 30-second timer between hitters and a 30-second clock for coaching visits to the pitcher’s mound.
White Sox outfielder Alex Call led off the first inning with a home run on a 93 mph fastball from DeScalfani. … White Sox outfielder Tito Polo and Reds outfielder Stuart Fairchild each showed off intriguing power-speed combinations with RBI triples off the right-field wall. … White Sox righthander Hunter Kiel—an 18th-rounder of out of Louisiana State—showed a mid-90s fastball and a hard, mid-80s slider in his inning.