Zack Collins is making contact like never before

Thursday marked a fortnight before Opening Day, and Yasmani Grandal’s first appearance of Cactus League play behind the plate. If you tag him with Dallas Keuchel’s inability to get out of the first — followed by his re-entry in the second, courtesy of 2021’s wacky spring training rules — it could’ve gone better. But if you’re only concerned about his ability to do it again at this juncture, it sounds like he’s cautiously optimistic that the worst is behind him.

“It’s going to be day to day, it’s going to be how much workload can we get in, and seeing how the knee reacts,” Grandal said. “So far it’s been good, but we’re definitely not going to be pushing it too hard just in case.” He later added there was “no pain” in his knee at this time.

Assuming Grandal can ramp up in order to be hitting his stride by April 1, it’ll come at a cost for the guys vying for the backup spot. Since we last checked in on this group, Zack Collins has taken a clear lead among the competition, whether in terms of playing time or performance.

CatcherPACatcherBA/OBP/SLG
Zack Collins29Zack Collins.391/.517/.522
Yermín Mercedes27Jonathan Lucroy.286/.412/.357
Jonathan Lucroy17Yermín Mercedes.269/.296/.385

And Collins is feeling it, at least according to the confidence-soaked quotes he slung at Scott Merkin:

CHICAGO — Zack Collins firmly believes he should be part of the 2021 White Sox Opening Day roster.

“One hundred percent,” Collins said Thursday morning during a conversation with MLB.com from Glendale, Ariz. “I think if I’m not, then it’s a mistake.” […]

“I’ve done everything they’ve asked me to do the last couple of years,” Collins said. “Worked on my body, worked on my approach, my defense, everything is continuing to grow. I’ve got nothing but high praise out of it. So, I don’t see a reason why I shouldn’t be.”

We’ve seen hot springs turn into cool-at-best Aprils before, including Collins just last year, when he hit .364/.548/.682 over 31 plate appearances. Yet he has some reason to crow, because through his 29 PAs this year, he’s only struck out twice (and both have been backwards Ks).

That’s a big deal for a guy who has never struck out less than 25 percent of the time at any level where he’s spent meaningful time. That rate spikes to 36.7 percent in the majors, albeit over 120 sporadically accumulated plate appearances. Going through his game logs, he’s never come close to that kind of contact regularity at any level. The closest is a stretch where he struck out once over 17 plate appearances at the end of his 2018 season with Birmingham. But go one game outside that cherry-picked sample, and you’ll find a platinum sombrero.

Collins gave Merkin a reason for it:

“I’ve been swinging a lot more often,” Collins said. “Still taking my walks, but it’s me striking out a lot less, which is why I think you see the average a lot higher, the OPS higher and all that kind of stuff. I’m swinging early in counts now. Just being aggressive and putting balls in play, and good things are happening.”

“Obviously, through the lower levels, you can control counts, even behind in the count. But once you get to the high levels, they can throw anything at any point. So, you have to be ready to hit everything. I’m going to be a little bit more aggressive and swinging in the zone. I’m not trying to chase anything outside the zone. My eye is good enough to where I won’t do that naturally.”

I’d argue that Collins didn’t do a great job of being behind in the count in the minors, but maybe that’s in the past. For now, looking through all the available video of Collins’ plate appearances, his brand of aggression hasn’t manifested itself the way it does in other hitters throughout the White Sox lineup. He’s still disciplined enough to draw six walks against those two strikeouts. In two of those walks, he didn’t think about swinging the bat, including one of the six-pitch variety.

It just seems like he has a little more plate coverage going for him.

Here’s probably the most representative at-bat of this particular spring, against Oakland’s Jordan Weems back on Sunday. He falls behind 0-2 with a foul and a take, but survives eight pitches for a single to right, making contact all six times he swings while Rick Hahn and Chris Getz are sitting right behind him.

Here’s another example against Colorado’s Germán Marquez on March 7, where he takes all pitcher’s pitches into a 3-1 count, fouls off a fastball, then shoots a borderline pitch past the third baseman.

And here’s an at-bat against San Diego’s Miguel Diaz on March 9, when he sees all strikes, and makes good contact on 0-2.

Nothing looks terribly different from his setup and swing last year, except maybe the leg kick, which seems smoother, or less stabby when it comes to planting. That could be less a mechanical change and more a result of Collins feeling confident, but I suppose it would help explain why his hands are able to get to more pitches.

If there’s one trade-off, Collins isn’t exactly pounding the ball. A lot of his singles have been flares and shift-beaters, and the contact is the opposite way. It’s just hard to tell whether that’s new right now, because Collins’ power has always been somewhat oriented to the opposite field, including his only extra-base hit this spring:

It’s hard to be worried about Collins trading extra-base hits for dinked singles when his inability to put the ball in play has hampered him more than anything.

The bigger question is what the spring environment is contributing to the cause. Collins’ progress is impressive, but it looks a little more suspect during a spring where Leury García has also turned into a very discerning hitter. A guy who strikes out seven times for every walk has drawn five free passes against against four strikeouts over 33 plate appearances this spring. Billy Hamilton just showed up, and he matched his 2020 walk total (two) over one-sixth of the plate appearances (four). The Cactus League is no stranger to the desert mirage. Perhaps the regular season will arrive and MLB-grade pitchers will resume firing fastballs up on Collins’ hands, and we’re back where we started.

But again, Collins hasn’t really done anything like this in any other professional sample, whether it came in the spring, the regular season, Triple-A, Double-A, any A. That counts as novel enough for intrigue. Throw a catching guru on the coaching staff, and there’s enough that’s different on both sides of the ball to keep an open mind in 2021, at least if he can sustain this through the rest of the preseason. When April rolls around, the issue becomes rather familiar: whether he’ll get the playing time to prove it.

(Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)

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Jim Margalus

Writing about the White Sox for a 16th season, first here, then at South Side Sox, and now here again. Let’s talk curling.

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roke1960

The backup catchers are making it tough for Larussa to determine the roster, and that’s a very good thing. Watching Mercedes throw out multiple base runners earlier this week, Lucroy looking healthy, and Collins being the best hitter on the team this spring presents Tony with an interesting dilemma. And with Billy Hamilton’s arrival, that makes the 26-man decisions tough. If they go with 13 pitchers, then that leaves only 4 bench spots for Leury, Engel, the catchers and Hamilton. I’m not sure what he’s going to do, but the depth looks a little better than it did a few weeks ago.

tommytwonines

I don’t see any way Leury and Engel don’t make the team, barring injury, so it’s really two bench spots for five guys – Lucroy, Collins, Mercedes, Hamilton and Mendick. I’ll bet on Lucroy and Collins filling out the roster.

roke1960

I agree- Leury and Engel are locks. My only question is whether Larussa values Hamilton’s speed and defense off the bench over having a 3rd catcher.

calcetinesblancos

With Engel and Leury coming off the bench, we have plenty of bench speed, and those guys can actually passably swing the lumber. If Hamilton makes this team, I’ll be in in shock.

John SF

Hamilton is not necessarily faster than Engel by sprint speed metrics, but he is a full standard deviation better base stealer.

He gets incredible jumps.

Idk if having a dedicated base running specialist on the bench is worthwhile, but I’m just saying not all speed is created equally.

DrCrawdad

I agree. Don’t waste a precious roster spot on Hamilton. Collins & Mercedes.

WilburWoodWasTheMan

I think I read somewhere that TLR said he won’t carry three catchers. I agree that Leury and Engel are locks. Collins is clearly doing everything the Sox have asked and is currently winning the competition for back-up catcher. I’d love to see him establish value with 2 starts a week. This will enable him to develop into a viable option to supplant Grandal two years from now or be a valuable trade piece.

I do think the acquisition of Hamilton was TLR driven. His comments indicate that he wants another late inning chess piece. He can use Hamilton as a pinch runner to impact the game more often than a 5th outfielder or 2nd infielder ordinarily would. With that in mind, Hamilton is head and shoulders ahead of a 5th outfielder (Gonzalez/Williams) or 2nd infielder (Mendick).

My only question is whether TLR views Leury as a capable backup at 2B, SS, & 3B. Personally, I see Leury’s value more as an OF/2B. I have more faith in Mendick’s defensive skills at 2B, SS, & 3B. Obviously, Leury is a better hitter than Mendick but I’m not sure you carry a back-up infielder for his offensive output. I really like Leury but I’m not sold on him on this roster or am I sold on his availability.

calcetinesblancos

Leury will absolutely be on the team. You can literally stick him anywhere (including SS), plus in recent years he’s been better with the bat.

Trooper Galactus

My prediction: they use Collins’ success as an excuse to keep Vaughn down to open the season, use him as DH, and rotate between Grandal and Lucroy at catcher with the occasional Collins appearance. If/when one of them struggles and Vaughn has more looks at AAA (and possibly past the Super-Two cutoff), they’ll bring him up.

calcetinesblancos

Fine by me, I actually think Collins would be a great regular DH. Plus (especially for a catcher) he has actually looked decently quick around the bases.

I, for one, do not think Collins would be a great regular DH. I don’t even think he’d be an average one.

calcetinesblancos

Did you mean average for the Sox? Or baseball teams that take the DH seriously?

He’d probably be par for the course if the standard is post-Thome White Sox DHs.

jhomeslice

I hope that’s what they decide to do. I’m not a huge fan of Collins but he has had a very good spring, and I feel like it is pretty rare to bring a guy up without any games in the minors above A ball that it would be rushing Vaughn. Vaughn has had a decent spring but not fantastic, unless he kills it in the next couple weeks it seems like Collins is the better hitter at this moment. I think patience with Vaughn would be wise, and that there is a chance Collins will be a pretty good hitter that will give them a surplus of options at DH, hopefully. If Collins struggles and Vaughn is good at AAA, they will swap them out soon enough as you said.

John SF

They rolled back the rules on pitchers, while keeping the 26 man roster.

So I have to assume that some teams will be carrying 9 man bullpens, & it’s hard to argue against that.

Which is more likely to be useful to you, one more lefty specialist you can bring in at the end of any inning or one more bench bat to sub?

Cordero is out and Fry will open up a spot on the 40 man for 60 days. But we have to add Vaughn & probably Lucroy.

It looks likely we will decide to add Hamilton.

We may need to make roster decisions on Burr & Reynolds too.

I guess I could pretty easily see a situation where our bench is Engel, Garcia, Lucroy, and we have 9 in the pen.

Or where our bench is Engel, Reynolds, Garcia, Lucroy and Collins + Mercedes get the short squeeze even with 13 position players.

itaita

I think one nice thing about having a lineup that looks like it has a bunch of pop at the top of the order is having a guy like Collins or Madrigal flaring singles here and there at the bottom of the order isnt as bad if the team was full of Judy’s

But like most ill be on guard and wait a month into the year to see if this is a Beckham or McCann situation.

Willardmarshall

Encouraging also to see his defense no longer a one-way ticket to DH….Now, if Eloy could make similar headway….

Last edited 1 year ago by Willardmarshall
Greg Nix

At this point I will be ecstatic if Collins can put up a couple Ryan Doumit-ish seasons. That’s a useful player, particularly as Granda ages.

knoxfire30

I’ve always liked Collins a little more then most on the board but I have absolutely no idea what the sox should do with him.

I feel if he is a backup to a stud C, he is only gonna play 1 or 2 times at most a week and he isnt the type of hitter that will have any success doing that.

He has played so well during spring its hard to send him down but…. if Vaughn is the every day DH, isn’t it probably best for the sox and Collins to send him to AAA to play daily and let LuCroy be the backup.

Collins theoretically could up his trade value a lot by mashing in AAA, and the sox would keep him fresh if he were ever needed to start say if Vaughn or Grandal get hurt. By the deadline he might be a big asset and a team who could actually play him may want to give the sox something they need.

HallofFrank

I like keeping Collins in Chicago and letting him be the backup catcher. He’ll get, as you say, 1-2 starts a week, and maybe a 1B/DH start occasionally. Plus, if he’s really hitting, it would be great to bring his bat off the bench in key situations late in the game.

Maybe this spring marks a new beginning, but I’m still of the mind that being a good/great backup is a fine outcome for Collins at this point. It would be nice to have the depth, and Grandal will presumably catch a little less with each year of age. Plus, he’ll could be the heir to Grandal when he leaves.

oldtimer

This is a good problem to have. You and Knoxfire have framed it well. I’m leaning towards Collins as the backup Catcher. Agree this would limit him to a game or two a week. Abreu should need some off days (10 – 15) where Vaughn moves to 1B. Then another 10 – 15 games at DH when Vaughn sits for a tough RHP. He should get 50 – 60 games barring injuries. Is that enough??

GrinnellSteve

And the very real possibility that one of the 3 legs of that C-1B-DH stool gets hurt and Collins gets regular time for a bit.

calcetinesblancos

I was driving and thus listening on the radio, but they gave the impression that his “strikeout” in his lone playoff AB was actually a walk. Shows that he can focus under pressure and he knows the zone.

asinwreck

Jimmy Cordero is out for the season, having undergone Tommy John surgery on Thursday. I wonder if his usage down the stretch last year contributed to the parting of the ways with Renteria and Cooper.

shaggy65

We’ll never really know, but it’s hard to see this as anything other than “Ricky broke him”. Hopefully Cordero recovers well because I think he still has a solid career as a middle reliever

burning-phoneix

That’s a big shame. He was one of my favourites. I’m glad the bullpen is more stable now and doesn’t have to rely on him just chewing up innings. Maybe it opens up a spot for moving one of the excess SPs to the pen (Putting money on Lopey taking his spot)

calcetinesblancos

I’m so sick of the Sox jerking this kid around. He’s obviously inexperienced, but they’ve blown so many chances to give him experience with both the bat and the glove. Either play the kid or trade him. If they really don’t care about offense from a catcher, we still have Zavala if Grandal goes down. Jonathan Lucroy is going to turn 35 in the middle of the season. We really want to rely on him? Just ridiculous.

He should catch a few times a week, DH, and play first sometimes. Get him experience now so he can catch more as Grandal ages.

HallofFrank

How are they jerking him around? He broke into the league at age 24 and has been exclusively terrible. He’s a bat-first (or bat-only, depending on who you ask) catcher with a .599 OPS. It’s hard to blame the Sox for their handling of Collins thus far.

Last edited 1 year ago by HallofFrank
Trooper Galactus

I wouldn’t say he’s been jerked around, but they’ve certainly done him (and themselves) a disservice by sticking with guys like Castillo and Encarnacion when that playing time could have been put to better use evaluating Collins.

Last edited 1 year ago by Trooper Galactus
HallofFrank

I thought of that, but I’d think Mercedes was next in the pecking order, anyway. His OPS was 80 points higher than Collins in AAA in 2019 and Collins at least did get some chances in Chicago (120 PA). The fact that Mercedes has only gotten one MLB PA over the last two years while Wellington got 250, Yonder got 251, AJ Reed got 49, and Edwin got 180 is laughably stupid.

But, still, you are right that we should know more about Collins than we do. We should have seen more of him (and a lot more Mercedes) over the last two years.

calcetinesblancos

The quotes from Collins show why the Sox brass are inept; he specifically says that he’s made adjustments after facing MLB pitching. What other adjustments would he have made with more plate appearances? There’s always a learning curve and there is no substitute for the show, so as you both mentioned, why did all those other bad players get to swing the bat so much instead of Zack?

They didn’t even let their “bat first” catcher use his bat lol. Sheer idiocy, plus now even if he doesn’t fit in your plans, he has zero trade value.

Trooper Galactus

Mercedes is another good example. The bottom line is there was a lot of playing time given to guys who clearly demonstrated they did not deserve it. Castillo playing regularly was absolutely mind-boggling considering they literally traded international pool money just to rid themselves of his buyout, which further cost them an opportunity to load up on some international teenage prospects.

burning-phoneix

His 120PAs have been really sporadaic. I don’t have the exact numbers but they’d give him like 10 PAs at DH, one game at C, send him down to AAA for like a couple months and then call him back up for 10 games as a pinch hitter. It really harms a player’s rhythm when you do that.

calcetinesblancos

That is what’s so irritating; the fact that there hasn’t been a point where Collins has gotten even 300-400 consistent at-bats at the MLB level. Which as we’ve now established, is more ridiculous when you see who was getting those playing opportunities instead. I would hope the Sox learn a lesson from this.

Also, even early Mike Trout looks bad if you’re just going off a small sample size.

Foulkelore

Engel is just murdering LHPs this spring. He’s really developed into a very nice player for the short side of a platoon.

Trooper Galactus

After his first season I posited that he had all the physical tools to be an average or better contributor (I put the bar at a .680 OPS to make him a roughly 2.0 WAR player), but his hit tool needed to advance significantly for him to reach even that low bar. If he’s legitimately advanced his hitting to the point where his power (somewhat underrated as a prospect) and speed can be put to good use, he’s a real threat.

HallofFrank

For all of the hand-wringing about bench depth this offseason (I was among them), I actually think this could end up being a deep team. Looks like Collins, Garcia, Mendick, and Engel.

I still don’t think we know what we’re getting with Collins, but he does at least have upside. Of the other three, Garcia may actually be the weak link. Over the last two seasons:

Name: WAR (fWAR) in # of PAs (WAR/600PA)
Garcia: 2.0 (1.6) in 681 PAs (1.7)
Engel: 1.2 (1.5) in 341 PAs (2.1)
Mendick: 1.2 (0.5) in 154 PAs (4.6)

That’s solid production from a bench. I’m not sure I’d be thrilled to see a month of Engel or Mendick, but I would be intrigued.

Trooper Galactus

I’d caution getting too optimistic about Mendick. VERY small sample size and the value is heavily weighted toward defensive performance I don’t think he could sustain. Also, his bat went south so quickly he was optioned mid-season, wasn’t he?

calcetinesblancos

I like Engel a lot, and it’s good to have a true CF we can play if Robert needs a day off or whatever else. I’m hoping we never see Leury in CF again.

Why? Leury isn’t a bad defender in CF by most standards. His biggest issue out there is a seeming unwillingness to hit his cutoff man.

calcetinesblancos

I think he’s pretty bad. He does a lot of little things wrong and gets some awful reads from time to time. He has a better bat historically than Engel, but I would absolutely take Engel in CF over him 100% of the time, even if Engel regressed with the bat.

I would take Engel over Leury too, and I do agree he has problems out there, but the overall package is still perfectly serviceable. He’s not some sort of J.B. Shuck disaster out there.

dongutteridge

Assuming Vaughn is DH/1B to start the season then the Sox need Collins, Garcia, Engel and Mendick.

No way do I want Hamilton taking up a roster spot. The Sox don’t need 3 catchers but they do need more than 1 backup infielder.

calcetinesblancos

I agree. It’s been well-established that he can’t hit, so why waste a roster spot on him? Even if you start the season with Engel on the shelf, call up one of our minor league OF to get a little bit of seasoning at the MLB level. That will help their development down the road, and they might even surprise you.

burning-phoneix

Frankly, I really think Collins and Mercedes should be given the nod ahead of Vaughn for the DH spot. They both mashed in AAA and are doing it again in ST. If a team ever needed an excuse to manipulate service time, this is the best one I’ve seen.

calcetinesblancos

Whatever they do, they shouldn’t be married to it. Next man up if it doesn’t work out.