Collins brings new meaning to short reliefHe may be short in stature, but Tim Collins stands tall in the Royals' bullpen
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Tim Collins(notes) is going in for his officially official measurement this week. He took the official measurement earlier this spring, and it said he was 5-foot-7 on the nose. Nobody aside from Collins believes that, so rather than argue, a camera crew will be present, and a legitimate tape measure will be used, and he'd better hope he's having a particularly tall day because this one is for all the inches.
It's foolish to quibble over something so minute, of course, because what Collins is doing with the Kansas City Royals these days is unprecedented for someone so, well, minute. Whether he's 5-5 or 5-6 or 5-7, Collins is representing for those everywhere with craned necks: already a vital part of the Royals' rejuvenated bullpen; just as big a piece of a future ripening with promise; and showered with praise from hitters who never have seen anything like him.
Nor, for that matter, has baseball. There have been pitchers 67 inches and shorter – before Collins, 67 since 1901, according to Baseball-Reference.com. And there have been left-handers who throw 94 mph – plenty more than 67 but not enough to diminish such talent. Nobody – not the veteran scouts who anoint Collins, not the stat guys who gawk at his numbers, not even the general manager who acquired him – can remember someone so short who pumps such gas. Only Billy Wagner(notes), listed at 5-10 and 5-11, more like 5-9, comes close.
Given Collins' looping breaking ball and diving changeup, however, Wagner is not the best comparison. Collins is a funhouse Tim Lincecum(notes): He stands a little squatter and delivers with a different hand but throws with equal funk and flourish. He's no experiment in mechanics like Lincecum, whose father built his delivery piece by piece and unleashed it in his Frankenstein son.
When Collins steps on the mound, he said, "there's nothing scientific about it. I'm just trying to throw the ball really hard."
As Collins fired inning after scoreless inning this spring, something rare happened: The entire Royals front office agreed on how to handle a young player. They usually argue; not with Collins. Everyone wanted the 21-year-old to break camp with the big league team. Kansas City may have the most hyped farm system ever, loaded with prototypical left-handed starters and made-to-order power hitters. As part of the first wave, they were bringing in someone who, in his first minor league stop, was mistaken for the batboy.
"He's something you just don't see – a once-in-a-lifetime pitcher," said Royals general manager Dayton Moore.
Tim Collins planned on being a dime-a-dozen construction worker. That's what Collinses do. They go to Worcester Voc, learn a trade and earn their living. Collins' grandfather made cabinets. His dad was a painter. His uncle worked with sheet metal. Tim studied to be a carpenter.
At his vocational high school in central Massachusetts – now called Worcester Tech – Collins spent four years working with wood. His freshman year, he built a small-scale two-story, two-car garage. Collins can still fashion cabinets, he said, "but I'd rather hang them up out of the box."
For fun, he played baseball. He was excellent too. Worcester Voc won nearly 95 percent of its games during Collins' career. Even though he topped out at 83 miles per hour, Collins dominated. Yet scouts paid him no mind. He was 5-5. He planned to attend Community College of Rhode Island before he constructed houses. Collins went undrafted and played American Legion ball that summer on a lark.
J.P. Ricciardi, then general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, showed up at Main South Post No. 341's game to scout 6-foot-7 Keith Landers. He left blown away by Collins, who pitched four innings and struck out all 12 batters. The first half of Collins' delivery looked like Norm Charlton's, with the high leg kick and exaggerated trunk twist. The back end resembled Lincecum's, with the long stride and bumblebee quick arm. Ricciardi offered $10,000 to sign. College could wait. Collins hopped a plane to Florida, pitched six solid innings in the Gulf Coast League and hoped the Blue Jays had seen enough to invite him back the next season.
Collins knew he wouldn't survive at 83 mph. Fortuity came via a phone call from Eric Cressey. A personal trainer in Hudson, Mass., with a passion for baseball, Cressey heard about Collins through a mutual friend. He wanted to work with Collins. Almost immediately, Collins bought into Cressey's emphasis on flexibility as well as strength. Though Collins wasn't gifted with an ideal frame, he wanted to extract everything he could out of the one he had. In one offseason with Cressey, Collins gained 17 pounds and 5 mph on his fastball. He closed for Toronto's Class A team and struck out 98 in 68 1/3 innings. Before the 2009 season, Collins added more 10 pounds and another 3 mph. He followed with 116 strikeouts in 77 1/3 innings and jumped to Double-A. Ten more pounds put him at 170 and his fastball sitting at 94 mph – sometimes as high as 96 or 97.
Amid his greatest success, and his arrival as more prospect than sideshow, came the trades. The Atlanta Braves wanted Collins in their deal for Yunel Escobar(notes); the Blue Jays weren't going to let an undersized reliever get in the way of an everyday shortstop, so they dealt him in July. Two weeks later, the Braves needed a center fielder and asked the Royals for Rick Ankiel(notes). Kansas City insisted on Collins in return. Atlanta resisted. Kansas City didn't budge.
"The game's the ultimate evaluator," Moore said. "The stats can say one thing, the scouting judgment can say another. But you look at what he'd accomplished at each level, everything was terrific."
Moore had called his friend Tony LaCava, the Blue Jays' assistant GM, and received a glowing report. He saw the videos of Collins working out with Cressey and couldn't believe a baseball player had a 38.7-inch vertical leap. He loved the high strikeout numbers and microscopic hits allowed. He appreciated the 12-to-6 curveball to keep hitters off balance. He thought Collins' third pitch, the changeup, might be the best of the bunch. Collins had tried a changeup in the low minors. The first two he threw were hit for home runs. His pitching coach, Tom Signore, nixed the pitch until Collins refined it. He sampled a dozen variations, settling on a palmball, then switched his grip from along the seams to across them. Thousands of practice pitches later, it gave him a third plus pitch – a scary arsenal for a reliever who made fools of the Los Angeles Angels last week.
It was the 11th inning Sunday, and Collins' family already had left Kauffman Stadium to catch a flight. Royals manager Ned Yost summoned Collins and saw Vernon Wells(notes) look at strike three on a curveball and Jeff Mathis(notes) swing through a changeup. Collins went out for another inning and got Peter Bourjos(notes) to wave at a changeup and Howie Kendrick(notes) to take a fastball for strike three. Yost asked for another inning. Collins doesn't remember the last time he pitched three, but he was happy to oblige. He induced a double play from Torii Hunter(notes) and got Wells swinging on a curveball. Three innings, no walks and five strikeouts later, Collins belonged.
"Whether you're a multimillion-dollar guy or a $10,000 guy, everybody is here for a reason: They can play," he said. "Everyone should play like they have something to prove – and we have a lot to prove. I have a lot to prove."
Like his height. Collins is adamant he's 5-foot-7. Just like Danny Ray Herrera, a screwball artist with the Cincinnati Reds for the past couple of years, said he was 5-8 to sound taller. Eventually, Herrera gave up and listed himself at his real height: 5-6.
"I don't think [Collins] is 5-7," Moore said, "because I'm 5-8, and I think I've got more than an inch. But if he says it, I trust him."
Last year, Collins said, he measured 5-7¾. He didn't mind trading three-quarters of an inch for 3 mph on his fastball. Collins was still a foot shorter than his good friend and setup man with Double-A New Hampshire, the 6-foot-7 Trystan Magnuson, and that extra fraction of an inch wasn't going to vault him out of the 5-foot-7 brotherhood.
Only two pitchers in the past 35 years have stood 5-7 or shorter and gone more than 100 innings in their careers: Bill Atkinson (147 1/3) and Richie Lewis, the little right-hander (300). The best of all time were Dolf Luque, the Cuban with more than 3,000 innings pitched, and Bobby Shantz, winner of the American League MVP award in 1952 over Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra.
Collins has plenty of time to put himself closer to Luque and Shantz than Carlos Pascual and Pembroke Finlayson and Marv Rotblatt, the only three 5-7-and-shorter players to debut younger than him. Each was rushed. Collins wasn't. He did what Collinses do: He earned his job. Now that he's a major leaguer, with the perks and the benefits and the salary, he's going to fulfill a long-held plan – moving out of his parents' house this offseason.
Soon after, with his new address in tow, Collins will finally get to right a wrong. Collins' friends may think he's 5-5 or 5-6. He may believe he's 5-7. The media guide may agree. But right now, there's only one officially official accounting of Tim Collins' height. And his Massachusetts state driver's license, acquired five years ago when he was a woodworking apprentice with a dream, renders a far different verdict: 5-foot-2.
Nobody has ever looked so forward to a DMV visit.