Of all the things to come from tiny Homer, Mich., there is a pitcher. And the incongruity – like Hell, Mich., producing Mother Teresa, or Christmas, Mich., the Grinch – of course meant this pitcher couldn't be like every other ordinary one from every other ordinary town.
There is a particular joy in watching Josh Collmenter(notes) throw a baseball. In a sport that welcomes freaks of all kind – fat or skinny, tall or short, it doesn't matter if you can get outs or score runs or catch the ball – Collmenter outfreaks the freakiest. His right shoulder seems to sublux with every pitch, his delivery so catawampus that dislocation seems inevitable. And then the ball emerges, sometimes an 87-mph fastball, others a 75-mph changeup, rarely anything else, and it appears from nowhere, a little white pea that looks like it's shot from his forehead. His shoulder is fine. The batter is not.
More than two months into Collmenter's major league career, hitters still haven't figured him out. Fastballs at his velocity generally portend a life of homers, yes, and lots of them. Instead, they are leaving hitters dumbfounded. Earlier this month, as he twirled seven shutout innings against Washington, Collmenter stepped into the batter's box. The Nationals' catcher, Hall of Famer-to-be Pudge Rodriguez, engaged in some small talk. His exact words, Collmenter said: "We just can't figure out where you're gonna throw the ball."
Josh Collmenter threw seven shutout innings in a 4-0 win over Washington on June 3.
Which is the story, really, of Collmenter's entire charmed career, from the start in his 1,751-person hometown to his rotation spot with a group of similar unlikelies, the first-place Arizona Diamondbacks. They're there thanks in part to Collmenter's delivery, over the top literally and figuratively. It beget his 2.09 ERA over 60 1/3 innings with a .536 OPS against. Only Josh Becket, Josh Johnson(notes), Jered Weaver(notes) and his opponent in Saturday's 7 p.m. ET start, Detroit's Justin Verlander(notes), have better opponent OPS marks.
Hundreds are expected to trek 100 miles from Homer to Detroit, much like hundreds attended Josh Collmenter Day in Homer on Friday. The parade looped through the one-square-mile town with a police and fire truck escort. Baseball is big in Homer, and it gets no bigger than the catalyst to the record that brought the city renown.
During Collmenter's senior year at Homer High – graduating class: 72 – the baseball team won 38 consecutive games and a state championship. The next year's team won 37 straight, and the record of 75 in a row held until a group from Portsmouth, N.H., beat it this year. Still, for a town without a mayor – Homer elects a "village president" – and whose greatest attraction is the pizza at Cascarelli's, the streak served as a source of civic pride.
Even then, witnesses were taken aback by how Collmenter threw. He didn't realize the oddity of his delivery until his mother showed him a video he planned on sending to colleges.
"I rewound it a couple times to watch the throwing part," Collmenter said. "I didn't understand how extreme it was. It feels so natural for me, the herky-jerkiness dissipates in my head. It's just how I throw."
Central Michigan didn't mind. Its pitching coach, Mike Villano, embraced Collmenter's delivery. While Collmenter never could participate in the activity where pitchers needed to watch someone whose delivery resembled theirs – the closest was Chris Young, who has eight inches on the 6-foot-2 Collmenter and doesn't throw nearly as over the top – he did forge a connection with Villano on pitching theory.
If Collmenter couldn't reach the 90s with his fastball velocity, he would need to pitch with his brain. Villano asked him "to throw a ball with curveball spin that doesn't curve." The impetus wasn't to invent a new pitch; Villano wanted Collmenter to think about how the ball left his fingertips, what different grips and finger pressures would do to its movement.
After experimenting with nearly a dozen changeup grips, Collmenter settled on one completely his own. He uses a variation of the Vulcan, with the ball wedged between his middle and ring fingers and the thumb and pinkie used as support. Between the deception created by his delivery and the pitch sharing a nearly identical release point with his fastball, Collmenter has survived with a two-pitch repertoire because both have been so damn good.
"It looks like a screwball coming out of his hand to me," Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson said. "He's definitely got a niche. We've seen some adjustments made to him. Last game, I think some people saw him a third time through and got on him. He's got to keep developing. He's got a great makeup, a good demeanor, controls the game well."
Opposing hitters have told Josh Collmenter that they don't know what's coming.
How Collmenter adjusts to those countermeasures will determine whether the 25-year-old is indeed a late bloomer and rotation stalwart or simply the product of incredible luck. The data indicates the latter: hitters' batting average on balls in play is .200, about 100 points lower than the average. He's stranding baserunners at a well-above-average 80.7 percent and his strikeout rate doesn't scream dominance.
And yet this isn't the first professional success seen by Collmenter since Arizona took him in the 15th round in 2007. He dominated in Class-A and Double-A last year, a season that took him from fringe prospect to legitimate. Never did the Diamondbacks try to tweak Collmenter's delivery, not when they understand it's the only way he felt comfortable throwing a ball.
"To understand how I do things really helped them out," Collmenter said. "It's not smooth. That's not a word to describe it. Not pretty, either."
It's effective, though, like a scab: unsightly but gets the job done. Other descriptions affixed to Collmenter's delivery: unsustainable, painful, similar to a cricket bowler and the best: like Iron Mike, the pitching machine with the actuated arm that delivers a ball from a hopper and then waggles on the rebound.
Sometimes Collmenter will mimic an Iron Mike, though the nickname hasn't caught on yet. He doesn't need one. Collmenter is plenty unique already, with the Star Trek grip and the curveball that doesn't curve and a funky delivery unseen in decades.
The pitcher from Homer would have it no other way.