As the 2017 season began, Zack Collins saw himself ranked as the #4 catching prospect in baseball by MLB Pipeline. As we await the start of the 2018 season, Collins sits at #9 on the updated MLB Pipeline catching prospect rankings. Why did Collins drop five slots? Was it his performance, or did other catching prospects emerge? Indeed, Keibert Ruiz (Dodgers), Jake Rogers (Tigers), and Elmhurst, Illinois native Danny Jansen (Blue Jays), among others, enjoyed breakout 2017 campaigns that helped them to pass Collins in the Pipeline rankings. However, Collins’ season was arguably just as impressive as theirs.
Coming into the 2017 season, the biggest knock on Collins was his skills behind the plate. He graded out as a below average defensive catcher, with an average at best arm. Collins focused on improving defensively this season, and the results were impressive: while playing for the A+ Winston-Salem Dash of the Carolina League, Collins threw out an outstanding 41% of attempted base stealers- only Jake Rogers (44%, albeit in a much smaller sample size, Pipeline’s #5 catching prospect) and Dan Salters (42%, unranked catching prospect) had better marks among qualified catchers. Not only did Collins improve with his arm, but he also refined his game calling abilities. White Sox scouting director Nick Hostetler commented on this, saying, “The big thing for us last year with Zack was just to go catch, learn how to catch, learn how to call a game- he didn’t know how to call a game.” While this aspect of this game cannot necessarily be quantified with statistics, Hostetler added, “We talked to a few guys that have thrown to him this year and they’ve said that he’s gotten progressively better over the course of the season with his development.” Collins clearly spent much of his time working on becoming a better defensive catcher. Remarkably, he was still a very effective offensive player.
Pictured: Collins working out at the White Sox Spring Training complex in Glendale, Arizona, in 2017.
Zack Collins played 113 games across A+ Winston-Salem and AA Birmingham in 2017. Between the two levels, he slugged 19 home runs, 20 doubles, drew 87 walks, got on base at a robust .370 clip, and finished the season with an .816 OPS. These numbers alone seem impressive enough to make him one of the best catching prospects in the league, given his newfound defensive skills. Unfortunately, Collins struck out 129 times, hindering his offensive value. The good news for White Sox fans, however, is that Collins vowed to alter his swing over the offseason, just like he spent the 2016-2017 offseason shoring up his defense. Collins believes that his new swing has eliminated an unnecessary hitch that may have contributed to his strikeout totals. In October, well into the minor league offseason, Collins commented on his new swing, stating, “I definitely feel a difference. I’m staying through balls a little bit better, hitting the offspeed better and seeing the ball better, so I feel good.” When the White Sox drafted Collins in 2016, scouts raved about his plate discipline, and that he rarely ever swung at balls outside of the strike zone. If he truly can cut down on his strikeout rate, his pitch recognition skills and power could make him an offensive force for years to come.
Clearly, Collins’ only major issue going into the 2018 season is his strikeout rate. So why have prospect ranking sites soured on him so much? After all, he did correct the issue scouts pointed out the most. Perhaps, the issue some fans and sites have with Collins is his batting average (.224). Indeed, batting average, the increasingly irrelevant statistic that has been proven to have far less correlation with run scoring and team success than stats such as OBP, OPS, or wRC+, may be the reason Collins has dropped in prospect rankings. Nick Hostetler also shared his thoughts on this: “I think probably the most overblown thing of all my time here is Zack Collins’ batting average. We don’t care. The catching development is all that we cared about last year.” Hostetler put it as bluntly as he possibly could: “We don’t care.” As long as Collins gets on base often and hits home runs, his offensive value will remain high. Even for those who still care about batting average, if Collins can indeed cut down on his strikeout rate and put more balls in play, his batting average would theoretically rise.
Pictured: Collins at the plate for the Winston-Salem Dash in 2017.
Even with his strikeout concerns, Zack Collins is still a top catching prospect. If he can cut down on his strikeout rate, he could even skyrocket to one of the top three spots before he is eventually called up to the White Sox. Assuming Collins begins the 2018 season at AA Birmingham, at which he spent the final few weeks of the 2017 season, he could be in the Majors as early as this season. If he proves at AA that he can continue to slug and walk with fewer strikeouts, while maintaining his new and improved defense, a promotion to AAA, or straight to MLB, would become more and more likely. The White Sox organization is in unfamiliar territory right now, as they currently have three serviceable MLB catchers in Welington Castillo, Omar Narvaez, and Kevan Smith, as well as intriguing catching prospects such as Collins, Seby Zavala, and Yermin Mercedes. Despite the logjam, fans can expect to see Collins around September, or even earlier if he excels in the minors. He likely won’t reach the Majors any later than early 2019, so regardless, the wait for our catcher of the future is dwindling down. Despite the latest catching rankings, Collins has an even brighter future ahead of him due to his improved defense and new swing mechanics.