Photo: Richard Lewis/Miami Athletics

Collins finds fun fit at 'The U'

Jeff Dahn

Published: Thursday, May 5, 2016

It was with an air of excitement that the big, power-hitting local kid from Broward County arrived on the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus in the fall of 2013, and it didn’t take long for Zack Collins to figure out he was in the right place at the right time.

Collins came to The U as the nation’s No. 31-ranked overall prep prospect and one of its most highly regarded catchers, and was just a year removed from playing in the 2012 Perfect Game All-American Classic. The Cincinnati Reds had selected him in the 27th round of the 2013 MLB First-Year Player Draft, but the slugger turned away from the lure of professional money to honor his commitment to head coach Jim Morris and the Hurricanes.

Growing up in nearby Pembroke Pines, Collins has been attending U. of Miami games since he was a little kid. He started attending Morris’ camps as soon as they would accept him and got to know Morris and long-time assistant coaches Gino DiMare and J.D. Arteaga extremely well.

“I’ve always loved the Hurricanes and I felt great about committing here early,” Collins told PG during a telephone interview this week. “Ever since I’ve been here I’ve loved it and nothing really has ever gone wrong. I got off to a couple of rough starts last year and the year before but I got comfortable and that helped me get through that and I had two good seasons.”

For the last two-plus seasons, Collins has been a driving force on a Canes team that won a combined 94 games (46 in the rugged Atlantic Coast Conference) during the 2014 and 2015 seasons, and have won 33 more overall (14 in ACC) through their first 41 games this season. No. 4-ranked Miami is trying to make it back to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., for the second straight season; it ended a seven-year drought in 2015.

And in reality, Collins’ memory wasn’t that right-on when thinking back to the start of his freshman season in 2014. He was 8-for-27 (.296) with a home run, three doubles and nine RBI in his first eight games wearing a Canes jersey that spring on his way to earning Perfect Game First Team Freshman All-America recognition. Collins was probably thinking more specifically about his sophomore year in 2015 when he went 0-for-17 to start the season.

“From the day Zack walked on campus, he was a hitter,” Morris told PG this week. “The guy can just hit and he can hit for power, so he’s being pitched around a lot. … I always say, if he doesn’t swing at a pitch it’s probably a ball; he’s very selective at the plate.

“When he gets good pitches to hit he normally hits them and that’s why he’s got so many walks. They try to pitch around him and he doesn’t swing at bad pitches; he takes walks and gets good pitches and takes good swings.”

Collins hit .298 with 11 home runs, three triples and 14 doubles with 54 RBI and 32 runs in 2014 and followed that up by hitting .302 with 15 home runs, five triples, 14 doubles, 70 RBI and 61 runs last season.

After earning PG Freshman All-American status in 2014, he was a PG Second Team All-American at the end of the 2015 season and a PG Preseason Second Team All-American at the beginning of this season. Coming off those two All-American seasons in 2014-15, he's back at it again in 2016, slashing .417/.580/.713 with nine home runs, seven doubles, 42 RBI and 33 runs scored; he has received a mind-boggling 48 walks.

In a PG MLB Draft Pack notebook item published April 1, PG Managing Editor & Scouting Coordinator Patrick Ebert wrote the following regarding Collins:

“(It’s not a) big surprise that he has one of the most selective approaches and powerful bats at the plate at the college level. … Power comes easy for Collins, who has obvious strength in his 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame. He doesn’t chase too often on pitches thrown out of the zone, especially early in the count. He’s a left-handed hitter, and has a surprisingly short path to the ball and generates a good deal of his power from his lower half.”

Collins was sidelined by illness for the last two games of the Florida A&M series last weekend, a bug that had actually been affecting him the last two weeks of April (although you’d never know it by his performance). It started out as the flu and then turned into residual bronchitis which nagged Collins with a persistent cough.

He planned on playing in Wednesday’s non-conference game against No. 19 Florida Atlantic and felt certain he’d be in the lineup for this week’s three-game ACC series with Georgia Tech in Atlanta. In league play so far this season, the Canes have series sweeps of Clemson and North Carolina, 2-1 series wins over Virginia Tech, Louisville and Duke and 1-2 series loss to defending national champion Virginia. Miami rose to No. 1 in the PG National Top 25 Rankings for two weeks in April.

“We’re having a lot of fun this year,” Collins said. “The main goal that I wanted to achieve was not to really worry about the draft and just go out and have fun with my teammates, and that’s what we’ve been doing; I feel great.”

With the stellar season Collins is enjoying to date, his standing in next month’s MLB First-Year Player Draft continues to rise. Perfect Game ranks the 6-foot-3, 220-pound left-handed hitter the No. 25 overall prospect in this year’s draft; he is the No. 1 catching prospect.

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during which they qualified for their record 43rd straight NCAA Regional Tournament (44 in 45 years) and their 24th College World Series appearance since 1974 (12th since 1994 under the direction of Morris).

They finished with an overall record of 50-17 (23-8 ACC regular season) after going 2-1 in the ACC Tournament, 3-1 in the NCAA Coral Gables Regional, 2-0 in the NCAA Coral Gables Super Regional against Virginia Commonwealth and 1-2 in the College World Series. Both of their CWS losses were to Florida; their lone win came against Arkansas.

Miami had five players selected in last year’s MLB First-Year Player Draft off that team, including slugger David Thompson, who went in the fourth-round to the New York Mets; Thompson hit .328/.434/.640 with 19 home runs and 90 RBI a season ago.

Nine-game winner Andrew Suarez went in the second-round to the San Francisco Giants; ACC batting champion George Iskenderian was a seventh-round pick of the Milwaukee Brewers; catcher Garrett Kennedy went to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 14th round and centerfielder Ricky Esebio went to the Seattle Mariners in the 16th round.

Morris also had to replace seven-game winner Enrique Sosa but it was the holes in the batting order he felt would be the most difficult to fill – three regulars who played in at least 61 games and hit .302 or better were gone. It is for that reason the veteran head coach has been most impressed with an everyday lineup that is slashing a cumulative .301/.403/.417 with 26 home runs while averaging just over 6 runs per game through 41 games this season.

“Our hitting has probably exceeded (our expectations) a little bit in the fact that we lost some really good hitters (from last season),” Morris said. “… We have a lot of guys playing who weren’t playing (last season) and, to be honest with you, most of the time this year we’ve played about as good as we can play. We’ve pitched good, we’ve played the best defense possibly of any team I’ve ever had and we’ve gotten big hits.

“Our defense and our pitching have kept us in some games, and we’ve gotten big hits and scored some runs; it’s kind of fun to watch. … We find a way to win and these guys have played really good as a team so I’m very happy with the way we’ve played.”

Collins might be the horse pulling this lumber wagon but this team isn’t a one-trick pony. Junior shortstop Brandon Lopez, sophomore outfielder Carl Chester (a 2011 PG All-American), redshirt junior first baseman/outfielder Christopher Barr and junior outfielder Willie Abreu joined Collins as essentially everyday starters a year ago and are back in the lineup this spring.

Junior outfielder Jacob Heyward – the younger brother of Chicago Cubs’ right-fielder Jason Heyward – redshirt junior Edgar Michelangeli and junior infielder Johnny Ruiz both made multiple starts in 2015 and are full-time starters in 2016.

Lopez is slashing .408/.473/.515 with a home run, 11 doubles, 24 RBI and 31 runs this season; Ruiz has driven in 41 runs thanks to a .347 batting average, one home run, one triple and 11 doubles; Chester is hitting .359 with team-highs of 40 runs and 12 stolen bases, and Abreu has smacked seven home runs and driven in 39. Heyward is batting .226 in his 41 starts but has contributed four home runs and 25 RBI; he hit .327 with four home runs and 24 RBI in 56 games (22 starts) in 2015.

“The middle of our order has done a really good job and Chester can really run from (the) leadoff (spot),” Morris said. “We’re getting some guys on base and some of the other guys are driving them in, and it’s a fun thing to watch, to be honest.”

The Canes’ pitching staff is led by 6-foot-5, 225-pound sophomore left-hander Michael Mediavilla, who is 8-1 with a 3.26 ERA and 51 strikeouts in 58 innings over 11 starts. Junior left-hander Danny Garcia is 7-3 with a 2.70 ERA 63 1/3 innings, also compiled over 11 starts.

“We’re one of those teams where we’re really not overpowering in any category,” Collins said. “But when we don’t pitch good we hit good and when we don’t hit good we pitch good, so it’s like everybody has each other’s back. That’s what we’ve been doing all season and it’s been working.”

After finishing last season at the College World Series in Omaha and after participating in fall workouts, Collins had a gut feeling this year’s Canes’ team was going to be a pretty good one. That said, even he is a little amazed when he looks at The U’s overall record of 33-8 and its 14-5 mark in the ACC. He marvels at the sweeps of Clemson and No. 25 North Carolina and the series win over No. 9 Louisville, and even thought the Canes played well in winning 1-of-3 against Virginia.

“That just shows you how tough it is to win in the ACC,” he said of the series loss to Virginia. “We’ve been doing a great job and having a lot of fun.”

Added Morris: “Against Clemson and North Carolina, particularly, we played as good as we can play. At the time they came in here they were both ranked in the top-10 and we just played really solid, team baseball. Different guys were getting hits and we were making plays and it was a fun two weekends, I’m telling you.”

The Canes are having a lot of fun as the regular season grinds to a close and Collins said the team’s winning attitude comes from the top and trickles down to the troops. “(Morris’s) main thing is just going out there and playing hard every day,” he said. “He really takes those weekday games seriously because in reality those are big games, too, and he just really wants to win every single day; he doesn’t want to take one game off. He stresses playing good defense and playing the game right and that’s what we’ve been doing all season.”

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to Collins dating back to his days at American Heritage High School (Fla.) and playing in Perfect Game events. He was a member of the 2011 USA Baseball 16u National Team, and played at the 2012 Perfect Game All-American Classic and 2012 PG National Showcase; he was also at the 2012 USA Baseball Tournament of Stars and 2012 East Coast Professional Showcase.

“Playing with the 16-under USA team, that was kind of my first big stage and I think that helped me become comfortable on some of the other big stages and in front of a lot of scouts,” Collins said. “All of those experiences were really great.”

He was also a member of Richie Palmer’s outstanding South Florida Elite Squad teams from 2009 through 2012, and was named the Most Valuable Player at the 2011 PG WWBA 16u National Championship and at the 2012 17u Perfect Game World Series. Those Elite Squad teams won PG national championships, beating the Orlando Scorpions Underclass Purple in the championship game at the 16u PG WWBA and the East Cobb Braves at the 17u PGWS.

“Those were probably the best years of my life in baseball,” Collins said. “Not only did we win a couple of national championships in big tournaments with Perfect Game, but I think (PG) did a great job with getting players recruited and getting players seen by colleges and pro scouts.

“When I recommend anything to kids as to what they should do in the summer, I think the Perfect Game (events) are the best. It’s the biggest tournaments you can play in during the summer and we got to win a couple of those, so it felt good.”

Collins said he has never had any regrets about not signing professionally when the Reds selected him in the 27th round of the 2013 MLB First-Year Player Draft. He made the decision to honor his commitment to the Hurricanes as soon as the early rounds of the draft slipped by without his name being called, and has never really looked back.

“It was a tough decision because there was a lot of money involved,” he said. “There have been kids who (didn’t sign) and then ended up being a bust in college but I had confidence in myself that I was going to (go to Miami) and kind of prove people wrong, and it’s worked out so far.”

According to Morris, the area Collins has improved in the most is the way he handles the catcher’s position. First-year Canes assistant coach Norberto Lopez was brought in to work specifically with the team’s catchers and hitters and has helped with Collins’ development behind the plate.

“It’s been fun to watch those two guys work together and (Collins) has really improved a lot,” Morris said. “Lopez is from down here and he’s really helped Zack mature behind the plate. That’s the biggest difference in Zack (from last year) because Zack could always hit.”

PG’s Ebert addressed a possible position change in his MLB Draft Pack item:

“The biggest question mark surrounding Collins is his future defensive home. He currently is spending most of his time behind the plate, where he played in high school, even though he spent a lot of time at first base and as the team’s designated hitter during his first two years in college. He has more than enough arm strength, but similar to other big-bodied, slugging catchers, including the Cubs’ Kyle Schwarber, he may be a better fit at another position. …

“He has more than enough power for first base, and shows soft hands and a good overall sense for the position where his defense could be viewed as a positive attribute. However, his value is obviously greater if he’s able to stick behind the plate at the next level, even in a Schwarber-esque utility role, at least to begin his professional career.

While the speculation persists, Morris firmly believes that with the improvement Collins has shown this season his young star will stay behind the plate.

“The (scouts) out there looking at him think he can be a successful (big league player) and they’re evaluating him more than I do at the next level,” Morris said. “We all know it’s an educated guess and making it in the big leagues is always tough, but he’s going to hit himself into a lineup. And I think the higher he goes up (the professional ladder) as a catcher the better off he’s going to be.”

Collins is keeping everything in perspective. He’s seen the mock drafts and he’s heard the “early first-round” talk and he’s gotten use to people tagging him on Twitter and other social media outlets. He tries to let the speculation roll off his back.

“I don’t think about (the draft) when I’m playing or try to pay attention to who might be at the game; I just go out there and play the game,” he said. “Now that I’ve seen what the team is like, it’s been pretty easy to not really worry about who’s in the stands and just worry about winning,”

After its three-game set with Georgia Tech this weekend, the Canes host Bethune-Cookman in a non-conference game Tuesday, May 10; welcome ACC rival Pittsburgh in for three May 13-15; host Florida Gulf Coast in a final non-conference game on May 17, and then finish the regular season in Tallahassee with three games against No. 5 Florida State.

Miami goes into the weekend with a 2 ½ game lead (five games in the loss column) on Virginia in the Coastal Division of the ACC while Florida State (14-6 ACC) has a half-game lead over Louisville (14-7) in the Atlantic Division. That gives the Hurricanes a half-game lead over the Seminoles in the overall conference standings. Miami has not won an ACC championship since 2008.

And how about it, Zack Collins? Are you feeling like you landed in a pretty good spot?

“I couldn’t have asked for a better situation,” he concluded. “I’m playing near home; my parents come to every single game. We’ve been a winning team for three years, I’ve been to Omaha and I just couldn’t have asked for a better situation.”

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