Over three years ago, I wrote about Zack Collins‘ standing in the catching prospect rankings and White Sox organization and why I felt he was overlooked. Today, many of the points I made still apply. Collins has consistently produced when given regular plate appearances, but has never received such opportunities after torching AAA to the tune of a .282/.403/.548 line at the plate. Given the World Series aspirations held by the 2021 White Sox, I was originally uncertain about the possibility of Collins finally getting a chance to start regularly, as the team can no longer afford for unproven players to falter on a regular basis. However, after the crushing injury to Eloy Jimenez, there is no better candidate than Zack Collins to pick up the majority of the recently-opened plate appearances.
It would be unfair for me to reduce all of the criticisms of Zack Collins to complaints about his batting average or performance in extremely small and staggered MLB samples. The points I often see raised about him now pertain to his swing and whether his minor league stats are truly meaningful. Still, I find these concerns to be overblown.
After I wrote the aforementioned Collins article in 2018, he spent a full season at AA Birmingham and hit .234/.382/.404. Collins’ .382 on-base percentage was spectacular for an age-appropriate AA starter, especially considering how difficult the Southern League and Birmingham’s Regions Field are, specifically for hitters. The only position players in recent history to make Regions Field look like a little league stadium were Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert, and that was because they are Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert. Collins was always a very good prospect, but he never was and never should have been viewed as similar to those two from a value standpoint. Therefore, I was quite encouraged by his AA performance.
In 2019, Collins spent most of the season in AAA Charlotte and, as mentioned, hit .282/.403/.548 with 19 home runs in 88 games. His AAA performance was undeniably spectacular, but detractors would often point to the fact that, much unlike the Southern League and Regions Field, the International League and Charlotte’s Truist Field are extremely hitter-friendly. In the same year, Ryan Goins hit .322/.406/.531 for Charlotte. These analogies and complaints, however, lack nuance and an understanding of which minor league performances deserve to be evaluated more heavily. For instance, Ryan Goins was 31-years-old during the 2019 season. He was the epitome of organizational depth, or a “AAAA player,” rather than a true prospect. AAA teams always have a few MLB journeymen on their rosters who light up the league, but are not nearly the same hitters in MLB. While it is conceivable that Collins is on a similar path, it is far too early to declare so. When compared to other age-appropriate players (i.e. “true prospects”), Collins’ AAA performance was either on par with or better than the vast majority of his peers. His gaudy .400+ on-base percentage and near .550 slugging percentage speak for themselves, and while I understand the instincts of many to try and find reasons to discount such eye-popping statistics, that Collins produced them is obviously much better than him getting to Charlotte and struggling.
Since then, Collins has bounced around between Charlotte, the Schaumburg alternate site, and the White Sox bench. It still befuddles me that the White Sox chose to regularly start Welington Castillo and Matt Skole (at DH) over Collins late in 2019 rather than give regular at-bats to the lone potential long-term piece out of the three.
Regardless, that is in the past, and the slimmed-down Collins’ swing and batting stance look much more athletic and fluid in 2021. He is using his elite plate discipline to his advantage (much like Yoan Moncada did in 2019) by laying off close pitches but aggressively attacking fastballs in the strike zone. At the very least, Collins’ past performance and improved presence at the plate warrant regular MLB at-bats in 2021.
Before the Jimenez injury, those at-bats might have had to come with another team. But now, with Andrew Vaughn apparently a serious contender to play left field on a regular basis, Zack Collins deserves to open the season as the regular designated hitter and occasional backup catcher/first baseman if necessary. I have much more confidence in a regularly-starting Collins providing stellar results than I do in a current aging and over-the-hill free agent such as Yoenis Cespedes or Ryan Braun doing the same.
Of course, there is a chance that Collins never develops past his current state, and is simply an organizational depth piece who cannot handle MLB pitching. However, he deserves a chance to prove himself, and patient MiLB hitters with similar concerns have had success in the big leagues lately, such as Toronto’s Cavan Biggio. Biggio still carries some red flags with respect to the sustainability of his production, but if Collins — who offers more raw power than Biggio — can at least match Biggio’s career .240/.368/.430 slash line, then he will certainly placate the current Chicago depth concerns. With the season set to begin in just three days, nobody has more to gain nor is more deserving of regular designated hitter at-bats with the White Sox than Zack Collins.
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