Photography: Reno Aces
By Dan Strittmatter
Josh Collmenter isn’t supposed to be a top prospect.
He was a 15th round draft pick by the D-backs in 2007 out of Central Michigan University, 463rd overall. To put that in some perspective, there are just 11 other prospects from that round of that year’s draft who have played in the minors in 2010. Just two of them, Reds pitcher Chuckie Fick and Cardinals pitcher Matt Klinker, have reached the Triple-A level, and both of them have ERA’s above 5.30 there.
Even strictly from a scouting perspective, it would be easy to simply pass over Collmenter. His fastball tops out on the radar gun in the low-90’s, sitting in the upper-80’s. But the 24-year-old right hander has made himself into a serious prospect by simply continuing to get guys out in bunches.
It shouldn’t be a total surprise — it’s not as if succeeding in an uphill battle is a new story for Collmenter. Just getting to Central Michigan was a struggle in itself.
“Coming out of high school from a really small high school,” Collmenter said, “I didn’t get a chance to play Division I baseball until the very end (of his high school baseball career) – I signed with Central Michigan in July of the summer going into (college).”
It’s now safe to assume that CMU was extremely happy that he did sign there. Collmenter spent three seasons at Central Michigan, dominating the Mid-American Conference and establishing himself as one of the university’s best ever players. In each of his three seasons there, he posted ERAs below 3.50 — 2.70 as a freshman, 3.41 as a sophomore, and an absurd 1.93 as a junior when he carried a 117-to-26 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 116 1/3 innings.
His trophy case is chock full of awards from that Junior season: MAC Pitcher of the Year, All-MAC first team, All-Mideast Region first team, All-America third team by Baseball America, Great Lakes Region Pitcher of the Year by InsidePitching.com, Academic All-District IV second team, Academic All-MAC, and CMU’s Most Valuable Player. Collmenter also holds Central Michigan’s all-time career records for wins (24) and strikeouts (288). As icing on the cake, he also had a solid stint in the highly-competitive fall Cape Cod League between his sophomore and junior years, throwing 26 innings for the Hyannis Mets, striking out 26, walking eight and carrying a 2.42 ERA.
But there were a couple of concerns that made him slip so far in the draft to the D-backs. First, Collmenter was facing weaker college competition than some of his big-conference peers, though his Cape Cod stint helped assuage this concern. Second, his radar gun readings, as mentioned above, weren’t off the charts. And third, Collmenter has very unorthodox throwing mechanics.
D-backs fans may recall that when Brandon Webb was receiving instruction from Dr. James Andrews about lowering his arm slot, he was told that most starting pitchers work from an arm slot between 88 and 102 degrees (where zero degrees is straight down, moving up the side of your pitching arm). Collmenter’s delivery is almost directly above his head — he bends his body backwards to allow his arm to follow through.
One might think that this delivery was unnatural and could place added stress on his arm. Yet, Collmenter never felt anything out of the ordinary. He didn’t even realize his mechanics were unusual until he saw video of himself pitching.
“I really didn’t see exactly how I threw until my senior year (of high school) when my mom got some footage that she put together for a graduation DVD,” Collmenter said. “And that was the first time I’d ever seen how unique my wind-up is. It’s just natural. From when I first picked up a baseball, that’s how I’ve thrown all of my life.”
While unusual, this creates incredible deception in Collmenter’s delivery. The ball is hard for batters to pick up as he releases it since it appears to come out from behind his head. Thus, his high-80’s fastball jumps on hitters much faster than that reading would suggest. Add the deception provided by his best pitch, a good change-up, and you’re left with a very uneasy hitter in the batter’s box. And Collmenter credits his college coaching for the development of that change-up.
“Going into college, my pitching coach loved (the delivery), and loved the deception. That’s really where I developed the change-up I have now, and it’s continuing to get better,” Collmenter said. “(His coach said) ‘With that arm angle and the ability to hide the ball, that change-up is going to be your best pitch.’ I hadn’t thrown a change-up up until then, and he’s turned out to be absolutely right.”
Just like at Central Michigan, and despite the odds piled against him, the results have been stellar at every level of the minors where Collmenter has been in the D-backs’ system. He posted a 2.71 ERA at Short-season A Yakima after being drafted in ’07. The next year, he followed with a 3.41 ERA in 145 1/3 innings at Low-A South Bend. And, last year, Collmenter led the entire D-backs’ farm system with his 152 strikeouts at Hi-A Visalia.
To start 2010, Collmenter was back at Visalia, but only because of a lack of open rotation spots in the upper levels of the minors, and he certainly was not there for very long. Collmenter made just three starts for the Rawhide before being promoted. But not to Double-A Mobile — Collmenter made the jump up to Triple-A Reno because the Aces had an empty rotation spot. He threw seven shutout innings in his debut for Reno, but after a three more starts, was sent to Mobile while Wes Roemer had earned a promotion to Reno by tearing apart the Southern League to the tune of a 2.39 ERA.
Collmenter pitched incredibly well in his nine starts in the Southern League, with a 56-to-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 62 1/3 innings of work for the BayBears and an incredible 1.59 ERA. He also threw two complete games, including a complete-game shutout.
While at Mobile, Collmenter also had the experience of seeing one of his teammates, Barry Enright, called up to the Major Leagues. Enright had been picked 13 rounds ahead of Collmenter in the 2007 draft, and the two had played for the Yakima Bears in ’07, though they spent 2008 and 2009 at different affiliates. Collmenter reflected on watching Enright pitch, and have success, in the big leagues.
“I’ve definitely followed him. He threw really well last night (July 20 @ Chase Field – 8 IP, 1 R, 8 K, 1 BB) against a pretty good Mets team. Seeing that he’s had success not only builds confidence that ‘hey, I can make this jump, too,’ but also in the Diamondbacks’ management, that we have some guys in the system that, if called upon, can get the job done. It maybe paves the way for us.”
His stellar numbers in Double-A also earned him a spot on the Southern League All-Star Team with eight of his teammates, despite having spent just over half of his season at the level. But even his All-Star invitation had a funky delivery. The BayBears are in the Southern Division of the Southern League, and eight of their All-Star representatives played for the Southern Division team. But as the game approached, the Northern Division needed an extra pitcher.
So, Collmenter was chosen to start the game for the Northern Division squad… against his own teammates. The official Southern League Transactions Report page even has a note from July 12 saying that Collmenter had been “assigned to SOU North Division All-Stars from SOU South Division All-Stars.”
He threw two scoreless innings, allowing two hits, a walk and struck out two to earn the win. He retired Mobile teammates OF Evan Frey on a groundout and OF Collin Cowgill on a pop-up, while C Konrad Schmidt, who has caught many of Collmenter’s starts, drew a walk. After his two innings, he went into the Northern Division dugout, collected high-fives, then went back into the locker room to change uniforms and joined the Southern Division dugout.
“The All- Star Game was fun, and I got to face three of my own hitters,” he said, “almost like a Spring Training game.”
To add to hilarity of the situation, that start — picking up a win against an All-Star team that included eight of his Mobile teammates — was Collmenter’s last start as a BayBear, as he was transferred back to Triple-A Reno following the All-Star Game, with Visalia RHP Bryan Woodall taking his place.
“The first time (being promoted to Reno) was a little more relaxed because no one really knows what to expect making the jump from A-ball to Triple-A,” Collmenter said. “Now, coming back up here after having some success in Double-A is exciting because you’re getting yourself that much closer to realizing your goal and everyone’s dream of being a Major League player.”
But Collmenter is trying to keep himself levelheaded while on the mound amidst the chaos of back-and-forth promotions.
“I guess I’m just trying to have fun and enjoy it, and let the stuff on the mound take care of itself,” he said. “And not worry about what I have to do, but just worry about what I can do.”
Without a doubt, Collmenter has had a marvelous 2010 campaign. With the organization demonstrating its willingness to promote pitchers quickly, such as Enright’s jump from Double-A to the Majors, Collmenter could may find himself at the Major League level sooner rather than later. And Collmenter, despite facing slim odds since the very beginning of his pro career, is motivated to make it in the Majors.
“I always continue to work hard, and it’s fun to be able to prove people wrong – to be able to go in and say ‘I know what I’m doing,’ have success and to continue to build on it,” he said. “You have to continue to prove yourself year-in and year-out in this game. One bad year and that could be the end of it.”