Even at age 3, when he was playing around with his father’s softball team and a T-ball rookie, Zack Collins had a sweet swing.
“He’s always been so fluid with a bat, kind of Ken Griffey Jr. smooth,” said Collins’ father, Patrick. “Scouts have compared him to Josh Hamilton.”
The Major League Baseball comparisons are not exaggerations, as University of Miami catcher Collins is expected to be among the top 15 prospects picked in the June 9-11 draft. Baseball America’s mock draft has Collins going at No. 12 to the Boston Red Sox.
But Collins isn’t thinking about his professional future right now, or at least he’s trying not to. His focus is on returning to the College World Series with his UM teammates.
The Hurricanes (41-9, 20-6 Atlantic Coast conference), ranked fourth in the nation by Baseball America and earlier this season ranked No. 1 for the first time in eight years, take another step toward Omaha in Tallahassee, with a three-game series Thursday through Saturday against Florida State that will conclude their regular season. The ACC tournament and the likely hosting of an NCAA regional are right around the corner.
“It’s the Miami-FSU series — the biggest tradition we have at both schools,” UM coach Jim Morris said. “Big crowds, tough atmosphere. I enjoy going to Tallahassee.”
The Seminoles (33-17, 15-8 ACC) are ranked 14th by Baseball America but have lost six of their past 11 games.
Morris is looking for Collins — a lefty who bats third — to “get back on track” after a mini-slump, during which he hit .267 over the past five games.
“He was swinging like Babe Ruth and then he got sick for a couple weeks,” Morris said.
For the season, Collins is hitting .379 with a team-leading 48 RBI and 10 home runs. More remarkably, the junior leads the nation in bases on balls with 60 and is second in on-base percentage, a testament to what Morris calls his discipline and patience at the plate.
“His eyes are better than any I’ve seen on a baseball player,” teammate Willie Abreu said. “He doesn’t swing at balls. And when he does swing, it’s picture-perfect.”
Collins has always been a reliable hitter, but where he’s made a quantum leap this season is as a catcher. He attributes his .987 fielding percentage to assistant coach Norberto Lopez, a former Pace High, Nova Southeastern and Angels minor-league catcher.
“Blocking, receiving, flexibility — Coach Lopez changed the whole way I catch,” Collins said. “I have a lot more confidence.”
Lopez told Collins to move his hips forward rather than kicking back when catching the ball.
“We broke down a lot of film, had a lot of dialogue about different philosophies, studied the technique of Jonathan Lucroy and Yadier Molina,” Lopez said. “Zack’s work ethic is through the roof, and he can mimic motions right away, pick up things the second or third time you show him.”
Lopez said Collins is working hardest to improve his throws.
“He’s resilient. I’ve seen him get smoked in the hand and barely flinch,” Lopez said. “He’ll crack a joke to get a pitcher to settle down. He has good command of games.
“A left-handed-hitting catcher with power is a huge commodity. He was born to be a big-leaguer.”
Collins said he’s developed a strong rapport with UM’s pitchers.
“I have to take care of the pitching staff and, like Coach Lopez says, be the main ingredient,” Collins said. “We’ve shown we can play with anyone in the nation as long as we keep the younger guys calm.”
Collins’ father saw his son’s athletic talent early. Collins had a passion for baseball, probably because he spent so much time hanging around the diamond with his dad’s softball team. Patrick Collins helped create a travel team when Collins was 8. The group, first known as the West Pembroke Pines Cobras, later the PPO Bengals, stayed together for 10 years, winning five state and two national titles. Abreu and UM pitcher Michael Mediavilla were on that team.
“Zack started out as our shortstop and best pitcher, and when he was 12 and said he wanted to catch, my reaction was, ‘Are you crazy?’ ” Patrick said. “But he wanted to be involved on every single pitch.”
Whenever Collins struggled, his father was his biggest cheerleader and most constructive critic.
“We’d analyze videos, work the batting cage, work on catching,” Patrick said.
As an American Heritage High senior, Collins was drafted in the 27th round by the Cincinnati Reds, but the contract offer wasn’t enough to sway him from his goal of becoming a student at UM and playing at the stadium where he’d been a spectator as a kid.
“We made the right decision,” Patrick said. “We are pro education, and his value has skyrocketed.”
In addition to his aptitude with bat and glove, Collins is skilled with a screwdriver or power tool in his hands. He and his father modified a jet ski, fixed go-karts and dirt bikes and built remote-control cars and airplanes.
“Baseball isn’t everything. I like to have fun and spend time with my dad,” Collins said.
His latest toy is a Yak 54 remote-control plane that has an 89-inch wingspan and five-mile range.
“Instead of riding the jet ski, I’m flying my plane,” Collins said. “If I crash the plane, it’s just the plane. If I crash the jet ski, I crash myself.”
He doesn’t want anything to interfere with a trip to Omaha.