Age on Opening Day: 25
2011 stats: 31 games (24 starts), 154.1 IP, 3.38 ERA, 10-10, 100:28 K:BB
2010 stats: N/A
A town called Homer is the last place from which you'd expect a star pitcher to emerge, but that's the case for Arizona's Josh Collmenter. Unheralded at the start of the 2011 season, and certainly not expected to play a key part in a pennant run for Arizona [albeit largely because no-one thought there would be a pennant run for Arizona], he made his way quietly into the bullpen, then parlayed that with a series of good performances into a shot at a starting role. From there, he simply produced numbers which have him in the Rookie of the Year discussion. Not bad for a guy who was a 15th-round pick in 2007. But how was the season for you, Josh?
Just to come up and get to experience this was fun. But then a few months after that, to be where we're at and have a pretty good lead in our division and playing really good baseball down the stretch, it's what everyone dreams about. A lot of guys spend their entire career without even sniffing the postseason so to be in the middle of it and contributing my first year is even more than I could have dreamed for.
-- Josh Collmenter
2011 Expectations = "Josh who?"
As usual, I base expectation for 2011 on what the player did in 2010. For Collmenter, it was a mixed bag. He played prospect Chuites 'n' Ladders for most of the year, moving between High-A, Double-A and Triple-A. He did well enough in the lower two levels, with a 1.91 ERA combined at A+ and AA, in 15 starts and 94.1 innings. But he seemed to hit a wall in Reno, posting a mediocre 5.77 ERA in ten starts over two stints with the Aces, and a poor K:BB ratio there of 39:26 in 57.2 innings. While there were impressive flashes - his April 30th debut saw him throw seven shutout innings, with eight K's and three hits - it seemed he was some way from the majors.
Dan ranked him #21 at the end of last year, and even that was higher than Baseball America, who didn't have him in their top 30 prospect. John Sickels of Minor League Ball had him the highest, at #16, saying that Josh "Throws strikes, changes speeds, could eat innings despite weak fastball." In his report, Dan concentrated heavily on Collmenter's likely future being in the bullpen, but did note his unique delivery, saying:
There is concern that such a unique delivery might be hazardous to his arm over the long run if he maintains the workload of a starter. Also, it is quite possible that Collmenter, who looks more like a power pitcher than a soft-tosser, is robbing himself of some serious velocity with his mechanics. If he were destined to be a starter, that second off-speed pitch would be a necessary weapon for Collmenter's arsenal.. Nonetheless, Collmenter was also quite effective in the AFL, generating a surprising number of ground-balls.
One of the few people to predict much for Collmenter was Rick Millman of draftbuddy.com, who wrote in January [emphasis added]: "I’m not about to say this guy is the next coming of Greg Maddux, but just like Mad Dog, Collmenter gets guys out with control, a change of speeds, and what looks like a guy who is very out of his league. Unlike Maddux, Collmenter will likely settle into the back end of a rotation and should do just fine eating up innings and picking up wins and strikeouts, while not hurting your ratios." That's closer than most of us got!
Collmenter didn't stay long in the minors. Indeed, he was the second player of the 2011 campaign to get promoted, getting the call from Reno when Aaron Heilman went on the DL, just a couple of weeks into the season. He became only the second reliever in team history, after Clay Zavada, to win his major-league debut, pitching two perfect innings against San Francisco on April 17, as Arizona won in 12 innings. Six more relief appearances followed, mostly in similar long relief, and in those 14 IP, Collmenter allowed two runs on eight hits, with just one walk and 11 strikouts. When Barry Enright was dropped from the rotation, Collmenter got his chance.
It would turn out to be the season's defining moment, according to Steve Gilbert. The Diamondbacks came in with a 15-22 record and their offense was awful, Chad Billingsley and Kenley Jansen holding them to just one hit and provoking hotclaws' comment of the night: "We've had more dinner roll-calls than hits". However, a Melvin Mora sac fly in the second gave them the lead, and Collmenter was brilliant in his first start, even though he was restricted to 75 pitches. He retired all save two of the 20 batters faced over six shutout innings, allowing two hits and no walks, while striking out three. The bullpen held LA out the rest of the way, and Collmenter got the W
That was the start of a very successful run for Collmenter; over his first six starts, he was unscored upon four times, and had a 1.05 ERA over 34.1 innings. However, he then stumbled for a while, losing his next four appearances with a 7.54 ERA, and we wondered whether his earlier success was an illusion - in particular, whether teams would adapt to his funky overhand delivery the second or third time they saw him. The evidence for this was inconclusive: some teams seemed to, but other didn't, and Collmenter finished his rookie regular season strongly, with a 3.04 ERA for his final nine starts, and beating the Giants on the last Sunday of the campaign.
Certainly, his final start of 2011 might have been his most impressive, as he baffled the Milwaukee Brewers for the third time this year, winning Game 3 of the Division Series, when a loss would have meant Arizona being swept ignominiously out of the post-season. Instead, Collmenter held Milwaukee to two hits in seven innings, with a solo home-run by Corey Hart the only damage allowed. "I knew if I executed my game plan, I could get them out. I didn't have to pitch out of my head," said Josh after the game.
All told, Collmenter's first season in the majors was a roaring success, as he threw 154 innings with a 3.38 ERA. The resulting ERA+ of 117 trailed only Vance Worley of Philadelphia, among NL rookies who had 80+ IP in 2011. His control was particularly impressive, walking just 1.63 batters per nine innings of work, which is practically unheard of among novice hurlers. Among pitchers in their first season with as many innings as Josh, only three in the past century have had a lower walk-rate.
His overhand delivery is the most obvious feature of Collmenter's arsenal, something allegedly developed when he was growing up in Michigan and throwing tomahawks. He described it thus: "They say it comes out from the side where a lefty should throw... A lot of people consider me a right-handed lefty." More specifically, Nick Piecoro wrote, "His arm angle. Instead of throwing from about 10 o'clock, like most right-handed pitchers, he's at nearly 12 o'clock, allowing him to hide the ball as long as possible."
Just ask the Brewers, who got to see him a total of three times in 2011, but managed only eight hits and a measly one run in 21 innings. That's a collective .113 average, and their 3-4-5 hitters, likely ranked among the best in the league, Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks did no better, combining to go 2-for-18 with six strikeouts. Following their third encounter, Brewers manager Ron Roenicke mused, "It's something about that deception on the fastball. "The changeup is very good, the changeup is down in the zone always and he's got great motion on it. And then he spots his fastball well."
Not mentioned was Collmenter's third pitch, his curve, which improved significantly over the course of the year. He called it "inconsistent" in May, and in August, Kirk Gibson still warned, ""It’ll get whacked if he overexposes it," which may be why Josh typically throws it only half-a-dozen times per game. According to Josh, "It's kind of a surprise pitch and when I'm on, I can drop it in to seal a strike or even an out. They see it late coming into the strike zone and just have to throw the bat at it a lot of times. It's a pitch I definitely want to continue to work on and continue to master." Gibson likes to see it "breaking down, so he can get a ground ball or at least bounce it."
In terms of anticipated production, Collmenter was coming from almost as far back as Sean Burroughs, albeit with a better nutritional regime. And in terms of actual production, both fWAR + bWAR have Josh the third most-valuable pitcher on the team, behind Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson. Given the disappointing performances from certain more experienced pitchers e.g. Armando Galarraga, one can only wonder why Collmenter was not in the rotation from Opening Day, saving the team a few million bucks. I imagine it's because his year was as much a surprise to those inside the team, as on the outside. But it's the kind of surprise fans certainly don't mind.
He's a prospect no more, and Collmenter must keep working to develop the full repertoire of pitches he beeds to remain an effective starter. That delivery, containing more funk than a Motown record store, won't be going away, but will need to be supplemented by a reliable curveball, to allow him to keep opposing hitters off-balance. I think fans may be a little more confident in him next year; this time, there was a certain sense that his success just couldn't last. However, 154 innings in to his major-league career, it seems increasingly likely that Collmenter is here to stay, even in a D-backs rotation potentially stacked with young talent. I'll leave the final word [from me, at least...] to Josh:
All along the way I've had to try and prove people wrong. Everything's kind of unorthodox with what I do. It's probably added a little fuel to the fire, though, just to keep me going. But I know if I do what I can do as a pitcher then I can have success and it's just a matter of consistency and making sure I'm doing that every time out.
For reals. The dude wasn't a top-10 prospect in Arizona's system according to anybody, yet he gave Arizona more value in 2011 alone than 99% of the prospects in the system back in 2010 will give to Arizona in their entire careers. He was a C+ grade by Sickels, yet just capped off a season of 154.1 innings with a 3.38 ERA. If we're making these grades based on expectations, having a guy who we thought might give us a few good relief innings turn out to give us 24 starts worth of #2-starter-caliber production AND THEN give us one of the most dazzling pitching performances of the 2011 post-season in his one NLDS start... well, it makes it hard to describe how much he shattered his expectations. Great guy, phenomenal interview, incredibly baseball-savvy, and a helluva pitcher.
[Marc wants to know - phenomenal interview?]
Ummm... how did I not realize that Collmenter pitched 154 innings? And started 24 games? And had the sixth best walk % in the entire league? And had a SIERA that was better than players like Kyle Lohse, Chad Billingsley, and Jair Jurrjens? Seriously, how did I not notice these things?
Despite all of this, however, I can't give Collmenter the A+ that a lot of people might throw his way. I'm one of those "leave room for improvement" type of people. Yes, he blew our minds, exceeded expectations, and was crazy good but there's a few hairs that need splitting. That curveball, for instance.
And, honestly, I'm a little tempted to bump him up to an A+. If we're going off of expectations, Collmenter basically blew them all away. He came up replace Heilman in April, gave us some solid work out of the bullpen- a 1.29 ERA in 14 innings as a reliever- and then takes Barry Enright's spot in the rotation. Do you guys remember just how good he looked those first few outings? And when the team really needed it, too. We had just lost five straight games, all by one run, and Collmenter comes out and shuts the Dodgers down. It was pretty much the point that the season turned around- I don't know why, but we were 15-22 going into that game, and then we went on an 18-4 run. Yeah, obviously that wasn't all Collmenter, but he was incredible when he first hit the rotation: only allowed four earned runs in his first six starts, that's amazing. He came back down to earth a bit after that, obviously, but he was still pretty good, and he really helped lock down a spot in the rotation, and that was something we desperately needed. Add in that absolutely crucial post-season outing against the Brewers, and he had a fantastic first season for the Diamondbacks.