The questions about Zack Collins' defense aren't any closer to being answered


The sample size is extraordinarily small, but the longstanding questions about Zack Collins’ defense behind the plate aren’t any closer to being answered.

No one needs to make any final judgments on the 24-year-old catcher right now, not after just his fifth game as a big league backstop. But let’s just say that things didn’t look pretty Saturday night.

Catching in a major league game for the first time since July, Collins had multiple miscues early. He failed to stop any of the three wild pitches White Sox pitchers threw from getting away during a dreadful third inning, and that came an inning after he launched a throw over Tim Anderson’s head while former White Sox catcher Kevan Smith was sliding into second with a stolen base.

“That was the first game I caught in about a week and a half. A little rusty back there today,” Collins said after the White Sox loss. “Obviously it’s not like riding a bike, you’ve got to actually do it every day.

“Caught a couple bullpens here, first couple days, and I felt pretty good, but game time’s a little different. I felt better as the game went on, and everything went smooth after those first couple innings.”

Now it’s nothing short of outrageous to pose that a handful of plays in a couple of innings alone spell doom for Collins’ long-term future as a big league catcher, and everything the White Sox have said suggests that they’ll give him plenty of opportunities to show he’s capable behind the plate.

“Being a rookie, going through those situations, he can only learn from them,” White Sox bench coach Joe McEwing said. “I believe as he continues to grow and use these as teaching tools moving forward, he’s only going to get better. That comes with a lot of hard work and continuing to get after it the right way.

“The more reps you get, the more games you're able to get in at this level, the more comfortable you're going to be back there.”

Allowing a guy time to work on his craft? Makes a heck of a lot of sense.

But the questions surrounding Collins are not new ones, either.

Since he was selected with the 10th pick in the 2016 draft, folks have been debating whether his defense would be good enough to make him the White Sox catcher of the future, a role that became particularly important once the organization launched its rebuilding project after the 2016 season. Collins might be given an opportunity this month, and potentially beyond, to show he can be a catcher in the long term. But will he be able to cash in on that opportunity?

Since spring training, the White Sox have been working Collins at first base. And in his brief bit of big league experience this season, he’s served as a designated hitter as much as he’s caught, playing first base only once. There could very well be a future in which Collins is a first baseman and a DH, not a catcher. But it’s not a future that Collins is thinking about right now.

“I’m going to do whatever I can to get in the lineup,” he said, “but I want to make sure that I stay primarily as a catcher. That’s definitely what I want to do in the future.”

The White Sox will likely find plenty of room for Collins’ bat in the final month of the season, as they have already by using him at DH. As for how many catching opportunities he’ll get before the 2019 season wraps up, that remains to be seen.

Moving forward, the White Sox stumbled across quite the insurance policy in James McCann, who went from a veteran backup bridging the gap between the start of the 2019 season and the time when Collins would be ready to an All-Star catcher who figures to top the depth chart for at least one more season. Right now, if you’re projecting who the catcher of the future is going to be, the most logical pick would probably be McCann. Of course, the veteran will have his own question to answer — can he do this type of thing over a full season again? — when the 2020 season rolls around.

In the meantime, the White Sox can use McCann to help Collins get better, too. McEwing called McCann’s presence “a huge luxury” for Collins, and that’s definitely the case.

“It’s awesome,” Collins said of working with McCann. “Obviously he knows what he’s doing behind the plate. He’s been a great catcher up here for four, five years now. Obviously he’s a great guy and wants to teach everybody as much as he can. And I’ve learned a lot from him.”

McCann has been so good, however, that he’s needed in the lineup more frequently to work with the team’s young pitching staff. It limits the opportunities for Collins to get those reps McEwing was talking about.

“It’s just something I have to get used to,” Collins said. “I’m young, I know that we have two veteran catchers ahead of me right now, and it’s something that I have to get used to and know how I have to keep my body right and ready to go every day. Something that I’ll learn.”

And so these questions about Collins’ defense might not be answered any time soon. They might not be answered by the time this season is over, and they might not be answered by the time next season starts.

The good news is, like Collins said, he’s young. The developments of all these young White Sox have taken varying amounts of time and have hit some pretty deep valleys before rising to some pretty high peaks. Think Lucas Giolito and Yoan Moncada and Tim Anderson and all the growing pains they went through.

This is just the first taste of the majors for Collins. But those questions are still questions. And we’re awaiting the answers.

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