FORT MYERS, FLA. – Tim Collins could not pin down the time, date or place. He couldn’t remember a drill or throwing session in which it happened. But his elbow wasn’t right — and he had had that feeling before.
Almost a year after tearing his ulnar collateral ligament, an injury that wiped out his 2015 season before it started, Collins learned he had suffered the same injury once more during Royals spring training in 2016.
“It was kind of tough to swallow,” he said. “But at that point I was already knee deep in the first rehab. So I just got back at it and kept going.”
With that, Collins joined a small but growing group of players who have had multiple Tommy John elbow surgeries. “Coming back from one is a high percentage [of success],” he said. “Coming back from a second one is a lot lower.”
Going through the grueling and lonely process of rehabilitation takes equal parts of patience and focus, but Collins wasn’t interested in a career change, telling reporters at the time, “I’m only 26.”
He went from pitching in the World Series with Kansas City in 2014 to not returning to the majors until May 2018, when he appeared in 38 games for Washington.
Now the lefthander is in camp with the Twins, intrigued by the advances they have made in pitching analytics and determined to make a bullpen he doesn’t appear to have a clear path to making.
But the Twins have been tracking Collins, remembering that, for being 5-foot-7, he was effective in striking out 205 batters in 190 innings from 2011 to 2013 while posting a 3.51 ERA.
He didn’t throw a pitch in 2015 or ’16 as he rehabilitated from each of his surgeries, but the club scouted him in 2017 as he worked his way back while in the Nationals farm system. On May 21, 2018, Collins returned to the majors with a scoreless inning against San Diego.
“I saw a lot of Tim Collins as a function of [Texas] sharing a complex with Kansas City back in the day in Surprise, Arizona,” Twins General Manager Thad Levine said. “Explosive fastball, and he had a knee-buckling curveball. He was one of those guys where you kept looking at the program to see what his actual height was because he seemed like he was throwing like he was 6-4.”
It was that low-90s fastball and curveball mix that made him a formidable opponent, especially to lefthanded hitters.
Justin Morneau, who recently was in Twins camp as a special instructor, was 2-for-11 with a home run in his career against Collins. “His release point and the way the ball comes out of his hand is tough to pick up,” Morneau said. “Fastball-breaking ball comes from the same arm slot. Hard to tell the difference between the two pitches. Good deception.
“The homer was a situation where he had to throw me a fastball, if I remember correctly. Just luck.”
Collins, still only 29 years old, posted a 4.37 ERA with the Nationals last season, striking out 21 batters in 22⅔ innings. There were signs that the rust was real, but Collins felt that he smoothed things out as the season progressed, as he perfected a cut fastball that he used for the first time.
His curveball showed familiar signs of life. According to MLB Statcast, Collins’ spin rate on that pitch was 2,769 revolutions per minute, which was 11th best of any lefthander in baseball who threw at least 250 of them in 2018. For a reference point, Twins lefthander Taylor Rogers, who is considered to have a very good breaking ball, was ninth on the list at 2,795 rpm. The Twins think Collins can be the pitcher he was five years ago.
“He’s close,” assistant pitching coach Jeremy Hefner said. “His is more location, where he’s trying to throw his pitches. So we think we’ve found some spaces where he can be what you saw in K.C.”
The favorites for the Twins bullpen look to be righthanders Trevor May, Blake Parker, Fernando Romero, Matt Magill and Trevor Hildenberger and lefthanders Rogers and Adalberto Mejia. Collins needs to pitch well to break through. He could pitch well and not make the team. If he’s not placed on the 40-man roster by March 23, he is due a $100,000 retention bonus to remain with the club on his minor league deal or could leave as a free agent. Collins also has an April 1 opt-out clause in his minor league deal. Or, if he pitches poorly, he could accept an assignment to the minors.
Collins doesn’t plan to have that third option on the table. He’s distancing himself from a second elbow surgery, confident that he’s all the way back.
“I think he’s right there,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “I think he feels good as well. That is not a guy that I would ever want to discount in any way because he’s proven time and time again that he competes, he has good stuff.”