New Jay Zack Collins steps up with Danny Jansen down

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With catcher Danny Jansen on the shelf for at least the next week and a half with an oblique strain suffered in Sunday’s loss to Texas, Blue Jays fans will likely get to know one of the new guys a lot sooner than they’d anticipated.

Zack Collins isn’t the newest Blue Jay — that distinction goes to Tyler Heineman, who was called up to replace Jansen on the roster — but he hasn’t been around long at all.

Acquired from the Chicago White Sox on April 3 in a straight-up trade for Reese McGuire, the 27-year-old was brought in to be a back-up catcher, but will now assume a position of greater prominence. As the only left-handed hitter among the Jays’ three catchers, we might even see him behind the plate most of the time, although Alejandro Kirk got the start in the Yankee Stadium opener.

Collins was the 10th pick in the 2016 draft out of the University of Miami, but it took a while for him to get a real shot in the big leagues. He played in a total of 36 games for the White Sox over the 2019 and 2020 seasons, then more than doubled that number to 78 last season.

“I call it my first year in the big leagues,” said Collins of 2021. “I learned a ton. Obviously, I got some playing time behind the plate, which was huge for me, and now I feel comfortable to go out there and do my thing.”

His thing, more than anything else, is what he does at the dish as opposed to behind it.

An accomplished hitter in college, he was named the ACC freshman of the year in 2014 and won what was then known as the Johnny Bench Award as the top catcher in the NCAA in 2016 (the award has since been renamed after Buster Posey).

In 2019, Collins earned his first call to the big leagues by posting a .951 OPS at Triple-A Charlotte with 19 home runs in only 88 games. Much like Jansen, who made it to the majors on the strength of his hitting, the minor-league success hasn’t translated to the majors just yet. Collins came into this season a .195 career hitter (albeit with a .315 on-base percentage) with seven home runs in 297 at-bats.

Serving as the designated hitter in his Jays debut Monday night against the Yankees, he went 0-for-3 with a pair of strikeouts and a pop-up and was pinch-hit for in the ninth inning by Cavan Biggio.

It feels like a very rare thing for a young catcher to hit the ground running in the major leagues, as all the additional responsibilities get in the way of focusing on offence.

“Oh, it’s definitely tough,” said Collins. “I mean, it’s tough for anybody coming up to the big leagues, it’s a whole new game up here. Coming up as a catcher, I had to learn a whole new pitching staff, new scouting reports, all kinds of stuff like that, and then try to perform on the field, especially with the bat.”

That’s the reason grace has been given to Jansen, whose two home runs in two starts to begin the season mean that going back to last season he’s recorded 16 extra-base hits in his last 16 starts. The bat was finally starting to really come around when he got hurt. Collins thinks his hitting will get there soon, too.

“I’ve kind of learned how to deal with that now,” Collins said of all the extra duties that come with catching in the majors. “(I’m) just looking to come out here and do my thing, and that’s it.”

Which, again, comes with a bat in his hands.

“I’ve always been an offensive catcher,” said Collins, “looking to drive in runs, hit homers, do all that good stuff — get on base a lot, walk a lot, pretty much just try to help the team win any way I can.

“At the same time, I’ve taken my defensive game to the next level in the last couple of years, proving that I can catch at the major-league level.”

The expectation when Collins arrived was that he was going to be in a tough battle for playing time behind Jansen and Kirk. But with Jansen on the shelf, the door is open and he may well become a pretty regular fixture in the Jays lineup for the next little while.

Mike Wilner is a Toronto-based baseball columnist for the Star and host of the baseball podcast “Deep Left Field.” Follow him on Twitter: @wilnerness

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