Lynchburg’s Gavin Collins – Making the Most of His Opportunities

A 13th round pick of the Cleveland Indians in 2016, Gavin Collins is holding down the hot corner for the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats. Promoted to the Hillcats from Low-A Lake County on July 5, Collins has fit right into the team. A catcher in high school and college, Collins has primarily played at the infield corners during his professional career, catching only seven games earlier this season with Lake County.

“I’m still a catcher. It’s just that right now we have three really good catchers, so those guys are getting the reps and doing the job back there and I’m at third base,” Collins said. “I love both positions. I’m here just trying to help the team any way I can and third base is where I can help the team the most right now.”

Measuring up at 5’11”, 205 lbs., Collins has the build of an athletic catcher, but has shown the ability to pick it at third base quite effectively. In 22 games at the hot corner for the Hillcats, he committed a single error in 59 chances, turned two double plays, and earned 38 assists.

Collins has always enjoyed baseball, starting with T-ball when he was four years old, and continuing on through grade school and high school. From Newport Beach, California, he attended El Toro High School and, based upon geography, you would expect him to have grown up an Angels or a Dodgers fan.

“I grew up a Boston Red Sox fan because I thought Fenway was the coolest thing ever when I visited it when I was ten years old,” said Collins.

Going into his senior year of high school, Collins was unsure if he wanted to attend college. The baseball draft was in the near future. That all changed with the first game of the season.

“That first game I had a little fracture to my tibia and my ankle and that kind of messed up the catching thing. I ended up playing third,” said Collins, who would go on to college. “It was a blessing that I did end up going to Mississippi State.”

Prior to his senior year at El Toro, he played in a tournament in Georgia and his performance took the notice of a recruiter for the Mississippi State Bulldogs.

“The Mississippi State recruiting coordinator liked the way I played. He asked if I had any reservations about going all the way to the south and playing in the SEC. I said I want to go play in the best conference in the country, so I got that opportunity.”

The competition in the SEC is fierce. As a freshman, Collins rose to the challenge. In 48 games, he hit .304, driving in 19 runs on one homer and eight doubles. For his efforts, he was named All-SEC catcher, the first freshman to earn such honors at that position in Bulldogs history.

“It was a fun year,” Collins said in reflecting back on that season. “I felt like we could have gone a lot further but we just had a hiccup in the playoffs. The accomplishment was one everyone voted me for. I felt it was fortunate for me.”

The Bulldogs finished third in the SEC, behind Mississippi and LSU, ending up ranked 28th in the nation. Two of his teammates on that squad, Jonathan Holder and Jacob Lindgren, have already reached the Majors with the Yankees, and Collins credits the SEC competition in the development of his teammates and himself.

“Every game, even the mid-week games, it’s always intense because those games still count towards something, either the playoff standings or the RPI,” said Collins. “Every weekend series, against LSU, or Florida, those are what you live for. You can’t sleep during the week you’re so excited to play.”

Drafted in 2016 after a 60-game college season, it made for a very long year of baseball and a tough transition from college to the professional ranks. He started as a pro with an assignment to rookie level Mahoning Valley.

“There was definitely an adjustment that I didn’t set my mind to at first. Playing baseball every day, no school, what’s the matter with that? It’s going to be awesome,” said Collins. “You really have to learn to take care of your body because you don’t have the giant ice baths we had at school. You don’t have the downtime. I got a little excited, probably like most new players. They do a lot of extra things because they think they need it. It kind of wears on you a little bit, but you learn from it. The learning curve from that first year really helped me going into the offseason.”

Starting this year in the Midwest League, Collins put up solid numbers. Since joining the Hillcats, after the July 4 holiday, he has been the only player promoted to Lynchburg to crack the starting lineup for a strong Hillcats team. Collins moved in at third base and nailed down the cleanup spot for Lynchburg.

Working with Hillcats hitting coach Kevin Howard, Collins has been central to the continued success of Lynchburg in the season’s second half.

“His biggest thing is timing,” says Howard about what Collins is working on to improve his batting. “We talk about getting some rhythm. The rhythm has a lot to do with are you balanced, are you controlling your body.”

In 24 games wearing the blue and green Hillcats colors, he has controlled his rhythm to a .293 batting average, 23 RBI, three home runs, and ten doubles in 92 trips to the batter’s box.

“I’m looking to drive the ball to the middle of the field each time because if you set your eyes and all your energy to the middle of the field, that’s creating that great path to the baseball,” said Collins about his hitting approach. “If the pitcher throws it in you just get the barrel out a little sooner, if he throws it away you get there a little later.”

His consistent timing and straightforward approach have fit in well on a Hillcats team that continues to battle with the rival Salem Red Sox. Lynchburg holds a slim one game lead atop the Northern Division standings in the Carolina League. A Hillcats second-half victory would mean all three games for the first round of the playoffs would be at Calvin Falwell Field, giving the Lynchburg club a distinct advantage in advancing to the Mills Cup Championship finals for the second straight season.

“This is a winning group of guys,” Collins said about his teammates. “They love to compete, love to win. You don’t find that often in the minor leagues. Of course Manso [manager Tony Mansolino] does such a great job, as do Howard and [coach Kyle] Hudson in developing us.”

In his first full season in the minors, Collins has shown he has the talent and tools to perform. Whether he remains at third base or returns to catcher is yet to be determined, but either way, he will devote all of his energy to being the best player he can be on and off the field.

Photo: Jay Westcott/The News and Advance

David Freier was born in Brooklyn New York in 1966 less than a decade after the Dodgers had departed the very same borough. His first professional baseball game was at Yankee stadium and to this day he and his father still argue over who started for the Orioles that day (his father says Mike Cuellar, while he insists it was Jim Palmer). Being a lover of underdogs he naturally became a Mets fan. He grew up in Montclair New Jersey which had the advantage of being home to two baseball legends, Yogi Berra and Larry Doby, as well as having a local college which regularly held baseball card conventions that fed his baseball card hobby. While attending college at the University of Richmond he and some of his friends attended a Richmond Braves game in the then (1985) brand new Diamond stadium, and now home to the Richmond Flying Squirrels. This began what has become a passion for the minor leagues of baseball. During his 10 years as a Richmond resident he and his future wife developed an affinity for the Braves, especially when Richmond fan favorite Francisco Cabrera scored the winning run to knock the Pirates from contention and vault the Braves into the World Series of 1991. During extensive travels he has rooted for the Minnesota Twins, Minneapolis Loons, St. Paul Saints, Iowa Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies, Erie Sea Wolves, Berkshire Bears and of course the Lynchburg Hillcats. To date he has visited over 110 different baseball parks in which he has seen a game. He joined the Society for American Baseball Research in 2000 and has been a member ever since, where he participates on the Biographical and Minor Leagues committees when time permits. In his day job he is an Associate Professor of Biomedical Science at Lynchburg College in Virginia.

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