Collmenter steps into spotlight as Opening Day starter

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The Diamondbacks on Sunday named Josh Collmenter their Opening Day starter. It hardly came as a surprise.

The math for his remaining spring starts pointed to the April 6 opener, and then there was his strong 2014 season and his status as staff veteran.

"He’s earned it," D-backs manager Chip Hale said.

Collmenter was pleased.

"It’s an incredible honor to be the guy to take the ball the first day," Collmenter said. "You hopefully set the tone for the season, get us off to a good start and get some good momentum going.

"Just everything that goes into opening day, the pageantry, the spectacle that it is. To be the one to toe the rubber the first time is pretty special, especially in my career, just bouncing back and forth between starter and the ‘pen."

Collmenter will be the franchise’s eighth Opening Day starter, and, in truth, the least likely. Randy Johnson made six Opening Day starts, and Brandon Webb four. They both won Cy Young Awards. But as Collmenter has demonstrated to the satisfaction of many in his four seasons, effective pitching can be so much more.

"He’s unique. He has fastball command. He’s one of those guys who can hit a quarter. You put a quarter on one corner (of the plate), he can probably hit it," D-backs pitching coach Mike Harkey said. "He can throw his fastball in, out, up and down. That’s four different pitches. He throws them in different spots than hitters are looking for, and he hides the ball very well. There is a lot of deception. The fastball plays like it is 90 miles an hour. Velocity is very much overrated."

Collmenter was viewed as a long reliever in 2012 and 2013, but moved into the rotation in mid-April last season and ran with it. He finished 11-9 with a 3.46 ERA. He set career highs in victories, innings, starts and strikeouts. At times, he was exceptional. He threw the D-backs’ only shutout, a 4-0 victory over Cincinnati on May 29, and his final seven outings last season were quality starts.

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Collmenter knows his unusual delivery works in his favor. His release point is almost directly above his head, reminiscent of his days hurling hatchets into trees in the Michigan woods. It makes the ball difficult to spot. And that command … Collmenter has been told that may be the most valuable asset any pitcher can have, even one whose fastball tops out at 88 mph.

"If a guy is throwing 95 (mph) and it is straight and they see it, they have no problem facing him every day of the week," Collmenter said, recalling conversations he has had with hitters. "But some of the guys who don’t throw as hard but have some deception. They don’t pick it (ball) up as well. It might not be as fast, but it gets on them quicker. It’s all the vantage point of the hitter.

"Just the way I do things, the goofiness of the mechanics, gives me that deception. It’s a different look than they are used to. The way they see the ball and the angles help me get away with not throwing as hard as it seems like everybody does these days."

The Cincinnati game was a case in point. Collmenter used 94 pitches and faced the minimum 27 batters. He gave up three hits and did not walk a batter, and all the runners were erased on double plays.

"When you really feel on … the days you almost feel like you are just placing it, those are the days you know you can have success," Collmenter said.

Collmenter, who has used his changeup since his rookie year in 2011, has become harder to read now that he uses a curveball more often. He threw the curve about seven percent of the time last year, according to FanGraphs, and is refining it this spring. It is all part of the ability to absorb and understand what it takes to stay at this level.

"You just kind of learn how to pitch a little smarter every year," Collmenter said. "You understand the importance of pitching to contact. You don’t have to try to strike anybody out, not that I ever was a strikeout pitcher. You can pick and choose spots where you can make a good pitch and they have to try to hit, as opposed to trying to be too fine. Every year, you get a little more comfortable, a little more confident in your ability to do that. It helps make everything calmer and more relaxed.

"Pitching is contagious, just like hitting. As a starter, you want to get on a good rhythm and have some good starts. Down the stretch, I was really able to command my fastball. The curveball was a lot better toward the end of the year as well, as I was able to use that a lot more. Started throwing my changeup inside to righties. Just trying to do things with the pitches I have. It’s a matter of using them a little different. That’s the only way you are going to be able to trick them."

Tricking them or not, Collmenter gets them, even if he had to prove his unorthodoxy worked every step of the way.

"If you are a performer, the guy who performs but maybe doesn’t have the greatest stuff, you just perform your way all the way to the big leagues. And he has," Hale said.

"The key is, he gets guys out. As long as you get guys out, it doesn’t matter what it looks like. I’m just glad he had the opportunity. A lot of guys who throw like Josh don’t get the opportunity to pitch in the big leagues. He did, and he’s made the best of it."

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