In the backwoods of rural Michigan, a young kid picked up a hatchet and flung it at a tree. Not much happened in his sleepy country town, so this was young Josh Collmenter's way of passing time with his equally bored little siblings. "With two brothers," he said, "you make up things to do." Collmenter would fling the axe at trunks and stumps the way he now flings a baseball over the plate against Major League batters. It's an unorthodox, over-the-top delivery in which Collmenter, the surprising new star of the D-backs' rotation, releases the ball almost directly above his own head, messing with that of the batter. One second he's in a seemingly routine motion, the next the ball is coming out of his neck.
Maybe it's too easy and, simply, too good of a story to draw a connection between the hurling of the hatchet and Collmenter's mechanics on the mound. Or maybe not. "It did happen," said Collmenter, a native of tiny Homer, Mich. "Whether that attributed to how I throw, I don't know. But that's a legitimate thing that I came up with that could be the reason why. I don't know if it was just natural or what." What Collmenter does know is that his funky, quirky -- some would say gimmicky -- delivery works. And it's worked to the tune of some rather ridiculous stats. Collmenter is 4-1 with a 1.12 ERA and a .163 average against through 13 big league appearances, including six starts. His fastball averages around 87 mph and his repertoire, at this juncture, is almost entirely limited to fastballs and changeups. But nobody can touch him. "It's been a challenge for everybody so far," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, whose club succeeded in running up Collmenter's pitch count in his most recent start, but nonetheless failed to get a run home. "He's made a statement." Collmenter, who gets his next starting nod in Tuesday night's series opener against the Giants, wasn't a statement but an afterthought when he arrived at Spring Training camp this year. The 2007 15th-round Draft pick worked his way onto the radar screen with a couple of strong outings out of the bullpen in the Cactus League. And when a relief need arose in the season proper, he was given his first promotion to the Majors in mid-April. "He was a guy who has just won at every level," pitching coach Charles Nagy said. "The line basically was that he's not pretty but he gets guys out." Collmenter kept getting guys out in relief. Barry Enright wasn't getting many guys out in the rotation. So last month, Enright went to Triple-A Reno and Collmenter went into the starting five. The rest is history borne out of mystery, because the 25-year-old Collmenter has baffled batters at the game's highest level. He's a big reason why the D-backs are surprisingly relevant in the National League West.
"You look at the radar gun," manager Kirk Gibson said, "and his ball comes out much faster than the radar gun says, just because he throws with so much deception. We've all seen those guys who throw 97 [mph] and get lit up. Matt Anderson is a guy we had in Detroit who threw 100 and got crushed.
"So there's a lot to be said for the other elements that make a pitcher successful. And Collmenter possesses those up to this point."
The key there, of course, is "up to this point." Major Leaguers are here for a reason. They're studious and savvy, and they usually find a way to adjust to a starter limited to a two-pitch mix. According to FanGraphs.com, Collmenter has been throwing his fastball 70.7 percent of the time and his changeup 24.9 percent of the time. Only 4.4 percent of his pitches have been breaking balls.
Collmenter is working on that third pitch, because he knows he'll need it to stay one step ahead of the competition. In his outing against the Pirates on Thursday night, he lasted just five innings because the Bucs kept fouling off the fastballs and changeups and Collmenter had trouble putting them away.
"That's where another out pitch would come in handy," he said. "They fouled off some good pitches and waited for me to make a mistake. Fortunately, I didn't. But to get through it more efficiently would have been nice."
While his repertoire might eventually undergo adjustments, Collmenter's delivery is fine just the way it is. None of his coaches along the way -- from Homer High School to Central Michigan University to the various ranks of the D-backs' farm system -- have tried to get him to throw from a more conventional angle.
"The old adage applies," Collmenter said. "If it's not broke, don't fix it. If I would have stumbled or struggled, that's probably the first thing they would have tried to change. Fortunately, I was able to have some success, and I think a lot of people just kept their hands off, because they didn't know what to do. It's so unique to throw from an angle like that."
Unique enough to make Collmenter's starts a curiosity for even the most casual fan and an annoyance for the opposition.
"If you watch the other team when I throw my first warmup pitches," Collmenter said, "all the guys are up on the rail [in the dugout] trying to figure out exactly what I'm doing. I think it frustrates hitters in that it's something they don't normally see, and the angles I can create. I try to throw all my pitches from the same slot so that the hitter can't pick up if it's a fastball or changeup until it's too late."
Collmenter was late in the game before he realized how odd his technique truly is. It wasn't until his mother recorded one of his outings around the time of his high school graduation and he watched the tape that he saw it for himself.
"I thought I just threw like everybody else until I saw that," he said. "I didn't know it was so atypical from how everybody else was throwing. Then going through college and pro ball, that's kind of expounded exactly how arcane the throwing motion is."
The throwing motion has made Collmenter a standout success. And with each dominant outing, he's earning more and more buzz around the big leagues.
Not bad for the guy whose only previous brush with fame came in Class A ball in 2008, when the South Bend Silver Hawks held "Josh Collmenter Mustache Awareness Night" in his honor.
"I think we lost our first 10 games in April," Collmenter explained, "so I just said, 'I'm going to shave my goatee off and leave the mustache.' Clay Zavada lived with me, and he started growing one, as well. After the season, he kept his, and he rode his to more celebrated fame. It's the 'Tale of Two Mustaches,' I guess."
That's all right, though. The tale of the axe-tossing boy turned big league star is good enough on its own.
|"The old adage applies. If it's not broke, don't fix it. If I would have stumbled or struggled, that's probably the first thing they would have tried to change. Fortunately, I was able to have some success, and I think a lot of people just kept their hands off, because they didn't know what to do. It's so unique to throw from an angle like that."|
-- D-backs rookie|
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.