Maddie Harrell | Mustang News

In a lineup full of big names, junior catcher and outfielder Collin Villegas has proven that he deserves recognition for his impact on the Cal Poly baseball team. 

“When you talk about value, he brings so much value to the team,” sophomore first baseman Joe Yorke said. “He’s been our big RBI guy this year; in clutch situations, he’s able to get the job done.”

The junior college transfer lost his starting job in game one, but the RBI machine has worked his way back into the middle of the lineup after a midseason position change. 

Yorke, senior third baseman Tate Samuelson and highly-touted MLB prospect Brooks Lee have been staple names for Cal Poly baseball fans over the last couple of years; yet, Villegas has burst onto the scene in 2022 to help Cal Poly reach a 35-20 record and second place in the Big West Conference. 

“He’s just willing to fill every role: come off the bench to get a big pinch-hit, he’s done it, late-game big hits, he’s done it,” Yorke said. “He’s not afraid of the big moment.” 

Villegas is batting .289 with 50 hits, 25 for extra bases and four home runs. He has driven in 40 runs and is slugging .491, with most of his 163 at-bats in the middle of the lineup. 

“When he’s in the lineup, he’s a very tough kid… and he earned his spot in the offensive lineup, whether that was at his natural position of the catcher or in the outfield,” head coach Larry Lee said.

From junior college to Division-I

Villegas grew up in Tustin, California and played baseball at Beckman High School in Irvine, California, where he was named on the All-Irvine City team. From high school, Villegas went to play ball at Concordia University Irvine. But, he didn’t stay for more than a year, transferring to Irvine Valley College as a sophomore. 

At Irvine Valley College, Villegas hit .349 in 21 games with six doubles, two triples, a pair of home runs and 17 RBIs with three steals as a catcher. This season caught the eye of Coach Lee and the Mustangs. 

According to Villegas, the transition from junior college to Division I baseball was difficult. 

“It was hard,” Villegas said. “When you get here, everyone is at your level and you have to take everything with a grain of salt. Last year was a little more difficult because it was the first time being at the Division-I level, but now I am kind of used to it.”

Last year, he said he did not see too much time on the field but “stuck to the plan” and entered fall camp ready to win the starting catcher position. 

“This fall and winter, he earned the starting job behind the plate through his hard work and dedication,” Yorke said. 

An unexpected change

Villegas was behind the plate in the first game of the season against Washington University when things did not go his way. He let up a couple of pass balls in the top half of the first, one of which led to a run. After just an inning of work, Coach Lee decided to move Villegas out from behind the plate. 

“It sucked,” Villegas said. “The season didn’t start out as I wanted, but I just stuck to my plan. Coach Lee puts the best lineup up to give us a chance to win the game, and if your name isn’t on it, you just have to support your teammates that are in the lineup.” 

Villegas was in-and-out of the lineup for the next couple of weeks. He pinch-hit, played some outfield and came in at catcher at the end of games but was not an everyday starter.

“I definitely just leaned on my teammates,” Villegas said. “Those are the guys I love the most and they always have my back.” 

However, Villegas kept hitting the ball. Batting .333 with five RBIs in eight games, Lee wanted to find a spot in the lineup for Villegas’ bat and turned to the outfield because freshman catcher Ryan Stafford excelled behind the plate. 

“We had to figure out if we could put some bats in the outfield because we knew we were light offensively,” Lee said. “Early on, he was splitting time, splitting at-bats, but it became clear that he could be hitting in the middle of the lineup.”

The shift to the outfield

“I played a little left field last year, so I was okay playing left field, and I just stuck to what I was doing,” Villegas said when asked about the transition from catcher to the outfield. 

There was an expected defensive transition period for the catcher by nature, but Villegas picked it up without skipping a beat and said being a catcher helped him in left.

“I think if you’re a catcher, you can probably play all the positions on the field,” Villegas said. “You see the game in front of you, so you pretty much know what to do at every position. So going to the outfield, I was just trying to be the best left fielder for our team.”

Since the transition, Villegas has a fielding percentage of .983, has 161 putouts and only recorded three errors in 25 games. 

“Collin’s a gamer,” Yorke said about Villegas’ versatility. “He’s willing to play any position just to be in the lineup. He’s done a great job out there. At the end of the day, it’s everything to get that bat in the lineup.” 

Finding a home for Villegas was huge for the Mustangs, as it seemed to coincide with the 11-1 stretch the team went on. During this time, Villegas went 17-for-38 (.447) with 16 RBIs and solidified his spot in the order, hitting cleanup behind Yorke. 

Coach Lee was the first to praise Villegas for his impact on the team during this stretch. 

“When we went through that winning streak, he was the main reason why we were successful because he, more than anybody, came through in crucial situations,” Lee said.

The veteran’s impact

Villegas is a hard-working, unselfish player that only has one goal in mind: win. His leadership and attitude have kept the Mustangs focused on their goals throughout the season. 

Villegas wants to be the teammate that is the example of “doing it the right way,” a phrase Villegas says Coach Lee uses when describing how he wants the team to play and conduct themselves. 

“I take pride in being a leader,” Villegas said. “I try and do everything the right way and be a great teammate. I try to get after the weight room to show the guys how beneficial it is in the long run.”

It hasn’t gone unnoticed either by his teammates.

“He’s a true guy,” Yorke said. “He’s one of our older leaders that young guys can lean on. I know he’s helped Stafford a lot, and that’s pretty impressive being a fourth-year guy who got your job taken by a freshman to have a good relationship with him still and be a guiding light off the field.” 

Collin Villegas’ redshirt junior campaign for the Mustangs has been nothing but regular. From losing his starting job to being in-and-out of the lineup, Villegas’ leadership has never varied. By keeping his head down and working, the junior college transfer has found a home in left field and established himself to be one of the essential bats in the lineup. 

“My mentality is to go out there and keep playing the game how I know how to play,” Villegas said. “As a team, we are going to come together and do everything the right way. We’re going to scratch and claw to get every win.”