White Sox

Al Leiter's advice to Michael Kopech could transform him from a thrower into a pitcher

Al Leiter's advice to Michael Kopech could transform him from a thrower into a pitcher

Part of Michael Kopech’s All-Star experience last weekend was advice from Al Leiter that he immediately finds more comfort with his secondary pitches.

The pitching great and current MLB Network analyst spent 20-25 minutes with the White Sox No. 1 pitching prospect shagging fly balls during batting practice before the All-Star Futures Game on July 9. Leiter -- who averaged 3.1 f-Wins Above Replacement from 1994-2004 -- suggested Kopech take advantage of his time in the minor leagues to learn how to use his slider and changeup and rely less on his fastball in critical situations. Leiter believes Kopech -- ranked the No. 11 prospect in baseball by MLBPipeline.com -- has a great future that could be even brighter if he learns how to become more of a pitcher instead of a thrower.

“Even with exceptional fastballs, you need to have a complement to your fastball and your number one secondary pitch,” Leiter said. “I’m a big advocate of having pitchers like Kopech believe you’re not giving in and you’re not wimping out by throwing offspeed pitches. It actually empowers you more because of the breadth of your options and the confidence you have in it, in particular slider/changeup, that he would have other places to go. And the only way you do that is that you have to trust it and the only way you trust it is if you use it.”

Leiter would probably be pleased to hear Kopech followed that plan in his first post-Futures Game start on Friday. The franchise’s minor league pitcher of the month for April produced his best start since May by incorporating a steady diet of sliders with a few changeups into his 97-pitch effort. Kopech threw 31 sliders and six changeups as he allowed a run, four hits and walked two with five strikeouts in six innings at Biloxi. While Leiter would prefer a higher number of changeups --- ideally 15 with 20-25 sliders --- the concept is to get away from heavy reliance on the fastball.

Kopech will make mistakes, of course, by hanging a slider or a changeup, Leiter said. But now is the time to make those mistakes so Kopech can be more well-rounded by the time he reaches the majors.

“I’ll let you pick your spot,” Leiter said. “But I want you to throw it not as an emergency but for you to feel and recognize that it’s an important pitch.

“If he brings out a slider early and a changeup early and gets results, he now gets more empowered on pitches other than his fastball.

“The reason why he needs to experience it on the mound and not on the side is you have to see the results. You have to get positive results to reinforce what everybody is telling you. The only way you do it is there.

“Don’t give up on it because at some point he will need it. He’s going to need it to be dominant.”

Kopech said the two also spent a fair amount of time talking about getting ahead in the count. The right-hander has 106 strikeouts this season in 84 1/3 innings. But he also has issued 55 walks, which in part has run up his pitch count and prevented Kopech from going deeper into games. Through 17 starts, Kopech is averaging a tick under five innings per start.

He said the Futures Game experience was enhanced by his discussion with Leiter and thinks the entire day would give him a boost to finish his second half on a strong note.

“(Leiter) said in his career that he had a lot of walks, too,” Kopech said. “Just the keys that helped him get ahead in counts and to not worry so much when I am walking guys. Play to my strengths, but don’t put too much pressure on myself.

“To get a chance to talk to a big leaguer about pitching, to be in the big league environment, it’s really everything I wanted.”

“We all get to kind of experience big league lifestyle for a day and, hopefully, get a taste of what it's really like. That's all we really want to experience out of this, is kind of get a taste of the big leagues. It kind of makes us a little more hungry for the real thing.”

Michael Kopech hasn't had a good June, but that hasn't changed White Sox optimism regarding top pitching prospect

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AP

Michael Kopech hasn't had a good June, but that hasn't changed White Sox optimism regarding top pitching prospect

It wasn’t long ago that the question was: “Why isn’t Michael Kopech pitching in the major leagues?”

The question is now firmly: “What’s wrong with Michael Kopech?”

The new script is of course a reflection of how quickly opinions change during a baseball season, when “what have you done for me lately?” tends to drive the conversation more than looking at the entire body of work.

But the body of work doesn’t look too awesome for the White Sox top-ranked pitching prospect these days. He carries a 5.08 ERA through 14 starts with Triple-A Charlotte. But it’s the recent struggles that have folks second guessing whether he’s ready for the big leagues.

The month of June hasn’t gone well for Kopech, who has a 9.00 ERA in four starts this month. That features two especially ugly outings, when he allowed seven runs in two innings and five runs in three outings. But for a guy who’s got blow-em-away stuff, it’s the walks that are of the utmost concern to box-score readers: He’s got 21 of them in 16 innings over his last four starts. That’s compared to 20 strikeouts.

More walks than strikeouts is never a good thing, and it’s been a glaring bugaboo for White Sox pitchers at the major league level all season. Kopech wasn’t having that problem when this season started out. He struck out 68 batters and walked only 25 over his first 10 starts. But things have changed.

With director of player development Chris Getz on the horn Thursday to talk about all of the promotions throughout the minor league system, he was asked about Kopech and pointed to Wednesday’s outing, which lasted only five innings and featured four more walks. But Kopech only allowed two earned runs, and Getz called it a good outing.

“Last night I was really happy with what he was able to do, and that’s really in comparison looking at his last probably four outings or so,” Getz said. “He did have a little bit of a hiccup, getting a little erratic. He was getting a little quick in his delivery, his lower half wasn’t picking up with his upper half. The command of his pitches was not there.

“But last night, although the line is not the best line that we’ve seen of Michael this year, it was still a very good outing. He was in the zone, commanding the fastball. His body was under control. He threw some good breaking pitches, a couple of good changeups. He was back to being the competitor we are accustomed to. We are hoping to build off of this outing. I know he’s feeling good about where he’s at from last night and we’ll just kind of go from there.”

It’s important to note, of course, that the White Sox are often looking for things that can’t be read in a box score. So when we see a lot of walks or a lot of hits or a small amount of strikeouts, that doesn’t tell the whole story nor does it count as everything the decision makers in the organization are looking at.

Still, this is development and growth in action — and perhaps a sign that the White Sox have been right in not yet deeming Kopech ready for the majors. Kopech perhaps needs the time at Triple-A to work through these issues rather than be thrown into a big league fire.

As for how these struggles will affect his timeline, that remains to be seen. The White Sox aren’t ruling anything out, not promising that he’ll be on the South Side before the end of this season but certainly not ruling it out either.

“If he builds off of what he did last night, commanding his fastball, his breaking pitches continue to kind of define themselves, I think we’ve got a chance to see him,” Getz said. “He’s going to find his way to the big leagues. He’s going to be an impact frontline type starter. I’m very confident in that.

“Now just like a lot of great players, sometimes it’s a meandering path. And to say that he’s gone off track is not fair because it’s only been a couple of outings. I think he’s in a really good spot. If he builds off of this, I don’t think it’s unfair to think he’ll be up here at some point.”

Dylan Cease promoted to Double-A as he continues to impress White Sox: 'He's more or less forced our hand'

Dylan Cease promoted to Double-A as he continues to impress White Sox: 'He's more or less forced our hand'

Rick Hahn’s been saying it all year: The good ones have a way of forcing the issue.

Consider Dylan Cease one of the good ones.

The pitcher acquired alongside top-ranked prospect Eloy Jimenez in last summer’s crosstown trade with the Cubs was one of the more than a dozen players promoted within the White Sox farm system Thursday. He put up stellar numbers during the first half with Class A Winston-Salem and because of it is on his way to Double-A Birmingham.

While many rebuild-loving fans could’ve forecasted Jimenez’s rapid journey through the organization, Cease’s acceleration is one that even the White Sox are considering a “pleasant surprise.”

“There’s definitely been some pleasant surprises,” Chris Getz, the White Sox director of player development, said Thursday. “For one, I think Dylan Cease was a guy, heading into the season, his first full year with us, the focus was: every fifth day, a full season’s worth of innings. He’s more or less forced our hand.

“He's really come on, he’s pitching with four pitches, four plus pitches, he’s commanding the ball, very mature kid. And he’s certainly ready for the next challenge at Double-A.”

Cease turned in a 2.89 ERA in his 13 starts with Winston-Salem, striking out 82 batters in 71.2 innings. Considering he made just 25 starts above Rookie ball during his time in the Cubs’ organization, the dominance in his first taste of High A is quite the positive for the White Sox.

The team’s starting rotation of the future is a mighty crowded one, with roughly a dozen different guys competing for those spots: current big leaguers Carlos Rodon, Reynaldo Lopez and Lucas Giolito; Triple-A arms Michael Kopech, Carson Fulmer, Jordan Stephens and Spencer Adams; Double-A hurlers Cease, Alec Hansen and Dane Dunning; and Class A pitchers Lincoln Henzman and Blake Battenfield, both of whom earned their own promotions Thursday.

There’s a lot of time before the White Sox have to settle on which five will make up that future starting staff. But Cease could be doing the work of making a name for himself, something that hasn’t been easy to do. With all the love he’s getting, he’s still the organization’s fourth-ranked pitching prospect. Heck, thanks to Jimenez, he wasn’t the top-ranked guy in his own trade.

But Cease is getting attention now, and if he keeps pitching like this, he could keep forcing the White Sox hand.