KODAK, Tenn. -- His fastball command has been off in the early season and it’s prevented Michael Kopech from getting out to the start at Double-A he would have preferred.
Despite 10 walks in 12 innings, observers say the White Sox pitching prospect isn’t too far off where he needs to be. But Kopech hasn’t had the same command of a pitch he can throw 102 mph as he did when he put on a dominant performance this spring. Still, both the right-hander and franchise think Kopech is due for a correction.
“It’s hit or miss right now and that’s disappointing for me because I felt like I was at a really good place with it at spring training,” Kopech said. “I got here and the first batter I faced at Double-A, I walked him. Had a few walks since then. It’s just something that I need to stop thinking on something so much and I need to just pitch the game the way I know how like I did in spring training and kind of go after guys instead of trying to tiptoe around counts.”
The White Sox believe Kopech -- the 16th-rated prospect in baseball according to MLB.com -- can handle this early flare up. The maturity he has displayed since they’ve had their hands on him has the club confident in Kopech, who was acquired last December in the Chris Sale trade. A combination of performance and the belief that Kopech is reliable led to his promotion to Double-A Birmingham earlier this month.
Several months back there was talk that Kopech could begin the season at Advanced-A Winston-Salem. Yet Kopech’s Carolina League performance in the second half of 2016 along with dominance in the Arizona Fall League had them thinking a promotion may be necessary. Then Kopech backed it up this spring with 11 strikeouts and two walks in six big league innings.
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Rather than start start Kopech at Winston-Salem, the White Sox decided they wanted to test their right-hander at Birmingham.
“We always sort of had our options open,” assistant general manager Buddy Bell said. “We recognized he pitched well in the Fall League and very well the last few times in spring training and we recognized his maturity and the way he works. His aspirations are off the chart and we felt like a challenge would be in order with him. We see this as a guy who can handle challenges. But I think his maturity more than anything else sold us.”
Kopech spent Friday night’s series finale against the Tennessee Smokies (Cubs) charting pitches a few rows behind home plate. A night earlier, he struck out five, walked three batters and allowed four runs (two earned) and four hits in four innings in a losing effort. Kopech threw strikes on 46 of 79 pitches. Both Kopech and minor-league pitching coordinator Richard Dotson said improved fastball command is tops on the fix-it-list.
“It needs to get better,” Dotson said. “It’s as simple as that. He’s not too far off. I think it’s about how much he applies himself. There is a process to it. It just doesn’t happen overnight. When you get a feeling of you’re doing things right you want to hold onto it as long as you can because we’re not robots. I think that’s kind of part of what he’s going through and he’s making progress, but he’s got to continue to make progress.”
Kopech said he’s found Double-A hitters to be more patient than when he played at Salem last season. He’s flattered by the confidence the White Sox have displayed by placing him at Birmingham. And he’s also in a positive frame of mind about his recent struggles because he’s only three starts into a long season.
“First and foremost I just want to help the team win no matter where I’m at,” Kopech said. “We’re off to a rough start. I’m off to a rough start myself in my opinion. But it’s still early, we’ve got work to do and I think it’ll come.”