In the seven starts prior to the announcement that Michael Kopech would be making his major league debut Tuesday night, the White Sox top-ranked pitching prospect pitched as well as he had since joining the organization ahead of the 2017 campaign. It’s what helped the White Sox make the decision that Kopech was ready for the major leagues.
But that hasn’t been the case all season.
Kopech went through some pronounced midseason struggles, with his ERA and walk numbers going up at a steady pace. It was a weird sight for onlookers who saw him dominate in 2017 and believed he was going to breeze through Triple-A and reach the South Side in no time.
The numbers he put up in his final seven starts at Triple-A Charlotte are well known to everyone at this point: a 1.84 ERA with 59 strikeouts and just four walks in 44 innings. But in the 12 starts that came before, Kopech’s line looked like this: a 5.69 ERA with 76 strikeouts and 47 walks in 55.1 innings. He issued at least four walks in nine of those starts, including an eight-walk outing on June 14.
But despite the expected fretting among the fan base and other observers over what might have been “wrong” with the organization’s No. 1 pitching prospect, the fact that Kopech went through those struggles and turned things around in such spectacular fashion was a beneficial thing in the eyes of the White Sox.
“I think it well serve him extremely well over the long term,” general manager Rick Hahn said during a conference call Monday. “We know how difficult it is to succeed at the highest level. Even your most well-equipped prospect is going to go through difficulties over the course of certainly the early part of their career as the league adjusts to what the player presents. Having previously had to search for answers and pull themselves back up off the floor and find different ways to succeed are tools that serve these players extremely well over the course of their big league career.
“Michael did have some struggles. After a very good spring and then some struggles come the early months of the summer, the way he’s rebounded after the All-Star break down there in Charlotte and actually taken it to a higher level, achieved at a level that he had not seen over the course of his minor league career, is a testament to his coping abilities, his ability to adjust, his ability to block out the noise or any frustration and focus on the matter at hand, make adjustments and take his performance to a higher level.”
As everyone has seen with the likes of Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, there are plenty of expected growing pains that take place at the major league level. Those struggles are obviously more difficult to pull oneself out of when the competition is the best in the world as opposed to what it is in the minor leagues.
While Kopech’s righting of the ship doesn’t guarantee his major league growing pains will be minimal, it’s taught him a valuable lesson that the White Sox believe will help him immensely now that he’s reached the big league stage.
How’d he do it? What was the key to his success? How did he flip the switch after a three-inning, four-run, four-walk outing on July 5? What’s he been doing so right these last seven starts that he wasn’t over those two months in the middle of the season?
Kopech will likely field those questions after he makes his first major league starts Tuesday against the Minnesota Twins. Until then, here’s the man who held the title of “Michael Kopech’s pitching coach” prior to the now-incumbent Don Cooper.
“There’s a lot of things, but I guess the best thing, the way to put it, he’s more under control,” Charlotte pitching coach Steve McCatty said on a conference call Monday. “We talk about it all the time: Because you touch 100 mph, it doesn’t mean you have to throw every pitch 100 mph. You don’t have to always work at maximum velocity throwing it as hard as you can.
“We just work on finding something that’s a little bit less. Mechanics that were able to repeat consistently. And if we have to dial it up a little bit, which is a pretty nice thing to sit at 96, 97 and you can dial it up to 100, he has been able to do that here. He’s repeating his mechanics. And he’s locating pitches. Locating his fastball, his curveball that he’s had this year. Slider, and plus the changeup that he’s been throwing. He’s made a lot of progress.”
Kopech’s promotion was always going to be an exciting moment for the White Sox. The guy has been rated among baseball’s best prospects since they acquired him. In dealing away Chris Sale, they got another flamethrower with a very high ceiling.
But the progress Kopech has made in dealing with those midseason struggles and overcoming them makes things even more exciting. It's another milestone in Kopech’s development. It makes that high ceiling look a little closer.
“He’s been on a considerable roll,” Hahn said. “I think you’ll see a slightly different pitcher from the one many of you saw in Glendale. His command has improved, his breaking ball has become much sharper, is now a swing-and-miss pitch. Both Michael and Steve McCatty as well as other pitching instructors deserve a world of credit for the advancements Michael has made in a short time.
“With the normal precaution that he’s just one guy, and at that a very young man who is going to continue to develop before our eyes here in the coming weeks and months and years, we are certainly very excited to see Michael challenged by the next level here in the coming weeks.