Michael Kopech is back.
His time away from the White Sox in 2019 was for one of those standard baseball reasons. He spent the entire season in recovery mode following Tommy John surgery.
His time away from the White Sox in 2020 had a lot less to do with baseball.
But the end result, one of the benefits of his absence that he described Saturday, has everything to do with baseball: the game he loves, again.
"I think I learned that I need this game a lot more than I realized," Kopech said on the first weekend of White Sox camp in Arizona. "It's a lot easier said than done to take a step away from something you've done your entire life.
"So taking a step back from that and realizing how big of a piece it is to this entire puzzle for me has kind of put it all in perspective, and it's made me kind of regain the motivation to get back out there, along with some other things that have happened in my life.
"I think I've found that motivation that I may have lost, not that I ever completely lost it because I never want to be known as a guy that hasn't worked really hard for everything that he's had to earn. But with this time away, I've really had the chance to come back and prove to myself at least that this is what I want to do."
There was plenty of kneejerk criticism of Kopech when the White Sox announced his decision not to play during the shortened 2020 season. Saturday, speaking for the first time since that decision was announced, Kopech said there were various reasons he made that choice. Some of it had to do with the COVID-19 pandemic and the health effects it might have had on people close to him. There were personal reasons, and the status of his relationship with actress Vanessa Morgan made entertainment headlines.
But Kopech has never been one to shy away from discussing his mental health, and his decision not to play in 2020 had to do with prioritizing that part of his life, as well. It's difficult for some to remember that baseball players are human beings, too, and Kopech is fortunate enough to have a job — and an employer — that allowed him to address that priority.
Kopech is also a new dad, and that has provided even more perspective as he returns to work.
"Just like any young person does, I've lived a life that's pretty selfish for the past six, seven years, whatever my minor league career has been. Now I have a life that I have to look after that's a lot more important than being selfish," he said. "My career doesn't just dictate my future anymore, but it dictates my son's. That's kind of all the motivation I need."
It goes without saying that so much has changed for Kopech since the last time he pitched in a major league game. When April and the regular season arrive, it will be 31 months since his last outing. He's pitched in nothing more than an inning of Cactus League action last spring, before the pandemic threw a wrench into the 2020 season.
It sure sounds like Kopech will have a different role in 2021 than the one he's been used to for the entirety of his White Sox career, too. While the organization still sees him as a long-term part of the starting rotation, it sounds like he'll be deployed out of the bullpen at least at the beginning of the 2021 season, the intention being that he'll be at his strongest come September and October. He might not be a bullpen mainstay from start to finish, though, the White Sox promising creativity in how they'll use him.
But the biggest changes for Kopech have happened away from the field. They've had to. He hasn't been on a big league field in two and a half years.
Those changes, though, should aid him in doing what White Sox fans have wanted him to do all along, something he's reaffirmed he wants to do again: throw gas and win ballgames.
"I think I have a different mental perspective on the game than I've had in the past," he said. "In the past, I've put a lot of unnecessary pressures and anxieties on myself, and I think for one of the first times in my career, I'm comfortable enough with what I'm doing where my only focus is internal. It's within the game itself, it's within competing, it's throwing strikes, it's working on my mechanics, it's doing all the little things right.
"I think I'm a little more focused right now than I have been in the past. Cutting out distractions has been a big part of that. I'm looking forward to seeing where that focus leads me in my career."