Featured Photo: Michael Kopech, RHP, White Sox
When Michael Kopech (RHP, White Sox) warmed up for baseball tournaments in high school, his assistant coach at Mount Pleasant High School (TX), Kary Sears, got used to seeing the crowds of parents from other schools stop to watch. Some of it might have been the long, blond hair, the blue eyes, or his imposing physical presence, but as the world of professional baseball has learned, and that Sears has known for longer, it was the fastball that drew the crowds.
“You could hear the ball cut through the air from the dugout.” Sears said in a recent phone interview. “It was dang near like he was just handing the ball to the catcher.”
The fastball, clocked at speeds as high as 105 mph in late 2016 while at High A Salem — that would rub away the luster from Aroldis Chapman’s custom license plate, is as much the product of his upbringing as it is Kopech’s ongoing devotion to making sure his body is capable of throwing the ball with elite velocity.
The upbringing came in part from Kopech’s dad, a lawyer also named Michael Kopech, who, perhaps unlike most fathers of otherworldly talents, did not always envision his son being a pitcher one day.
“Michael liked to hold a ball in his hand before he could walk, but became nearly obsessed with baseball in T-ball. Although I thought when he was born that I was going to have a law partner, he quickly debunked that idea and told me at four years old that he was going to be a professional baseball player. From that moment on, I became his coach.” Kopech’s dad shared via email.
Kopech recalled this early love of baseball too, sharing in an interview that some of his earliest memories are of playing baseball with his dad.
“Every baseball memory I have of an early age is with my dad. Even in T-ball he would soft toss to me until the sun went down after everyone left practice.” Kopech said.
His father realized early that Kopech was something special, and scouts were picking up on this too, though years before Kopech’s dad even knew they were at his son’s games.
“Michael was very athletic from a very young age, but by the time he was eight, I was convinced that he had a special aptitude for baseball. By the time he was 13, I was certain that God had given him an extraordinary amount of talent.” Kopech’s dad said.
In addition the natural athleticism and physical prowess Kopech showed back then – each of which were enough to draw the attention of scouts – he’s augmented those attributes with a tireless work ethic.
“I did not know that scouts were at his games until he was about 14. I later found out that one of the scouts for a professional team had been watching him and writing scouting reports on him since he was 12.” Kopech’s dad said.
All this ability and an intrinsic love for the game placed Kopech in the hands of his high school baseball coaches, Sears and head coach Aaron Pearson, while he was already firmly on the radar of major league teams by then. Both recognized his innate talent, and worked carefully to cultivate the abilities of this once-in-a-lifetime pitcher. This came pretty easily though, given Kopech’s insatiable desire to keep getting better.
“He was a very athletic kid who knew the game and was blessed with the ability to throw the ball really hard, but his work ethic and his willingness to lead by example were what stood out even more. He came to the ballpark everyday looking for ways to improve.” Pearson said in a recent interview.
Those improvements came in two forms for Kopech as a high schooler: building his strength so he could continue to chuck that serious heat deep into games, and augmenting his fastball with effective secondary pitches.
According to Sears, the first part of this meant a lot of time spent building arm strength doing long toss and working with weighted balls. Kopech also worked regularly with resistance bands to build the complimentary muscles needed to help prevent injury.
“He did a good job of maintaining all the little things that guys forget about. His flexibility was phenomenal, and his small muscle groups were so strong.” Sears said.
Along with building that small muscle strength, Kopech went to work in high school on building his arsenal.
“He knew that if he was going to have a chance to get where he wanted to be, just throwing hard wouldn’t be enough. It was great for him to be able to reach back and blow a guy away with his fastball, but he was never a guy who relied solely on one pitch.” Pearson said.
Pearson recalled the impressiveness of the fastball, however.
“There were multiple occasions throughout his senior year where he was clocked at 97-to-98 mph. I guess what was even more impressive about it was how easy he made it look, and the fact that he could throw the ball that hard with some command.” Pearson said.
Given that he flirted with triple digits before he graduated from high school, Kopech could have been forgiven for neglecting his secondary offerings, but this was not the case.
“Everybody talks about the fastball velocity, but his ability to throw his other pitches for strikes are what have set him apart even more.” Pearson said.
Sears cited Kopech’s slider as his best secondary pitch, but he added that it was when Kopech got a handle on his changeup that he became a virtually unhittable look for opposing hitters. The improved secondaries, paired with his heater, should help turn Kopech from just a pure fire-balling thrower into to a player with the potential to be a polished starter who will be able to regularly turn over lineups at the upper levels.
Last October, 2080’s Mark Shreve noted that his plus-graded slider paired best with the fastball, especially due to his ability to vary the offering in the 85-to-88 mph range: dialing it back to throw it for strikes when needed, and showing a sharp-biting version with tilt to get plenty of swing and miss, and use as a put-away when ahead in the count. His changeup showed late bottom, and Kopech replicates his fastball arm speed well, so it should develop into a more effective offering as he throws it more, and as he develops the confidence to throw it in fastball counts.
Kopech’s development of these pitches started before he reached the pros.
“We had guys good enough to get his fastball with the level we were playing at. He knew with that kind of talent, he had to develop those pitches. When he started developing that changeup, his game kicked up a lot.” Sears said.
For all of this immense success as a high school pitcher, Kopech applied a similar focus to his schoolwork, taking Advanced Placement classes and graduating with honors the day after he was drafted. As his 2014 departure from high school grew closer, Kopech and his dad took great care to plan the next step.
“Michael and I had long, detailed discussions about going to college, and how being selected in 2014 draft would affect that. On the very first day that NCAA rules allowed contact by colleges, Michael received 82 invitations from around the country to discuss playing for those institutions.” Kopech’s dad said.
After carefully vetting his top choices, Kopech decided that if he wasn’t drafted in the first round—or possibly the second, if the financial incentive was right—he was going to the University of Arizona.
But the Boston Red Sox, by taking him in the first round of the 2014 MLB Draft (#33 overall) and signing him at an over-slot bonus of $1.68 million, ultimately made it a very easy decision, and not just because of when he had been taken, but by whom as well.
“Being drafted was one of the most relieving feelings I’ll ever have, or ever will experience. The amount of work my dad and I had put into my dream had started to pay off, and not to mention I was going to a great organization.” Kopech said.
Kopech spent his first three professional seasons in Boston’s farm system, finishing his 2016 campaign in High A Salem of the Carolina League. While succeeded in striking out batters exorbitantly (11.5 K/9 across all three seasons), and limiting his hits-per-nine innings (4.3 H/9 with Salem), he did exhibit some well-below average control issues that left him working with a lot of runners on base (5.0 BB/9). So the White Sox will be looking at his control as a key indicator of his advancement early this year.
In fact, Kopech sees reaching the majors as his goal for this season.
“My goal is always to pitch to the best of my abilities and help the team win. Ultimately the team I’m referring to is the big league team. That’s my goal, whether people find that realistic or not, that’s what I’m striving for this year.” Kopech said.
How realistic this is might have as much to do with his new parent club, the Chicago White Sox, as it does with how well he pitches. In the midst of a rebuild that netted them a host of a high-level prospects from the Red Sox (including CF Luis Alexander Basabe, RHP Victor Diaz and 3B Yoan Moncada), and by trading Adam Eaton to the Nationals for Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning, the White Sox hope to make the departure of left-hander Chris Sale easier to stomach.
Even very early in his time with the White Sox, Kopech is already filled with enthusiasm about it.
“When I was traded it was overwhelming, but I was very excited to be going from one great club to another.” Kopech said.
Specifically, Kopech cited working with major league pitching coach Don Cooper and veteran right-hander James Shields in the early days of spring training. He continues to work on perfecting his secondary pitches and maintaining effective control on a fastball that, though he can reach the low-triple digits at is best, he does not set out to throw that hard all of the time.
“I don’t necessarily strive for any particular velocity when I pitch. My main focus is to execute my pitches. But I tend to sit 96-to-100 mph.” Kopech said.
Like it always has, the fastball will draw him attention, but for Kopech to not only crack the majors but have an impact, he will have to effectively execute his supporting arsenal of a changeup and slider. Additionally, according to 2080’s Dave DeFreitas, Kopech would benefit further from learning how to throttle up and back a little better with the heater, effectively leaning on his velocity as an “extra gear” when needed, but knowing he can still be plenty effective sitting on the double-plus 95-to-98 mph velocity range, which explodes in the zone with some late arm-side life.
Chicago is probably not going to be competitive in their division until 2018, if not later, so they have the luxury of time to allow Kopech to develop as a pitcher and mature as a man. His brief time with the Red Sox was marred by a 50-game amphetamine suspension in 2015, and his makeup was further called into question after a broken hand from a spring training fight with his roommate a year ago limited his mound time to just 56 innings.
But Kopech was quick to express gratitude to his former organization for helping him through those difficult situations.
And he is probably owed a little grace, anyway. At 20 years old and firmly entrenched in the South Side spotlight well before he pitches in a major league ballpark, he has ways to go in putting his past behind him and polishing his profile as a role model. Sears spoke at length about him taking younger players under his wing as an upperclassman, Pearson lauded his work ethic and said he hopes his own children display the same one day, and Kopech’s father shared that it was common for him to shoulder responsibility and take the blame of his teammates even when missed plays in games weren’t his.
This season, look for the White Sox to start him in Double-A Birmingham of the Southern League and potentially keep rising quickly. Because their High A affiliate, Winston-Salem, is in the same league as Kopech’s last stop in 2016—where he went 4-1 in 11 starts with a 2.25 ERA and a 14.2 K/9)—he has already proven that he is ready for the next level of competition. With that, Kopech has limited professional innings to date, so he will need to show improvement in his control, and have a 100-to-130 inning, injury-free campaign to prove that he is both durable and consistent over a full season’s work. If he hits those developmental marks, he stands to advance quickly, and he could make good on his personal goal of reaching Chicago later this season.