On December 6th, 2016, the Chicago White Sox changed the course of their franchise. Following a 78-84 record in 2016, the team was staring down the barrel of an aging roster with one of the worst farm systems in all of baseball. With that, SVP/GM Rick Hahn decided to blow it up and enter a full-blown rebuild, the first of its kind in recent history for the club. Kicking it off with a bang, Hahn traded superstar pitcher Chris Sale to the Boston Red Sox in exchange for four prospects. Most notably of the bunch were the #1 and #32 prospects in baseball: second baseman Yoan Moncada and starting pitcher Michael Kopech. Moncada has been a polarizing figure within the fan base, but has, for the most part, locked down his spot on the roster after moving to third base. As for Kopech, his road hasn’t been so simple.
Kopech’s Tenure on the South Side
After captivating the entire city following his debut in 2018, the young prospect underwent Tommy John Surgery and missed the entirety of the 2019 season. Optimism grew as the team headed for 2020, with Kopech expected to finally take his (rightful) place in the rotation for a very exciting young team.
However, it wasn’t meant to be, as Kopech took the entirety of the 2020 season off following the COVID-19 pandemic.
After two years relatively absent from fans’ eyes, Kopech joined the team for the 2021 season. However, it wasn’t in the role many expected. Kopech became an incredibly valuable member of the bullpen, being used as both a setup man and spot starter for a rotation that saw significant fatigue issues in 2021. The electric right-hander was so successful in this role that many thought he was best served as a long-term bullpen guy, but that was never going to be the case. Michael Kopech is a starting pitcher and the organization never wavered from that.
Enter 2022. For the first time in his major league career, Michael Kopech entered the season as an unquestioned member of the rotation. With the departure of Carlos Rodon and the downfall of Dallas Keuchel, the Sox were betting the house that Kopech would continue to build off his strong 2021 campaign and flash the potential that got him here in the first place. Overall, that has been the case. As it stands today, the 26-year-old has been a strong contributor to the staff. He currently holds a 4-9 record, with a 3.58 ERA, 98 strikeouts, a 1.21 WHIP, and a respectable 8.0 K/9 (21.4 K%). He certainly hasn’t been perfect, but he has shown flashes of the talented former first-round pick that the team sacrificed their star of the past to acquire.
For most people, however, he continues to leave a lot to be desired. While some will gladly chalk up Kopech’s struggles as a “dead arm” or the result of missing two years of his development, others will take a closer look at his splits and try to piece together what the issue is. That’s what we’ll be doing today. It’s time to take a long, hard look at the development of Michael Kopech and begin to identify where he can improve. Some are simple, some are not, but if the splits can help tell the story, many fans should still be bullish on their potential ace of the future.
Surviving The First Inning
Starting with the most glaring issue of them all, let’s take a look at Kopech’s splits in the first inning. As White Sox color commentator Steve Stone has alluded to multiple times this season, the first inning is historically the most difficult for any starting pitcher. That stance is no different for Kopech, who has been at his absolute worst through the first inning of games this season.
In 2022, his first inning numbers look like this:
21.2 IP, 14 ER, 5.82 ERA, 18 H(!), 19 BB(!), 3 2B, 2 HR, 18 K, .231 BA, .380 OBP
Not only is this by far his worst inning of the season as far as giving up hits and allowing runs, but it is also his highest rate of walks allowed. The next closest to his 19 first-inning walks would be his 11 second-inning walks. When taking it a step further, his first three inning numbers produce his highest output of hits, runs, walks, and doubles. While it should be noted that Kopech has pitched 18.2 more innings through the first three as a result of being both on an innings limit and a short leash as far as working out of trouble, it can’t be ignored that he’s having a hard time the first time through the order.
His first three innings this season, combined:
63.2 IP, 27 ER, 3.82 ERA, 40 H, 40 BB (!), 8 2B, 5 HR, 52 K, .181 BA, .312 OBP
Two things immediately stick out here: both the sheer amount of walks that Kopech is allowing and the shockingly low batting average against him. This is an incredibly positive sign, as it highlights that he has found the ability to get batters out without relying on the strikeout. This is something that many young pitchers struggle with, especially ones who thrive on the strikeout. The walks cannot be ignored or pushed aside, but a better understanding of his repertoire and confidence to work through an early hiccup will go a long way in his development.
Evening Out The Repertoire
Outside of struggles with control and confidence, the most common critique of Michael Kopech comes from pitch usage. According to Baseball Savant, Kopech’s current pitch breakdown is as follows: 61.8% fastball, 26.7% slider, 10.4% curveball, and just 1.2% changeup. In 2021, Kopech relied heavily on his fastball (64.4%) and slider (29.6%) but has taken the initiative this season to start going to his curveball more often as his “surprise” pitch, as Steve Stone would say.
Pitching coach Ethan Katz will almost certainly address his fastball usage over the offseason. So far in his tenure, he has done an impressive job adjusting the percentage of time his pitchers go to the fastball with a far more balanced approach. Dylan Cease, for example, threw his four-seam fastball 46.8% of the time last season. This was 16.2 percentage points higher than the frequency at which he threw his slider. In 2022, however, his slider has taken over as his most used pitch, sitting at 42.3%, with his fastball being thrown 39.6% of the time. That balance has elevated Cease to the next level, keeping batters on their toes as well as giving him a legitimate off-speed option at the bottom of the zone.
If Kopech can make a similar adjustment, perhaps going to his slider more often or developing a good changeup, there is no reason to think that he can’t make a similar jump in production. Not only would it put less strain on his arm from throwing 95+ so often, but it would make his fastball much more effective when batters decide to sit on off-speed.
Last, but not least, we need to address the elephant in the room. Before this season, Michael Kopech started just eight games in his major league career. It was obvious when the team decided to use him out of the bullpen in 2021 that this would be a gradual, very protective ramp-up. It’s a strategy that is very common in the modern game, and the best example of this would be the process the Washington Nationals used with Stephen Strasburg early in his career. Many questioned putting Strasburg on an inning limit the first few seasons of his career, especially considering his hype and draft status, but the results speak for themself. From 2010-19, Strasburg was one of the best pitchers in all of baseball, capturing three All-Star appearances, a World Series championship, and a World Series MVP award.
While those are certainly lofty goals for anybody, let alone Michael Kopech, it’s obvious that the organization has seen him as that level of prospect from the very beginning. Rick Hahn has been vocal about keeping him on a short leash for the long-term outlook of the team, even receiving blowback from Kopech himself. Still, if the White Sox truly believe that Kopech can be that level of dominant as a top-flight starter in the majors, then maybe this is the right approach. After all, he is still just 26 and should be under team control up until 2026.
If history is any indication, a young pitcher is bound to break out of the Katz Lab in 2023. Last season it was Carlos Rodon. This season it was Dylan Cease. Next season? Look no further than Michael Kopech.
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Featured Image: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports