In his first season as a full-time starter, Michael Kopech has performed admirably up to this point. As fans, we often get caught up in the immense talent and high expectations and forget the daunting challenges of facing major league lineups every fifth day. Furthermore, for a pitcher, there is seemingly no challenge more difficult than transitioning from a bullpen arm into a full-time starter. You’ll see many failed starters find great success out of the ‘pen (i.e. Reynaldo Lopez, Liam Hendriks), but you don’t typically see many guys pitch as a reliever in one season, then enter the next as a starter.
This was always the plan for Kopech though, as he is a starter by trade. Injuries and a COVID 2020 opt-out limited his innings in 2021, forcing him into relief situations for the vast majority of the season. After a superb 2021 season out of the bullpen (3.50 ERA, 2.97 FIP, 13.4 SO/9), expectations were very high for Kopech going into the 2022 season, perhaps unreasonably high. Some may have even thought his SO/9 this season would approach/match his 13.4 mark from last year. That is not the case.
However, overall, he has pitched very well while adapting to both the physical and mental demands of the role. He’s posted a 3.16 ERA in 88.1 innings pitched, accompanied by a 1.21 WHIP and 78 strikeouts. He has limited opposing hitters to a .196 batting average thus far.
The Highs and Lows
With his elite fastball spin rate (97th percentile according to Baseball Savant) and overpowering pure stuff, he has displayed flashes of greatness. He took a perfect game into the 6th inning against the juggernaut Yankees in May and dominated the National League stalwart Dodgers over six scoreless innings in early June. He’s proven he can shut down any lineup in the majors when he is on.
Having said all of this, there have been a few lows in comparison to the aforementioned highs. It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster for Kopech since he tweaked his knee in a June 12th start against the Texas Rangers, forcing him to exit the game before completing the first inning.
Though it’s purely speculative from a bird’s eye view, it seems like this injury had a negative impact on his strength/mechanics, and thus, his performance. Though he avoided missing any starts or being placed on the Injured List, he lost his four subsequent starts. He was tagged for four earned runs in a loss against the Astros and surrendered four home runs (season-high six earned runs) in a tough defeat to the division-leading Twins. In those four straight losing decisions, Kopech posted a treacherous 6.86 ERA. Additionally, he’s allowed multiple free passes in six of his last seven starts, which is becoming a very concerning trend.
On the flip side, he’s bounced back much better of late. In his last three starts spanning 15.2 IP, he’s only allowed four earned runs, good for a 2.30 ERA in that span. He’s appeared to have put the four-start losing streak in the rearview mirror. In his most recent start, he blanked the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field, which is an extremely impressive feat in such a hitter-friendly environment.
The Bottom Line
While the strikeout numbers continue to be down, it is extremely encouraging that Kopech remains a fixture in the White Sox rotation. He has gutted out a 3.16 ERA to this point and is a big reason why the South Siders remain in the hunt for the AL Central. His results may vary much more than rotation-mates like Johnny Cueto and Dylan Cease, but for the most part, he gives the team a great chance to win whenever he’s pitching. That is all you can ask for in a first-year (full-time) starter.
Lastly, with talks of Kopech moving to the bullpen and of the Sox acquiring a starting pitcher before Tuesday’s trade deadline swirling, it’s important to note that Ethan Katz re-affirmed the notion that he will remain a starter down the stretch:
Kopech will continue to play a large role for the Sox in their search to defend their AL Central crown. With only a few months left, his health, stability, and production make him one the main X-factors for not only the rotation but the entire ballclub.
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