The Chicago White Sox have not gotten off to the start that they were hoping for in the true start of their contention window. Myriad injuries, challenges presented by their lack of roster depth (wrought by said injuries), and questionable managerial decisions have compounded together in order to ignite a certain level of panic on the South Side, or whatever “panic” looks like in early May.
Where you won’t find any of that panic is on the right arm of Michael Kopech, despite the fact that one of the game’s premier pitching prospects hadn’t stepped foot on a big league mound since 2018. That year Kopech reached the Major League level, fought multiple rain delays, and ultimately saw Tommy John bring his first campaign to a swift and brutal end. He followed that up by opting out for the 2020 season, leaving many to forget the existence of an arm with such immense upside. Not out of any ignorance or maliciousness, mind you. It had just been a while since anybody had seen him up on the bump. We forgot he was there.
But, boy, we are remembering now.
In the midst of the challenges that the White Sox have faced early on in 2021, Kopech does not represent one of those challenges. Serving as a swingman of sorts out of the Chicago ‘pen, Kopech has not only demonstrated that he’s back among the game’s upper tier of young pitchers, but is showcasing the chops to be the very building block for the pitching staff that the White Sox believed him to be when he was included as part of the return for Chris Sale more than four years ago.
Kopech has thrown almost 19 innings this year, as of this writing. Eight of those innings have come in a pair of appearances as the starter, with the remainder coming in relief. Overall, he’s pitched to a 1.45 ERA, a 1.20 xERA, a 1.23 FIP, and 14.46 strikeouts per nine (44.1 percent). It’s a small sample, but he’s already surpassed his innings total across his four starts in 2018 and is showcasing some elements of his skill set that could have him set to continue to thrive, no matter the role.
The book on Kopech has always been a familiar one: brilliant fastball, effective secondary stuff (namely the slider), and a heavy dose of command issues. While he fairly regularly posted strong strikeout numbers across the minor leagues, he also (at times) turned in some obscene walk numbers, in the way in which you don’t want them to be obscene. At different levels of systems in Boston and Chicago, he twice had walk numbers over five per nine, as well as a pair of stretches in which he walked over four.
Kopech’s walk numbers this year look nothing like what one might’ve expected given the early scouting and subsequent results at the lower levels. He’s walked only 1.93 hitters per nine to go along with a 33.2 percent CSW%. His BB%, at 5.9, puts him in the 76th percentile, likely a far cry from where we might’ve expected. It’s that improvement in command that represents one of the genuinely surprising elements of Kopech’s early success in 2021.
The evolution currently transpiring for Kopech isn’t one sprung by change in overall pitch usage so much as it is a change in mechanics. Kopech utilized his time in recovery, as well as in 2020, overhauling his mechanics in order to smoothen out his delivery in order to not only improve his command, but maintain his health in the long-term. The Athletic’s James Fegan has a really great writeup (subscription required) on what exactly those mechanical changes entailed. Simply put, it became a matter of syncing up his footwork with his top half, while also maintaining consistency in his arm path. Once the mechanics were tweaked to Kopech’s benefit, then came the sequencing. Fastball up, everything else down, and suddenly you have the pitcher you now see before you. Because it’s much more than just the walk rate that reads as extremely impressive thus far.
Kopech’s average velocity against (86 MPH) sits in the 84th percentile at present. He’s in the 89th in Barrel% (just 2.9). His HardHit% against has absolutely plummeted since the last time we saw him, falling from 47.8 percent in 2018 to 32.4 percent here in 2021. That K% I mentioned? It puts him in the 98th, while his Whiff% (16.1—an improvement of six percent from 2018) sits in the 90th. That fastball hasn’t gone anywhere, with both spin and velocity (96.3 MPH average) that currently lie in the 93rd percentile. You add all of that in conjunction with a groundball rate that currently sits at 51.5 percent—far and away higher than anything he produced in the minor leagues—and you get a picture of a guy who’s just been flat out dominant, regardless of the capacity in which he appears.
One thing that will be interesting to see moving forward is how Kopech’s overall pitch distribution changes. Right now, he’s throwing his elite four-seamer about 63 percent of the time, with the slide piece coming in at about 23 percent. Obviously in a relief capacity, you can afford to lean on the two-pitch mix a little more heavily. On the flip side of that, the curveball sits just under nine percent and the changeup sits at five. Both of the latter two are still very much works in progress, and his future success with those pitches could certainly be attributed the aforementioned mechanical changes. And one would imagine that in order to demonstrate sustainable success as a starter, he’ll have to incorporate those with a little more consistency. Note that that’s not a concern at present, because Kopech’s currently deployment of pitches is very visibly working; just more of an observational question for the future.
The other question relates as to the role of Michael Kopech, especially in the short-term. There’s a lot to be said for a swingman that can provide the kind of value that Kopech currently is, let alone produce the kind of dominance we’re seeing. And it’s not as if the White Sox are struggling on the mound out of the gate. Their starters currently rank sixth in the bigs in fWAR (3.2), sixth in K/9 (10.34), and fifth in ERA (3.13). They’re middle of the pack in issuing the free passes, but they’ve really been quite good. So as you allow for a true transition to the Major League level for Kopech, there really isn’t anything wrong with allowing him to continue in this type of role. Score one for Tony La Russa?
In any case, we’re witnessing the very legitimate evolution of a budding star as a big league pitcher. His elite stuff is being employed in such a way that he’s not only recording high strikeout numbers, but limiting walks and generating high rates of groundball contact. That electricity leading to such impressive effect is exactly what you want to see and will be what continues to make his rise so extraordinary. In his current capacity, he’s a weapon on this staff to very much be envied. But with some rotation questions for the White Sox beyond 2021, he absolutely figures to be a heavy factor in what the ultimate answer looks like for the future starting five.
Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandallPnkFloyd.