Michael Kopech gave up one homer. Then he gave up two homers. Then three. Then four. Then five.
Departing before finishing the fifth inning and becoming just the third pitcher in club history to surrender five dingers in a single game was not the way the fireballing righty wanted to start his 2023 season.
And yet, the 34,000-plus who showed up to watch No. 34 in the first bout of baseball on the South Side this year left with their team on the wrong end of a 12-3 blowout loss.
Four of the five long balls Kopech yielded came in the same inning, a nightmarish fifth that turned into a home-run derby for the visiting Giants. The rapid-fire nature of the blasts forced the obvious question postgame: Was Kopech tipping his pitches? Having a sense of what was coming had to be the only explanation for the Giants – who were blanked twice by the Yankees in their season-opening series – mashing with such pace, right?
“It’s a possibility,” Kopech said after the game. “If it wasn’t necessarily a tip, there was something I was doing different, breaking ball to fastball. Just by the body language of the hitters, they were on everything.
“I have enough speed difference to throw guys off a little bit. The fact they were on everything, they saw something, whether it was a tip or just me presenting pitches differently. They put good swings on it, and it showed.”
Manager Pedro Grifol vowed that the White Sox will study the video and “leave no rock unturned” in figuring out what plagued Kopech on Monday afternoon. For those wondering about Kopech’s handling of the pitch clock, he said it was no problem. But it’s true that pitchers live in a new world where there’s no time to reset in the middle of a home-run barrage.
Of course, in any baseball season, nothing is ever solely about what happens on a Monday in early April, and anyone searching for a grand statement on Kopech’s season or the White Sox’ will find nothing definitive.
That said, in the wake of a spring focused more on recovering from September knee surgery, what Kopech can be for the White Sox in 2023 remains a question, one far more important than whether or not he was unintentionally tipping off Giants hitters Monday. He’s still without a full, healthy season of work as a major league starter, and though there were flashes of brilliance throughout the 119.1 innings he logged in 2022, his campaign – like those of so many White Sox players – was shook by injuries, chiefly the knee troubles that limited him to just a handful of pitches in some starts and necessitated surgical repair at the end of the year.
Recovery from that surgery was time consuming, Kopech said during the spring, and he admitted that he didn’t have much time to work on pitching-related stuff during the winter. Plenty of folks noticed his struggles, be it with the pitch clock, his fastball velocity or sheer results, during Cactus League play. But the White Sox didn’t find too much to worry about.
“He did good,” Grifol said of Kopech’s spring. “There were things he was working on, and he was executing those things. He had a good spring, in our opinion. Everything was trending in the right direction.
“A loss is tough, (the Giants) made the adjustments on him (Monday). We’ve got to get back to the drawing board, that’s it. He’ll start again in five days.”
Of course, that’s Goal No. 1 for Kopech, who during the spring expressed a desire to near 200 innings this season after just surpassing 100 in his first full year as a big league starting pitcher in 2022. Whether health-related or production-related, he’ll need to stay in games longer than 4.2 innings to reach that goal. And he knows it.
“Obviously, I would like to have an opportunity to get six innings, stretch out a little bit, kind of try to see if I can hold on to my stuff a little bit later in the game and get up to around the 100-pitch mark, stretch out, do starter things,” Kopech said, eluding to the fact that despite this being his seventh year in the White Sox’ organization he’s yet to fully realize his job as an every-fifth-day guy in the majors. “But I haven’t had that opportunity yet, with spring and this. I think that opportunity will come and I’ll continue to grow.”
And so, more mystery surrounds what comes next for Kopech and what sort of pitcher he will be for this team.
The White Sox have some real certainty at the front of their rotation with Dylan Cease and Lance Lynn. Lucas Giolito has been there before but is trying to bounce-back from a tough 2022. Mike Clevinger comes with his own batch of questions, but he started his White Sox tenure strong Sunday in Houston.
The team is unsurprisingly confident that Kopech will be fine, and no one should assume that Kopech will be the guy who gave up five homers Monday every time out. Heck, it had only happened twice in team history prior, and one of the guys it happened to, Reynaldo López, is currently pitching out of the bullpen.
But all eyes will be focused on Kopech’s next start. And the next one. And the one after that. Because he needs to build a resume that includes more than just flashes of greatness if he wants to be part of that dependable group of front-of-the-rotation starters.
It’s on Kopech to make sure this can be explained away as just one bad day in early April.
“For a starter, it’s tough to say it’s one of 162. But ultimately it is,” he said. “The goal is for us to win every game and ultimately have a World Series at the end of the year. … We are going to put it behind us and just keep working.
“For the most part, I think the team is in a good spot. … I don’t think anybody is too put off about this except for me.
“And I’ll get over it.”