Well before his arrival in the majors, Michael Kopech’s fastball was inspiring stories. The triple digit monster was always going to be his signature, it seemed. But actually pitching at the major league level has shown him over the years that chucking a four-seamer at a hundred-plus miles per hour isn’t going to be enough. Kopech has had to learn to harness that fastball in the right way; a learning process he is still engaged in.
In the series opener against the Royals Friday, he showed off how dominant he can be when he can challenge aggressive hitters with his fastball and effectively mix it with his breaking and offspeed pitches.
Piloting a 2-0 win, Kopech went eight scoreless innings with ten strikeouts and just one hit allowed – a broken bat single by Michael Massey in the sixth that broke up Kopech’s perfect game bid. Kopech still ended up facing the minimum number of hitters because Jackie Bradley, Jr. grounded into a double play after Massey’s hit.
“This is what I’ve learned over these past few years in the big leagues,” Kopech said, “that if you’re not synched up and you’re just trying to throw hard you’re gonna put yourself more at risk than anything or it’s just gonna be really painful.”
That fastball can still cook, though. Kopech got over 99 miles per hour twice, one of those on the last pitch he threw that ended the eighth inning. Kopech said he restrained his fastball a little in the early innings before letting it fly some as the game went on.
First pitch strikes were a cornerstone of the game plan, and on that front, Kopech succeeded. After nearly taking Bobby Witt, Jr.’s head off with the very first pitch of the game, Kopech got a strike on the first pitch to 18 of the 24 batters he faced.
“The biggest thing we talked about is strike one,” pitching coach Ethan Katz said. “Get strike one and control our counts. When you do that, it’s a little bit better outcomes for him.”
White Sox manager Pedro Grifol has had many chances to see Kopech from the other side of the diamond, so he’s familiar with how powerful Kopech’s fastball can be. But now that he has seen it up close in bullpen sessions and as Kopech’s manager, there’s a different appreciation for that pitch.
“His fastball, it’s got another gear to it. Today it might have had two,” he said. “He threw some fastballs in fastball counts that he was able to get by good hitters. These guys have some good hitters, they’re young, they’re aggressive, they’ve got some bat speed.”
Kopech said the game plan catcher Seby Zavala helped develop was also about his pitch mix to go with the fastball. Zavala suggested going to his curveball and shorter slider – instead of the sweeper – more often, which made things easier for Kopech to have the kind of control he showed Friday. Historically, his walk rate has been high, something he knows hitters try to work to his disadvantage by extending at-bats. So getting ahead of batters more often in this start kept Kopech in control of each at-bat.
Between starts, Kopech has been working on his mechanics so that he can get better at throwing each of his pitches from the same arm slot, he said. Along with that, he has been focusing on staying mentally in control during his starts as well. Kopech said he felt both his mechanics and his mental focus click during Friday’s start.
If there is going to be a turnaround for the season as a whole, one of the things that will need to change is how well the starting pitchers have performed, and there are positive signs in that regard. Headed into Friday’s game, the White Sox starting staff ranked 24th in the league with a 5.09 ERA. But consider the rotation’s most recent cycle: Dylan Cease threw a quality start against the Guardians on Thursday, Mike Clevinger did the same the day before, Lance Lynn did it on Tuesday, and Lucas Giolito missed a quality start by one run last Sunday.
Consistency will be the question, both for whether this run from the rotation and whether Kopech’s start was a blip or the beginning of a new norm. For the team as a whole, that’s the biggest desire Grifol has.
“The pitching, the bullpen, base running, the defense, the quality of at-bats, we’re capable of doing that consistently,” he said. “Obviously, this is a game that is played every day. You’re not going to do it every single day, but I’d like to ramp up our percentage of quality games as a group.”
Stabilizing the bullpen will help too. The White Sox relievers rank second to last in ERA in the majors, but there could be good news coming soon. Liam Hendriks threw a live bullpen session Friday, but the Sox have been mostly mum about what’s next. His session looked good and reports were that he felt good too, but the team has kept the details of his timetable close to the vest.
Katz did say that the team and Hendriks were both happy with how Friday’s work went, but there was no plan yet for what would happen next with the closer.
“Everything was a step in the right direction from the stuff that we had looked at and where he’s going,” he said. “So it’s just…it just takes time, and we’re just trying to make sure we’re getting all the right information and being able to evaluate it properly.”
After a disastrous April, the best path forward for the White Sox is to win a series at a time and hope to capitalize on a weak division. Since the start of May, they have won three of the five series they have played this month, and they have not been swept.
Getting more nights like the one Kopech had Friday will do a lot for his team’s hopes of getting up to .500 and then maybe more.
“I certainly feel like I was able to find something that clicked tonight, both physically and mentally,” he said. “Mechanical things are always going to be daily tweaks that I can work on. That’s the beauty of having four days in between, so I can get to work on this stuff everyday. But the mentality has to be something that I work on away from the park, no matter where I’m at.
“I’m certainly hoping that I can take this one with me the rest of the season.”