It’s hard to say that Michael Kopech’s late-season move to the bullpen has worked out the way the White Sox hoped it would.
The sample size is small, sure, but the White Sox were looking to get Kopech — who struggled mightily in the 26 starts he made, posting a 5.16 ERA, giving up 28 home runs and walking 89 batters — some small victories in brief chunks over the final weeks of the season.
So far? In three relief appearances, Kopech has given up six runs, four of them in a disastrous ninth-inning outing Friday night against the Twins, which concluded with the righty angrily slamming his glove in the dugout.
If there have been any small victories, they’ve been very, very small.
But that’s the goal, to get Kopech to head into the winter on any sort of positive note, no matter how many negative ones are happening at the same time.
The move was and remains a head-scratcher, with Pedro Grifol repeatedly describing Kopech as a starting pitcher who’s expected to have a place in the team’s rotation in 2024.
“Good starting pitching is very hard to find,” Grifol said Sunday. “We’ve seen his potential to be a really good starting pitcher. … We’re going to use every resource we have in this organization — and even outside the organization — to exhaust his ability to be a starter.”
So why, if his future is as a starter, did the White Sox deem it better for Kopech to spend the final weeks of this season in the bullpen? Kopech relayed what they told him, shedding some more light on the thinking behind that curious decision.
“(They thought) that it would kind of be less of a pressure-filled role for me,” Kopech told CHGO on Friday, before he gave up four runs that night. “I’ve been working really hard to combat my struggles this season with the days in between starts, and a lot of times, you can sit and stir in that a little too much, whether that be physically overworking yourself or throwing more and more to try and find something or if it’s just overthinking. And I’ve kind of done all of the above this year, at various times.
“The idea would be to be down there and be ready every day and not allow that to become something that’s an obstacle. I think (that) is something that they think will be a little bit less stress for me and just focus on what I need to do on the mound. I think I’m capable of doing that in the starting rotation, but it is something where it’s like, ‘I have to go get these guys out, and that’s Priority No. 1.’ That should be Priority No. 1, period. But I think that’s a learning adjustment for me and they’re giving me a chance to learn how.”
That all speaks to the mental and emotional side of the game, something Grifol has talked about being an issue for Kopech this season, and no one who’s watched Kopech pitch needs to simply take the manager’s word for it. Kopech has been visibly frustrated on the mound for much of the season, seemingly easily derailed by early struggles. His angry reaction to an ugly outing Friday night was perhaps the most obvious example yet.
It’s something that, in addition to the pitching side of things, Kopech has spent a lot of time working on in between his starts and now in between his relief outings. And just like mastering his mechanics, stuff and location has been a challenge, so too has mastering his emotions, though he feels he’s making progress.
“If you’re having success and you have a game where you struggle and get angry or emotional, it’s a part of the game. ‘The guy’s fiery. He’s a competitor.’ And when it seems to be the pattern of the season and you’re having a pretty struggle-filled season, it becomes an obstacle and it becomes a distraction for the team when you act that way,” Kopech said. “I’ve tried to keep myself under control, despite the fact that I am pretty infuriated with how my season has gone.
“But I’m trying to not bring any more distractions or negativity to the team. So I think in the past few weeks — albeit I’m not excited about how I’ve pitched in the last few weeks — that I’ve kind of taken a step back on having blowups, which is something that it’s nice to be able to be in control of something in a game like this where, ultimately, we don’t have very much control of anything.”
Fans might question why Grifol is talking so emphatically about Kopech’s future in the White Sox’ rotation, given his poor performance this season and that it’s yet to entirely click for him as a major league starting pitcher, despite him being five years removed from his big league debut. While Kopech’s time in the majors has been anything but normal — he missed the entirety of both the 2019 and 2020 seasons before pitching as a reliever and spot starter in 2021 — he’s been in the organization a long time. The team needs him to have things figured out, and if he isn’t there, fans might wonder why the White Sox don’t just move on to a more reliable option.
One, obviously, is the potential, and Grifol has consistently reminded folks of the flashes of brilliance Kopech has provided. Those have come not just this season but in seasons past, as well.
But the White Sox are also in dire need of starting pitching if they’re going to be a competitive team next season. Kopech and Dylan Cease are the only pitchers projected to be a part of the starting staff at the moment, with starting pitching figuring to be at or near the top of Chris Getz’s offseason to-do list. It’s possible the new general manager will have to go find three new starting pitchers, a monumental task on its own. It’d be even more difficult to locate a fourth.
So the White Sox need Kopech to figure things out and be a productive and dependable member of the rotation next season, by any means necessary.
But while the team is banking on Kopech having a good offseason and spring to remove any doubt that he belongs in the rotation, there’s always the possibility that he can’t shake what’s bothered him throughout 2023. What happens then? Well, maybe that bullpen future that plenty of frustrated fans have clamored for is possible, after all.
“He’s going to come to spring training to win a job in that rotation,” Grifol said. “The great thing about him is he’s versatile. We’ve seen him do both (starting and relieving). If one doesn’t work, he’ll fall into the other one. He won’t fall into the underbelly of the bullpen. He falls into the leverage side of the bullpen. (But) I’m not even there yet.”
Kopech, meanwhile, has an important offseason ahead of him if he’s going to show he belongs in the rotation, where he was long projected to be as one of the first key players acquired in Rick Hahn’s rebuilding effort when it was launched back in 2016.
“If that’s what I’m told going into the offseason, then I’m going to continue to work as a starter in the offseason, so it’d be a lot of stamina-based training. The idea of working on pitching is going to be the same regardless (of role),” Kopech said. “I’m going to work on stuff and command and throw accordingly. But as far as if I’m training as a starter or a reliever, there’s certain adjustments that can be made.
“Overall, the idea is to come into camp in the best shape I can be in and to be able to help this team win in whatever role that is.
“They’ve told me that I’m going to come back as a starter. But I’m just keeping an open mind about what this game is. You never know what can happen. I’m just trying to be as prepared for next season as possible with whatever that has to offer.”
And maybe, based on what Getz is able to accomplish or not, things can change for Kopech over the winter. Not only is starting pitching a dramatic need for the White Sox, but they could sure use some bullpen arms, too. With Liam Hendriks recovering from Tommy John surgery and Gregory Santos having his own late-season struggles, the team could very well be looking for another option in the ninth inning. Could Kopech have a future as that type of “leverage” pitcher? We’ll see.
Right now, he’s in the bullpen, still somewhat confusingly, as he’s clearly a starter in the White Sox’ eyes.
But the move to the ‘pen has yet to solve any of Kopech’s issues.