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As Michael Kopech proves himself in rotation, White Sox’ usage plan plays out

Vinnie Duber Avatar
May 4, 2022

Obviously, Michael Kopech finding four innings’ worth of success against the Cubs is not the same as Dylan Cease twirling seven shutout innings against Mike Trout and the Angels.

But on a frigid Tuesday night at The Friendly Confines, Kopech showed the same thing Cease did a day earlier: that because of him, this rotation could be pretty damn dangerous.

“His stuff has been electric,” Tim Anderson said after the White Sox’ 3-1 win to open four Crosstown games this month. “He’s been doing everything he’s supposed to be doing.”

Indeed, Kopech’s transition to a full-time starting pitcher, after a season of reacclimating relief work in 2021, is going pretty great. With four shutout frames on the North Side, he lowered his season ERA to 1.17.

Even with innings restrictions and workload management, Kopech has provided positive answers to some of the huge questions he started the season with, establishing himself as a valuable contributor to a rotation that’s been quietly strong, particularly the trio of Cease, Kopech and Lucas Giolito.

Most impressive, of course, was doing what he did in the downright miserable conditions that plagued Wrigleyville on Tuesday night. It was cold, wet and windy – all-around awful. With wind chills in the 20s, the flags whipping all over the place and a cloud of misty rain that refused to leave, it was a terrible day to hit, that’s for sure. But it was a terrible day to do just about anything, including pitch, and Kopech delivered.

“That wasn’t ‘playing ball,’ that was ‘work ball.’ He was impressive,” Tony La Russa said, ranking the conditions among the top 10 toughest he’s seen in his lengthy, Hall-of-Fame career.

“Elements are part of the game. Sometimes they work with you, sometimes they work against you,” Kopech said. “Today, I felt like I was able to work with them, for the most part. But it wasn’t too terrible. … Personally, I like it because I know the hitters don’t want to get jammed. But it’s also tough to get warm every inning when you’re in conditions like that. It’s definitely tough on both sides, but I like to think I have the advantage.”

It certainly looked like he did, as has been the case much of the season.

Don’t get me wrong, Kopech is far from the dominant arm the White Sox still think he can be. But he’s shown an ability to silence opposing lineups for long stretches, and bouncing back from trouble spots has long been a positive sign for pitchers still developing into big league weapons. We’ve seen it from both Giolito and Cease as they’ve climbed to their current heights. Kopech is doing it and doing it faster than they did, which is promising for these White Sox.

Considering how much of a mystery it was what Kopech would be able to deliver in his first full season as a major league starter, the White Sox have to be pretty happy with the early returns.

“Last year, I saw the hunger,” La Russa said. “I mean, he wants to be a starter. And when you have talent like that, and you add desire?

“You see the way he works to get ready. The breaking ball is getting more consistent. He’s moving his fastball around. He’s got a changeup, and when it gets a little warmer, he’ll use that, too.”

Of course, the conversation around Kopech still prominently features all that he brought into the campaign, specifically what the White Sox will allow him to do as they manage his innings with the intent of keeping him fresh enough to pitch in meaningful games in September and October.

Kopech’s not going to be shut down toward the end of the season, because the White Sox are trying to win the World Series this year and see Kopech as someone who can help them do that. But part of the plan is using this season to develop him into the type of pitcher who can shoulder a bigger load and help front the rotation in 2023 and beyond.

It’s a delicate balancing act, and La Russa was even asked about it before the game, foreshadowing steps the team could take in the near future, such as extending Kopech’s rest between starts, something the White Sox did to pretty great effect with Carlos Rodón in 2021. That will be easier to do, of course, once Lance Lynn returns from the injured list and Johnny Cueto joins the team following his minor league build up.

Even before those things happen, though, the White Sox still have their collective mind on not pushing Kopech too far. And after Cubs hitters worked some great at-bats against him Tuesday – including a 14-pitch showdown with Alfonso Rivas – La Russa had planned on ending Kopech’s outing after four innings of freezing-cold work. Kopech convinced his manager to send him out for the fifth, but he faced just one batter before getting the hook, that season-long workload-management plan coming into play.

“That’s the conversation, right? I want to be healthy at the end of the year and able to go six, seven, eight or whatever in July, August, September, hopefully October,” Kopech said. “I completely understand. But I’m still in the position where I want to do it now. I want to do it in May. I want to do it in June. I want to do it in July. I just want to give the best performance I can for my team every time I take the mound, and today could have been that.

“But I understand that I’ve had some high pitch counts in earlier innings that kept me from being able to do that too. So I’ve got to be more efficient.”

That’s been Kopech’s biggest takeaway from his successful start to the season: that there’s a lot more success to be had. The results have been good, but Kopech’s got his eye on doing what the White Sox and so many of his teammates believe he can: being great.

“I don’t think I’ve pitched to the best of my capabilities,” Kopech said, “but I feel like I’ve had opportunities to grind and battle with what I do have. With those opportunities, I’ve been able to take advantage of working with what I’ve got.

“Lot of lessons in this first month. But I think I’ve got a lot of improvements to make, too.”

That’s often been cited as an important piece of turning into a great pitcher, still managing to have success when things aren’t clicking. But whether doing that or getting that “electric” stuff to click, Kopech does have a ways to go before hitting his ceiling, and that should have White Sox fans drooling over the possibilities.

Cease appears well on his way to taking another huge step toward greatness. Giolito is back from an early season injury and hasn’t given up much when he’s been on the bump. Lynn is on his way back from knee surgery after finishing third in the AL Cy Young vote last year. Cueto has the White Sox excited about what he’s been doing while readying for a shot in the big league rotation. And even Vince Velasquez just tossed a relative gem with 5.2 shutout innings against the Angels.

And now Kopech?

It all spells good news for a rotation that was nearly left for dead when Giolito joined Lynn on the IL during the season’s opening weekend. The White Sox won a Central Division championship on the back of its rotation a year ago. Might they do that again?

Kopech, Cease, Giolito, Lynn and more are showing it’s possible.

Even in the wintry conditions of a Chicago “spring.”

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