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Michael Kopech took on one of the best teams in baseball and dominated.
Kopech’s seven scoreless innings of one-hit ball were the most eye-popping part of Sunday’s doubleheader sweep in New York – until, of course, Tim Anderson silenced the booing Yankee Stadium crowd with a three-run homer.
But outside of that cathartic round-tripper for the White Sox’ star shortstop – who’s now the subject of a new ad campaign touting him as “the face of baseball” – Kopech’s nationally televised coming-out party was a pretty emphatic exclamation point to what’s been a stellar start to his first full season as a member of a major league rotation. His 1.29 ERA is downright dazzling, and no qualified pitcher in baseball has held opposing hitters to a lower batting average than the .122 mark Kopech has.
So. About that workload-management plan.
It was always going to be a delicate balancing act for the White Sox, who were focused on continuing to develop Kopech for the long term while also trying to use him to help reach their championship-level goals this year. Now that he rates among the best starting pitchers in baseball, could his ability to help them do just that clash with their plans to not overexert this important long-term piece?
“The notion of an innings limit has always been soft, and by ‘soft,’ I mean it can go up or down,” Rick Hahn said Tuesday. “We entered the year with an expectation of generally where we would like him to finish. But over the course of the year, we have to adjust based on what we’re seeing with our eyes, how the ball’s coming out of his hand, what the metrics are showing us, mechanically (if) there are any issues and what he’s reporting.
“If Michael continues to perform at that level, you go ahead and loosen the reins. But really, the goal with him is to try and get as many outing as the one the other night out of him that we can and, frankly, a little more importantly, make sure that he enters, ideally, October – or at the very least, the stretch run – that strong and capable of doing those things on a consistent basis.”
As Hahn said, the idea has long been to be “creative,” as he put it back in November, with how they would deploy Kopech so he would be available as an option to start the team’s most important games of the season in September and October. That hasn’t changed.
But precisely how they do that, as the general manager mentioned, could change.
Right now, it seems the White Sox are leaning on the idea of spacing out Kopech’s starts, utilizing off days in the schedule to get him more – sometimes a lot more – than the typical four days between outings. The team laid out its pitching plan for the week Tuesday, and Kopech was nowhere to be found: Dylan Cease, Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel pitching against the Red Sox, and Johnny Cueto and Cease pitching against the Cubs.
It will mean a minimum of eight days between starts for Kopech, should he be called upon for the first game of the White Sox’ series in Toronto next Tuesday.
That approach has worked, with Kopech’s best game of the season coming Sunday in New York, seven days after he pitched previously. In fact, only once has Kopech pitched on four days’ rest this season. The strategy worked throughout the 2021 season, too, when the White Sox utilized a similar plan with Carlos Rodón, who made a massive jump in innings after logging just seven of them in 2020.
It’s a plan that could last for long stretches of the season, should the schedule allow it.
“When you go from relieving to starting, it’s something you’re always paying attention to and want to make sure that you’re not taxing him too hard,” Ethan Katz said last week in Kansas City. “We’ve been very cognizant of all his pitch counts so far, his ups, and we’re going to continue to do that.”
“We are going to be careful with Kopech,” Hahn said. “This last start was on extra rest. It won’t be the last one of his coming on extra rest.”
Kopech’s usage has been under a microscope since Opening Day. What wasn’t so certain before the campaign began, though, was that he would be this effective. Or that the White Sox would have a relative embarrassment of pitching riches on their hands.
That will make giving Kopech extra rest a little easier, of course, with Cease and Giolito generally excellent this season and Cueto sensational in his first two outings with the team.
But the team’s scheduling of its starting pitchers will remain of utmost interest as the season rolls on, not just because of the ongoing handling of Kopech, but because Lance Lynn’s relatively imminent return from the IL will give the White Sox some decisions to make.
Lynn will start a minor league rehab assignment this weekend, and he’ll make at least three starts before he returns to the White Sox’ rotation. A three-start schedule, during the course of which he’ll build up his pitch count, puts his return date at roughly June 13, a week after he’s first eligible to come off the 60-day injured list.
When Lynn was injured during the spring, it was a wonder whether the rotation could survive without the guy who finished third in the AL Cy Young vote last year. Though the team’s healthy pitchers have done great work to alleviate those concerns, Lynn’s return still figures to be a big boost to a White Sox team hovering around .500.
“Yeah, if you do well,” he said. “If you suck when you get back, nobody cares. So I’ve got to be ready to go.”
That’s the right mentality to have, but Lynn’s spot in the rotation is as close to a sure thing as you can imagine. Same goes for Cease, Giolito and Kopech. So with more than just one additional starting arm employed by the White Sox, what happens with that final spot – and any pitchers who don’t get it?
Well, there’s already been one effect of Cueto’s terrific beginning to his South Side stint. Vince Velasquez has been shuffled to the bullpen, and he pitched three exquisite relief innings Tuesday night, showing the swingman role the White Sox hoped he’d play upon his springtime signing could work out swimmingly after his mixed results filling in for Lynn in the rotation.
If Cueto keeps pitching like this, obviously, there’ll be no reason to put him elsewhere.
So that leaves Keuchel, who has failed to produce wildly different results from his career-worst numbers a season ago. His current 6.60 ERA is actually far worse than the 5.28 mark from 2021, though a hefty percentage of that can be attributed to a nightmarish early season outing in Cleveland. But a six-run effort last time out against the Yankees didn’t help.
Fan sentiment is fairly overwhelming – and the numbers certainly agree with them – that jettisoning Keuchel is the move to make. But there’s another number that comes with any Keuchel decision, and that’s the many millions of dollars it would cost to ask him to go away.
While Tony La Russa seems to remain as averse to using a six-man rotation as he was in the spring, there might be a way for the White Sox to keep an overstuffed rotation going past Lynn’s return date. Managing Kopech’s workload and taking advantage of off days could allow for more than five guys to be making starts for a while. But as La Russa explained, there will come a time when it needs to be narrowed down to just five guys.
“The reality is that if you get the off days and the guys get the extra rest, the extra rest is definitely a plus at times,” La Russa said. “(But) the most practical thing is you just don’t have the bullpen. If there’s six starters, it cuts in on the number of the guys in the bullpen.
“I think you just watch closely, and if somebody needs an extra day, (you give it to them), and invariably, you get a rainout, and you’ve got to throw one in. And then the last thing is you get down into August and the games are running out, you want your best guys taking the ball as often as possible.”
But whether La Russa, Hahn or Katz, the message is the same: These are good problems to have, and too many starting pitchers to choose from is always preferable to not enough.
“We’ll figure that out when that time comes,” Katz said. “Obviously, if you look at a lot of teams, for example last year the Dodgers had 10 starting pitchers at the start of the season and they finished in the playoffs with having like three. Having starting depth is really important. You can never have enough.
“How it shakes out at the end of the day, we’ll see how it goes. But right now, it’s nice to have the options we have, and hopefully it becomes a very tough decision. We will not have a seven-man rotation, but hopefully we have some tough decisions to make.”
Kopech will continue to be watched closely and managed every step of the way, and the White Sox should be better because of it.
Lynn will be back soon, and the White Sox should be better because of it.
Cueto has bolstered the rotation, and the White Sox should be better because of it.
There will be a weakest link removed from the chain at some point, and the White Sox should be better because of it.
Cease’s shellacking at the hands of the Red Sox on Tuesday figures to be a one-time thing, and the White Sox should be better because of it.
The team’s starting pitching has been generally great for the majority of the season to date, a reason the White Sox are around .500 and not well below it while the offense continues to try to wake up from a long hibernation. There are changes coming, but they’ll be the result of those good problems Hahn has long asked for.
“If we have an embarrassment of pitching riches,” he said, “that’s a problem I look forward to dealing with.”
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