On Friday night, Michael Kopech was as good as we’ve seen Michael Kopech.
No, the Tigers are not very good. But for six innings, Kopech looked like the premier pitcher that was promised when he was a prized prospect when the White Sox started this whole rebuild thing back in 2016. For six innings, Kopech carved up the Tigers’ lineup, setting a new career high in strikeouts and holding the opposition hitless. Hitless!
But six innings was all he got.
“I don’t know if they caught it on camera,” Kopech said after the game, “but I was making my pitch for a few minutes there with Tony (La Russa) and Ethan (Katz). I thought I had a pretty decent chance (of returning to pitch a seventh inning), but they didn’t want that to happen.”
In reality, given the context of Kopech’s career to this point and the numerous explanations the White Sox have given about how they intend to manage him this season, the decision wasn’t a controversial one. But a dazzling performance and a bid for the franchise’s third no-no in three years was brought to an abrupt end after 85 pitches Friday night.
Fans tend not to like such things, even if they understand the reasoning. This is an entertainment product, after all, and a real shot at a very entertaining outcome was taken away not by the Tigers getting a base hit but by the White Sox making a calculated, if not-so-entertaining move.
“That’s as far as he should have gone. For this game, for the rest of the year, for the rest of his career,” La Russa said. “Yeah, I was aware of where he was. I knew it wouldn’t be popular, but I don’t have to ever have a regret.
“He wanted to go back out there. … But you reach back for extra when you’re tired and (if you) get to that limit, bad things happen. Very difficult. I felt it was the right thing to do. It was my decision. Ethan felt the same way, if that helps.”
A couple of runs scoring on a two-out Andrew Vaughn hit after Kopech exited made for a celebratory evening on the South Side, the home team winning 2-0. But after baseball segued to the heavily advertised appearance by electronic-music guy Kaskade, plenty were probably wondering what might have been.
Of course, that’s exactly what the White Sox were thinking, about what might be.
It was all the way back in November when Rick Hahn touted a “creative” approach to managing Kopech’s workload in his first full season as a major league starting pitcher. This is what “creative” ended up looking like.
The promise of Kopech’s long-term future as a top-of-the-rotation pitcher is too tantalizing for the White Sox to burn him out in one chase at a championship versus keeping him healthy for many championship chases to come. This is the pitcher who had his 2019 season wiped out by Tommy John before a 2020 season wiped out by a personal decision not to play during the pandemic-shortened campaign.
Knowing full well that his pro career has not taken the road he envisioned, Kopech has come off as plenty understanding of his employers’ strategy. But that doesn’t mean he always has to be thrilled about coming out of a game – particularly one in which he was throwing a no-hitter.
“I’m at a point in the season where I’ve thrown a lot more innings than I did last year, so they want to rest me and make sure I’m healthy here for the next one,” Kopech said. “I understand, and 85 pitches in the sixth isn’t going to get me through the ninth inning. What they were saying was, ‘What’s the difference between (coming out after) the sixth (or) the seventh if you’re not going to go nine?’ And I understand.
“I would have liked to have gone deeper, but the bullpen came in and did their job and we put some runs up and won the game and that’s what matters.”
The White Sox never intended to put Kopech on a strict innings limit, where he would hit a specified number and be shut down for the remainder of the year. While looking toward the long-term future has been a goal, it’s only one half of the balancing act, and the team has hoped to manage his innings while keeping him strong enough to pitch in meaningful games in September and October.
Talking about October baseball when the team has spent four-plus months hovering around .500 might seem laughable to frustrated fans, but given the weakness of the AL Central, the White Sox are still in a position to make a run at a division title. Kopech pitching like he did Friday night could play a big role in helping to turn a disappointing season into a second straight division crown.
“I feel like that was the definition of dominant,” Vaughn said. “That was unbelievable.”
Kopech has thrown 104.2 innings to date, close to eclipsing the totals he put up playing at multiple levels of the organization in 2017 (134.1) and 2018 (140.2). Those came before his back-to-back losts seasons and the 69.1 innings he threw as a reliever/spot starter last year. The White Sox don’t want an increased workload to jump up on Kopech – who admitted to “dragging” between a start last weekend in Texas and Friday night’s on the South Side – and limit what he’s able to do moving forward.
Hence a plan where the White Sox just pay attention to what he’s doing in each of his outings. Having observed him closely during that “dragging” period and into Friday’s game, they made the decision to cut him off after 85 throws in six innings, regardless of the brewing no-no.
“We talked about playing (it) from start to start all year. That’s what we are going to continue to do,” Kopech said. “We are not looking too far ahead. See how I feel tomorrow and the day after. And then good to go for five days from now after that. We’ll continue to go day by day.
“We are just kind of taking decision-making slow. But I’m going to be transparent with this team, as they’ve been transparent with me.
“Obviously it’s tough to realize I have the least amount of innings between the starters (who have been healthy enough to pitch all year). I’m going to be kind of moved around, but at the same time, we have four (other) guys (in the rotation) more than holding their weight.
“If I can contribute to any win, that’s great. But just getting a full season under my belt this year and being a competitor for – I don’t know how many starts I’m going to have, but as many as I’m allotted – I think that will set me up for a good position moving forward.”
That’s the idea. And the White Sox hope that when they look at their rotation in the future, with Kopech starring not just as a flash of brilliance but as a dominant workhorse, they’ll see the fruits of these efforts.
So with a decision like Friday’s? No regrets.
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