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Why White Sox chose to move Michael Kopech from starting rotation to bullpen

Vinnie Duber Avatar
March 14, 2024
Michael Kopech

Apparently, every resource has been exhausted.

Michael Kopech’s time as a member of the White Sox’ starting rotation is over, general manager Chris Getz announcing Thursday that the right-hander will be transitioning to the bullpen.

It was the second seismic change for the South Side pitching staff in less than 24 hours. Getz broke the Kopech news during his media session to talk about the Wednesday trade that sent Dylan Cease to the Padres. That 1-2 punch completed a massive overhaul of the starting rotation, every member of the starting staff on Opening Day a year ago either no longer with the organization or pitching out of the bullpen.

Kopech’s shift to a relief gig comes amid springtime struggles that saw the continuation of many of the same problems that dogged him through a woeful 2023 season in which he led the AL with 91 walks and allowed a whopping 29 home runs. Despite that rough campaign, the White Sox were committed at season’s end to keeping Kopech as a starting pitcher.

“Good starting pitching is very hard to find. We’ve seen his potential to be a really good starting pitcher. We’re going to exhaust that until we can’t anymore, and 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,” manager Pedro Grifol said in September. “I’ve seen him really, really good, dominant in this game. He’s going to come to spring training to win a job in that rotation.

“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. My mind, and our mind as an organization, is moving forward, ‘Come into spring training and you’re one of our five guys and compete.’”

That competition, though, convinced the White Sox to go in the other direction. After three spring outings, Kopech owned a 7.71 ERA with six walks, two hit batters and a couple homers allowed in seven innings.

Kopech is not a complete stranger to relief work. He pitched out of the bullpen during the 2021 season after missing the entirety of the previous two campaigns. The goal that year was to allow Kopech to ease back into major league pitching, get some innings under his belt and still contribute to the team. It was his best in the big leagues to date: He finished with a 3.50 ERA and 103 strikeouts in 69.1 innings of work.

It’s uncertain what type of relief role the White Sox have in mind for Kopech at this point. What’s certain is that they no longer see him as a starter.

“You know, it’s not my first choice where I want to be,” Kopech told reporters, including CHGO’s Jared Wyllys, Thursday in Arizona. “I like starting, but I’ve had success in that (relief) role. And ultimately we are looking at what’s best for the team this year. If I can help us win games in the back of the game, I’m excited to do that.

“I’m disappointed. I think that I’ve had success (in the rotation), but it’s been a little too inconsistent. I need to find some consistency there. That being said, there’s a window, and I didn’t achieve it in that window. So now I have an opportunity to find success and help the team in another way.”

So why now?

Getz’s explanation focused on early-game efficiency, and certainly Kopech struggled to keep the walks down in the opening innings last season, so much so that it often brought his starts to an early end. Though he made 30 appearances in 2023, all but three of them starts, he completed five innings just 14 times and completed six innings just six times.

A focus on not overworking the rest of the staff – whether the bullpen arms who have to start their days earlier than hoped or the other starters who need to make sure they go deep in games to avoid compounding the situation for the relievers – seems to have been the driving force behind the Kopech decision.

“When you have the front part of the game and the back part of the game,” Getz said, “obviously attacking the zone is important regardless of where you’re pitching. When you’re trying to navigate the early innings and your pitch count is raised, and although you’re getting some outs, you’re also perhaps getting some walks and just really raising a workload that we felt that we were going to run the risk of perhaps overtaxing our bullpen and the remainder of our pitching staff. So we were looking to find some starters who could be more efficient on the front end to help navigate a season.

“We know that Michael has the capabilities to get anyone out in this game, based on his stuff, and he did show that as a starter, even in his spring training outings. However, being a starting pitcher and a desire to go deeper into games and being more efficient is something that we were aiming for.

“So now this transition, we hope the smaller bite of the apple, so to speak, in reliever outings, whether it be one or two innings, is going to be something that’s easier to accomplish for Michael and be better for the White Sox.”

While that’s a perfectly reasonable conclusion to come to, it does spark the question of whether a move to the bullpen will allow Kopech to exorcize the demons that have led to his early-game struggles with command.

Kopech’s biggest walk totals last season came in the first and second innings, with 24 first-inning walks and 20 second-inning walks. Obviously, though he might have a different mindset of not trying to pitch in a way that allows him to last seven innings or more, whenever he is deployed as a reliever, he will be pitching in his first inning of the game.

“The name of the game is getting guys out as efficiently as possible. And if that’s in a one-inning role or a seven-inning role, it’s the same concept. So nothing changes as far as the approach I have to have, as far as going into a game and being ready,” Kopech said. “With this new opportunity, it’s more of being prepared for that first hitter, which seems like it would be obvious as a starter, but a lot of time you feel like you have time to work into a game. That little bit of leeway makes it more difficult to attack. I’m going to come out ready to attack and take this role head on.”

It’s the latest turn in what has been an eventful journey for Kopech to try to live up to the hype that accompanied him to the White Sox organization when he was acquired as part of the Chris Sale trade that launched Rick Hahn’s rebuilding effort in 2016. Kopech put up big numbers in the minors and arrived in the majors with much fanfare late in the 2018 season. But he quickly required Tommy John surgery, wiping out his 2019, and he opted not to play during the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign due to personal reasons.

Less serious but still present injuries followed in both 2021 and 2022, and he required another surgery this offseason after being shut down before season’s end after pitching with a cyst in his knee for much of the 2023 campaign.

The White Sox hoped that a mostly normal offseason and the arrival of new pitching czar Brian Bannister could help Kopech put his 2023 struggles behind him and become the type of dominant pitcher Grifol referred to on a more consistent basis.

While the results of spring training games are far from everything – one might say they’re not important at all – the White Sox seemed to see enough from Kopech to know that the issues, particularly with command, haven’t gone anywhere, thus the move.

We’ll have to see if Kopech can become a valuable part of Getz’s plan to reshape the White Sox into a contender. Certainly, someone with the amount of talent Kopech has cannot be ruled out from turning into a mighty effective relief pitcher. Indeed, the White Sox don’t even have a closer at the moment, and roles in the bullpen seem mostly up for grabs.

But at this point, it seems Kopech will not turn into the top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher that was promised back in 2016, when the White Sox hoped they had acquired a future ace in exchange for the one that went on to win a World Series in Boston.

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