In what now feels like forever ago, a sweat-soaked Michael Kopech lit up the radar gun pitch after pitch for the Chicago White Sox when he made his major-league debut back on August 22nd, 2018.
Kopech — then the number 13 prospect in all of baseball according to MLB Pipeline — opened his major-league career with a 96 MPH fastball for a strike to future Hall-of-Famer, Joe Mauer.
Kopech would go on to throw 40 fastballs over 52 pitches before mother nature got the best of his much-anticipated debut, forcing him out of the game by way of a long rain delay.
Those 40 fastballs averaged 96.8 MPH and a ridiculous spin rate of 2,615 RPM, both of which were tops among qualified (min. 250 fastballs) pitchers across Major League Baseball.
At the time, Kopech didn’t express any overwhelming emotion in the moment.
“My entire life I’ve tried to prep myself for this moment so I didn’t feel overwhelmed when I did get here,” Kopech said. “It was just about as spot-on as I could imagine. The fans were a lot more engaged than I expected. I wouldn’t say it was overwhelming but a really cool experience. It was amazing out there.”
However, after 540 days and a lengthy recovery from the Tommy John surgery that ended his first stint in the majors, Kopech wishes he would have lived a little more in the moment and taken his debut in more.
When asked on Thursday at Camelback Ranch what advice he might offer to similarly-hyped top prospect Luis Robert, Kopech offered this some personal insight into his debut in hindsight.
“If I could tell him [Luis Robert] anything, it would be to take it all in,” Kopech said. “Because I know in the midst of it you can kind of get sucked into all the emotions and the chaos, and it can feel like a whirlwind. I kind of wish that I would have lived a little more in that moment, and embraced that moment more, but it’s easy to let anxiety take over.”
That anxiety that Kopech mentioned is something that he’s been very open about on his road back to a major-league mound, especially these past few weeks.
At SoxFest in late January, Kopech said that he was feeling stronger mentally than he ever has, and credited his new bride Vanessa Morgan with a lot of the reasoning behind that.
Kopech has said on multiple occasions that his injury, coinciding surgery, and recovery couldn’t have come at a better time for him. In fact, he’s called it a blessing in disguise.
“Obviously I would have loved to pitch last season, it kind of sucks to take that entire year off, but last season was a big learning curve for me and for the timing of it to bring me back this spring to get the ramp-up with everybody before the season starts I think that works out perfect for me.”
As far as 2020 is concerned, the time away from the mound gave Kopech time to focus on some of the holes in his game, most notably his struggles with command and using his secondary offerings effectively.
“Yeah, I think it’s made me, like I said, more patient overall. It’s made me really focus on the things that I didn’t before, so it’s kind of filled those holes in my pitching repertoire.”
“Command, mentality on the mound, I mean there’s quite a bit that goes into the game of baseball as I’m sure you can imagine,” Kopech said. “It’s more so than just pitches, and when it comes to how I carried myself on the mound I probably wore my emotions on my sleeve a little bit too much, and now I’m trying to stay a little bit more even keel.”
Physically, Kopech feels the best he ever has as well.
“It just feels easy, it doesn’t feel like I’m having to work as hard to locate the ball or having to really throw the ball harder to make it nasty,” Kopech said. “At this point, I’ve trusted myself and I’ve trusted my process all the way through this, and now everything I do is coming to me pretty easy.”
When asked what plan the White Sox had for him regarding his timeline back to the big leagues, Kopech said he has no idea what that might look like at this point and noted that he’s just focused on having a strong camp.
Whatever that plan might look like, it will surely involve newly acquired All-Star catcher, Yasmani Grandal.
Grandal is among the best defensive and pitch-framing catchers in all of baseball and has been often praised for his tireless preparation and his ability to draw the most out of his pitching staff.
Kopech, for one, is thrilled to have Grandal in the fold with returning 2019 A.L. All-Star catcher, James McCann.
“We have no complaints as far as our catching staff goes,” Kopech said. “I think anyone in the league would probably be jealous of what we have to offer as far as the guys behind the dish whether that’s Mac or Yas, I think they’re both going to be really great additions for us.”
“Him [Grandal] and James [McCann] have both taken that leadership role very serious, and to see that work ethic that they have when they go into a weight room or maybe just a meeting about pitch selection,” Kopech said. “They take it very serious, and they take pride in leading the pitching staff.”
As far what we can expect from Michael Kopech from an approach standpoint in 2020, he’s looking to just be a more complete pitcher moving forward.
“I’m expecting to be a lot more patient with myself,” Kopech said. “I’m not going to go out there in the first inning and try to blow fastballs by people, I’m going to locate the ball and I’m going to pitch, I’m going to do what I have worked all this time to do so well. I think that velocity will be there when it needs to be there, but it’s not going to be the main focus of my pitching.”