It’s three years behind schedule for a variety of reasons, but Michael Kopech finally assumed his position in the starting rotation for the 2022 Chicago White Sox. Overall, things have been positive for the fireballing Texan, but he has hit a bit of a speed bump in his first full tour as a Major League starter.
How the White Sox go about navigating Kopech’s long-term development with their short-term objectives of trying to win the AL Central and World Series in 2022 will be a hotly contested issue for the season’s remaining two and a half months.
For the season, Michael Kopech is sporting a 3.36 ERA and 4.49 FIP in 83 IP across 17 starts. The 26-year-old has already eclipsed his innings total from all of 2021, his first season back on the diamond since blowing out his UCL in August of 2018. By and large, I think we have to feel positive about what we have seen from Kopech this season. He has put together dominant outings against World Series contenders in the Yankees and Dodgers that have given us a glimpse of his ultimate promise.
Coming into the season, White Sox fans knew Kopech’s transition to the rotation was going to hit some roadblocks at various points. But, for the most part, he has given this team just about what you could expect from him this year. Some of his peripheral numbers are down on the season, most notably his strikeout rate (8.02 K/9), which is a considerable decline from his insane 13.37 K/9 a year ago. Additionally, his control and command have taken a step back as his walk rate has jumped up to a troubling 4.55 BB/9 (3.12 BB/9 in 2021).
But if you would’ve told South Siders at the start of the season that these would be his numbers at the All-Star break, I think most of us would look at that as a positive. Unfortunately, Kopech isn’t a finished product as a Major League starter and he is enduring growing pains while the team is smack dab in the middle of their competitive window.
Running On Fumes?
In in his start against the Texas Rangers on June 12, Michael Kopech exited the game during the first inning with an apparent knee issue. He recovered to make a start the following Sunday in Houston against the mighty Astros, but ever since that outing he hasn’t quite been the same.
There has been a lot of conjecture about the cause of his uneven performance since that day. Is it a direct result of the knee issue or the infamous “dead arm” period that plagues starters, particularly young ones, during the season?
I sat down and conducted an in-depth interview with friend and orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Nirav Shah from Parkview Orthopedics, a few weeks back. We delved into the Kopech situation and what we may see from him going forward. If you haven’t listened to it yet, it’s very informative (I had to bring on the brains to talk intelligently on the topic).
What The Numbers Say
Aside from the knee issue, is Kopech’s downturn a byproduct of a “dead arm?” There is some evidence to support this. In his six starts since exiting against the Rangers, his numbers look like this:
|5.74 (3.36)||6.78 (4.49)||6.61 (8.02)||5.17 (4.55)||2.30 (1.08)||.374 (.327)|
Almost across the board, Kopech’s numbers have gone in the wrong direction for the last month. In this time, his fastball velocity is down a full mile per hour averaging 94.1 MPH, bottoming out at 92.3 MPH against the Tigers on July 10. The positive news is that it did rebound in his final start before the break, averaging 95.5 MPH against the Twins on July 15.
The decline in velocity could also lead to the dip in overall fastball usage during this downward stretch. His fastball usage has dropped to 56%, a full 6% decline from his season average of 62%.
Now, I have certainly advocated for Kopech to make some tweaks to his pitch mix, most notably adding a third pitch, if nothing else to serve as a “show me” offering to keep hitters honest. Perhaps the young righty hasn’t felt confident in his fastball since it’s not the high-octane one he has been accustomed to. I can’t speak to Kopech’s psyche, but it certainly will be something interesting to monitor in the season’s second half.
Put Him In The Shop?
The All-Star break and schedule immediately following it present the White Sox an opportunity to allow Michael Kopech to recharge and be strong for the season’s remaining two months. The Sox open up the second half against the Cleveland Guardians with four games in three days, but they have two off days the following week sandwiched between a brief two-game set against the Rockies.
They could get creative and arrange their rotation so that Kopech wouldn’t be needed until the weekend of July 29 when they begin a three-game set at home against Oakland. That would give him two full weeks of rest from game action to save wear and tear on his arm in a season where we know he has an innings limit. None of us are privy to this innings limit, but the break in the schedule gives the Sox the chance to get creative with how they manage Kopech’s workload.
The team could even get a little more innovative and use the ole “phantom IL” trip and wait to bring him back until the first week of August at home against the Royals. This would help to ensure that Kopech is fresh for the season’s final two months and what is hopefully a push toward a division title.
A Balancing Act
One of the greatest concerns many fans had coming into the season was that Kopech would follow the path of 2021 Carlos Rodon, who was out of gas down the stretch and into October when he was needed the most. Should the White Sox be creative with managing how Kopech is utilized from here on out, they may be able to optimize his performance and the team’s chances of maximizing their potential down the stretch and hopefully into October.
Michael Kopech has been long viewed as a centerpiece of the Chicago White Sox rebuild process when he was acquired in December of 2016 for Chris Sale. He’s not a finished product yet, but the next two months will be crucial in his long-term development and the team’s quest to make a deep run into the postseason.
If they can get the guy back that looked like an emerging top-of-the-rotation arm for the season’s first two months, the White Sox will have a deadly weapon for when the games are supposed to matter the most.
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