If you went back to mid-August of 2018, most of us assumed Michael Kopech would have firmly cemented himself as an anchor of the White Sox rotation by 2022. However, injuries and a pandemic set back the once-heralded prospect's development and big-league tenure on the South Side. He finally returned to the mound in 2021, and overall the results were positive. There were certainly bumps in the road, particularly in the season's second half as it became obvious the young hurler was out of gas from a two-plus season layoff.
The White Sox will count on Kopech heavily in 2022 and beyond. It will be imperative for the team's championship aspirations that they find a way to balance stretching him out for a full season's worth of starts and continuing to maintain his effectiveness. This was a task that the team grappled with a decade ago with another heralded pitcher who transitioned from the bullpen to the rotation.
I'm referring of course to the very man Kopech was acquired for, Chris Sale. Hopefully the team learned from the mistakes of the 2012 season that was one of the most heartbreaking conclusions of my lifetime. If I'm being honest, that 2012 team killed part of my soul that I will never get back.
Tale of the Tape
If you examine Kopech's 2021 season out of the Sox bullpen, the numbers are eerily similar to those of Sale's 2011 season that he spent pitching in relief:
As you'll see from the above table compiled by Jay Cuda (who is a fantastic Twitter follow that provides an array of useful and unique stats regularly, so follow him if you aren't already) Kopech and Sale were so closely aligned in their performances coming out of the pen it's almost scary. So if we look at how the Sox utilized Chris Sale in 2012, do we have a clue as to how the team plans to use Kopech in 2022? I personally hope not.
For the season in 2012, Chris Sale's numbers look fantastic. He hurled 192 innings and put up a solid 3.05 ERA and 3.27 FIP earning his first All-Star appearance. Not bad for a guy transitioning to the rotation at the Major League level after coming up as a reliever. If we look at his numbers a little deeper, however, we see there was a significant drop-off when the team needed him the most. That is what the 2022 White Sox must avoid with Michael Kopech.
4/6 - 8/12
8/17 - 9/29
Through mid-August of 2012, Sale was one of the top pitchers in the American League. But by that point, he had nearly doubled his previous season's innings total. The drop-off that occurred was a precipitous one and was a leading cause in the team eventually surrendering first place to that team from Detroit after 119 days atop the division.
While the 2022 White Sox don't appear to have as strong of a divisional challenger at this point, if this team is going to get where they want to be they have to find a way to manage Michael Kopech's workload while ensuring his continued development.
Lesson (Hopefully) Learned
Kopech's situation will, perhaps, be complicated by the fact that he had the two-plus season layoff heading into the 2021 season. It is because of this and the lessons from Sale's 2012 season that I believe the team will have to be smart with Kopech's workload. I think it is imperative that the White Sox insulate themselves with rotational depth that will allow them to strategically skip Kopech at various points in the season, while also managing his in-game workload.
In the 2012 season, there were numerous instances of Robin Ventura extending Sale more than he should have. If you look at his game log from 5/23 through 8/22, Sale pitched fewer than six innings one time. Ideally, you want that from a starter, yes, but from a guy that threw 71 IP the prior year, this clearly wasn't a sound strategy.
I'll never forget sitting in the bleachers on 6/9/12 as Sale went eight innings against a 107-loss Astros team in a game the Sox won 10-1. At the time, I was dumbfounded as to why Ventura didn't use the blowout scenario as an opportunity to save some bullets for his young hurler. And this wasn't the only such instance during the aforementioned three-month stretch. In hindsight, this mismanagement may have directly played a role in Sale fading down the stretch of the 2012 season.
Filling The Gaps
So if the 2022 White Sox are to get the most out of Michael Kopech and have him functioning close to his peak as October approaches, the organization must learn from previous failures. Tony La Russa and Ethan Katz will need to ensure Kopech still has bullets left in the chamber down the stretch. Skipping starts when the schedule allows and using blowout scenarios to limit in-game usage will be paramount.
I know many on Twitter dot com love to second guess in-game pitcher usage with starters, but this will truly be one of the most important things the team does with Kopech this upcoming season. The overwhelming likelihood is that 140 IP is probably the best-case scenario for the young Texan in 2022. So the team has to find a way to fill in the gaps and cover the volume needed over 162 games.
Utilizing Reynaldo Lopez as a swingman floating between the bullpen and rotation seems like a very strong likelihood. However, I think it would behoove the club to bring in an additional arm to help cover some of that volume. Does that open up the possibility for a Carlos Rodon return? It's hard to say what his market will look like when the lockout concludes, but that wouldn't be the worst idea.
Whatever the White Sox decide to do from a roster construction standpoint, handling Kopech's volume has to factor into the plans on the pitching side. Assuming he will be able to handle a full six-month workload transitioning from the bullpen simply isn't a sound strategy. As we saw a decade ago when faced with a similar situation, it could be one of the deciding factors in a team meeting its expectations or falling short in heartbreaking fashion.