After an offseason of rest and several weeks of building arm strength, starting pitchers often hit the wall in the middle of spring training and have to crank it back up for the regular season.
But White Sox prospect Michael Kopech, who had his first poor Cactus League outing last week, doesn’t believe in that theory.
“As far as I know, I don’t have a wall,” he said.
Kopech will be back on a mound today at Camelback Ranch, pitching to Sox hitters on a back field on the team’s only day off from spring training.
Pitching coach Don Cooper will be there to coordinate, and manager Rick Renteria might show as well, though Renteria said Cooper was trying to persuade him to take a break.
Kopech, 21, won’t be in the Sox’s plans to start the season and eventually will join the rest of the kids going to Triple-A Charlotte when more roster cuts are announced. Though he’s easily one of the top five starters in camp and throws a triple-digit fastball with the ease of Sunday stroll through Lincoln Park, the service-time issue means he’ll have to begin the season in the minors to give the Sox a seventh year of control before he hits free agency.
Everyone gets it by now, including Kopech and Sox fans who watched the Cubs do the same thing to Kris Bryant in 2015 when he clearly was their best third baseman.
Kopech has a 2.74 career ERA in the minors and has averaged 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings, head-turning numbers that suggest he is destined to be a prime-time pitcher. The Sox love his makeup, and he’s already one of their more marketable players without having appeared in a regular-season major-league game.
The future is bright, and with Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez having solid springs, it bodes well for the possibility of an accelerated rebuild.
When Kopech will come up is anyone’s guess, but getting regular starts in the Cactus League should help him be prepared whenever it’s safe to do so.
Dealing with fatigue is something every pitcher has to endure over the course of a season, but Kopech said he was immune last year.
“I was fortunate enough to feel pretty good all year,” he said. “There were times I struggled a little bit. I just feel like if I take care of what I need to any day, I’ll be prepared for game time every time I take the mound. I don’t think there really is a wall, per se.”
After last week’s struggles against the Royals, Kopech said he needed to work on “focus practice,” a term I’d never heard. I thought he meant meditation or something along those lines, but he said it was more than that.
“The bullpens we throw, the pregame preparation we do, it’s all focus practice,” he said. “I just need to be more locked in. There were some pitches I didn’t execute probably because I was trying to do too much with it, trying to fine-tune things rather than do what I know how to do and pitch.
“I’m not too worried about that. I know what kind of pitcher I am and know what I’m capable of.”
How do you “practice” focusing?
“Pitching in general is a very methodical practice,” he said. “Throwing over and over and over is just throwing. But when you sit there and focus on each pitch, and do it with intent, there’s a lot more to get out of it. That’s what I need to do for the next couple practices I have – throw more with intent.”
General manager Rick Hahn said Kopech will probably make at least one more Cactus League start, though the Sox will have to start focusing on the starters who will be in the opening rotation: James Shields, Giolito, Lopez, Miguel Gonzalez and either Carson Fulmer or Hector Santiago.
“I’d like to be here as long as I can,” Kopech said.
In a perfect world, he would not only stick around for the rest of camp, but also make the team based on his spring performance and have at least six years on the South Side before hitting free agency.
Unfortunately, the business of baseball comes first, so Kopech will patiently wait his turn, just as Bryant did in 2015.