What went wrong: Michael Kopech

It’s hard to believe that Michael Kopech has been in the White Sox organization for almost seven years. His acquisition from Boston signaled that the rebuild would officially begin. Still, seven years later, he remains an enigma.

Shortly after his major league debut in September 2018 Kopech underwent Tommy John surgery, and due to the rehab process followed by the pandemic in 2020, he did not throw another pitch until April 2021.

Resurfacing as the top bullpen arm for Tony La Russa’s 2021 team — a role that allowed him to build a solid career after missing time — Kopech’s stuff has been absolutely electric. That kind of production, even without that role, is what fans were dreaming of back in December 2016.

The 2022 season was a mixed bag. Kopech awoke on June 8 with a 1.94 ERA and 3.09 FIP that included shutting down both the Yankees and Dodgers offenses (13.0 IP, 0 ER, 14 K, 3 BB). He was never going to throw 180 innings that year, but getting good production over 120-130 was the plan – and that plan was on track two months into the season.

Kopech’s debut was June 12 in Chicago against the Rangers, and Kopech left the game in the first inning with right knee discomfort. His 14 game starts after injury, the club that didn’t see fit to give him an IL stint, weren’t that great. Kopech pitched to a 4.79 ERA and 5.57 FIP with a 7% drop in strikeout rate. He ended up being placed on the disabled list in late August to rehabilitate his knee, but actually ended the season with a shoulder injury that may have been an unintended consequence of harvesting his knee.

This time last year, the prevailing thought was that Kopech was still a talented starter who was struggling a bit to adjust to a regular starter’s job – but there’s no need to ring any alarm bells.

The issue we are here to analyze is that things took a turn for the worse in 2023, and Kopech was not well. What’s going on?

If Michael Kopech didn’t look as bad in 2023 as he did in previous seasons, your observation would be true. In reference to Stuff+, which for lack of a better definition seems to measure a pitcher’s “badness” and the different pitches he throws, Kopech’s Stuff+ was low across the board.

Kopech had a little green spin on his fastball in 2023, and the most noticeable result was a 1.5” decrease in its vertical break. However, although a straight break down in this manner is generally not desirable, the vertical angle of the pitch was actually quite low. flatter (4.4 degrees to 4.3). Kopech, like Dylan Cease, had a long release extension, and when you release the ball farther down the mound without changing your arm angle, your release length will decrease and your vertical look angle should be close to zero – which is generally good. .

Kopech’s results will point you to the fact that the decline of the vertical break is misleading; his fastball Whiff% increased from 25.5% in 2022 to 26.4% in 2023. The horizontal break on his fastball was also down about an inch, but he maintained his 71st-percentile velocity (95 mph). Long story short in this first division: Kopech’s fastball stuff isn’t the biggest offense here, even if it’s disguised as one.

The biggest problem is Kopech’s slider. The pitch dropped less than an inch and a half, which won’t tell the whole story in a vacuum, but there was no corresponding increase in speed and no evidence of a seam-altered wake effect occurring. The slider had more glove-side break in 2023 (4.7” to 5.5), but nowhere near the 9.2′ of horizontal break that Kopech’s 2021 slider featured. That 2021 slider, paired with a sidearm run, upper-90s fastball, created a lethal combination that Kopech can recreate as a starter.

Going back to that 2021 arsenal, the slider that Kopech introduced was very “slurvey” (the modern term is probably “sweeper-ish”), meaning it was a combination slider/curveball. Heading into 2022 when Kopech transitioned back into the starting role, he needed a third pitch, and he didn’t (and still doesn’t) have much of a sense of change. So, Kopech, pitching coach Ethan Katz, and the rest of the White Sox development staff need to separate that slurve into two different pitches. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Dylan Cease needed to do the same thing last season, and it worked out pretty well for him.

One plan for 2024 would be to try to reverse Kopech’s 2021 slider situation and throw the curveball effectively; Kopech’s slurve created a nice spin-mirroring effect with his fastball (which helps create that aforementioned “killer combo”). Then, with the need for at least a small contribution of the third tone, a low 90s cutter can work well. Kopech needs something to slow down left-handed hitters, who have compiled a .398 xwOBA (.428 vs. his fastball, .340 vs. his slider) against him in 2023.

The problems of Kopech’s command are also very apparent. His overall Command+ was down four points in 2023, while his Pitching+ (a broader look at his pitch quality) was down six.

When Kopech threw one strike, he was a completely different player than when he didn’t.

Aside from the work that needs to be done to improve his arsenal, the White Sox should rethink what Michael Kopech looks like. It’s time to get creative, because there are too many factors working against Kopech to continue expecting him to be a regular striker. His pitch physics, injury history, lack of innings under his belt, and two years of contract control remaining all work against him.

Kopech has a 5.52 FIP in 52 starts over the past two seasons when used as a traditional starter. While many teams would take this information and immediately realize that Kopech should go back to the bullpen, where he has shown the potential to be very successful, that would force the White Sox to sign four starting pitchers in free agency this season. And, given that the team isn’t supposed to be in playoff contention, the White Sox should be given an opportunity to explore Kopech’s use — and that shouldn’t be as a starter, but also not as a reliever.

When Kopech’s rotation comes up every fifth day, the team has to have him follow the opening game, a concept that only a few teams around the league consistently play with. I’d like to see Kopech in a role that allows him to throw between 50-70 pitches where he starts out facing the bottom half of the order. If this plan works, cover the opening and Kopech between four and six innings, then I have Garrett Crochet, another tweener who I see is good enough to cover more than one inning relief role but not the traditional starting role, pitching. another 30-50 pitches as he builds his career.

In the most well-maintained situation, these three can put together an entire game, but even if not, it’s an effective use of Kopech’s spot in the rotation. The hope is that if Kopech knows he can empty his tank for 60 or more pitches, he will play well. It’s not always that easy, but I don’t see much of a downside to the White Sox trying a more progressive strategy for one of the team’s 2024 rotation slots. It’s a last-ditch effort to see what Kopech can be beyond one inning, while also looking at Crochet in an improved role.

I like the opening before Kopech, because I want to make his first time in the order easier. He struggled through the first few innings in 2023 before settling down.

As you can see, Kopech should never face third in the order.

Another big issue for Kopech in 2023 is that he may have been dealing with a loose knee for much of the summer. He had meniscus repair in his right knee in September, and if that knee feels better in 2024, it will only help him. My mixed suggestion for his 2024 role should help him get comfortable, and frankly, if Kopech thrives in it, there’s no saying Pedro Grifol couldn’t clear the 75 pitch cap at some point, or clear the opener. in front of him. The point is that Kopech can reassert himself as your fifth-day, traditional starting pitcher by pitching well — but let’s see if that can be accomplished by cleaning up some of the details in a much-abbreviated role first.