By Cat Garcia
It’s clear when listening to future White Sox starting pitcher Michael Kopech speak, he is a confident young man. Not only does he command a mound presence that could be felt while watching him play last year for the Double-A Birmingham Barons, but he presents himself in a way that showcases the faith he has in himself to be the pitcher that the White Sox organization knows he can be.
“I hate to sound like I’m beyond ready [for the majors], because that’s not what I’m trying to say,” Kopech told the media on Friday afternoon. “I do think that there are things that I need to polish, and I feel like I’ve done a good job with that.”
Kopech has absolutely blown away onlookers, pitching just five starts at Triple-A Charlotte this season to the tune of just a 2.67 ERA in 27 strong innings of work. Kopech has gone six innings in three of those five starts.
The most important thing that a young pitcher can bring with him to the majors from a mound perspective is a strong set of secondary pitches. Having a strong arsenal of pitches to lean on as well as having a pitches to rely on for the third time through the order is absolutely key to immediate success in the majors. Kopech doesn’t seem to have any lack of confidence in his secondaries so far this season.
“Honestly I feel like my changeup is here,” Kopech said. “I’ve been throwing it more, I’m comfortable with it, I’ve had more swings and misses on it last start than I’ve probably had in my entire career combined, so I’m comfortable with my secondary stuff right now.”
The strikeouts would certainly back up that statement. Kopech has struck out 35 batters this season in Charlotte, including an outing on April 20 in which he struck out 10 batters in just five innings of work while walking just one.
While there are things that Kopech still needs to “polish” before he makes his debut on the South Side, there is only so much he can finesse before he will eventually have to take the steps to continue his development in the only place left to do so — under the lights at Guaranteed Rate Field.
White Sox manager Rick Renteria stressed Thursday that there are certain things that young ballplayer simply can’t work out in the minor leagues. That development can only take them so far.
“I think it’s invaluable because you’re doing it at the major league level,” Renteria said of getting young pitchers through their early growing pains. “You can’t experience this — as much as everybody goes through the process as you’re coming up through the minor leagues, the one place where you need to be able to perform at — and we’re doing this in the minor league system — is the major league level.”
Kopech believes he’s ready, and he’s keeping his eye on the prize everyday. “I think for the most part everything I’m working on here is for the major league level,” Kopech said. “So, keeping that direction towards the plate, throwing my changeup in counts that call for a fastball because I’m a fastball pitcher, everything I do is for that level.”
While Kopech is a confident ballplayer, he still has lessons to learn even in the minors — such as it’s wise to never get too confident in your abilities, something that Kopech’s last outing on Tuesday night taught him. “I was talking to my dad after my last outing,” Kopech said. “I wasn’t too happy with [it], and I told him I thought I needed it because I was getting too comfortable, too relaxed and I needed an outing that was just kind of a grind outing and to take what I could away from it.”
These are valuable off-the-field tools that will help Kopech deal with the success and failure of Major League life, and his awareness has already begun to blossom before he sets foot on major league turf with the Sox,, which already puts him in sync with the type of clubhouse culture that Renteria is trying to cultivate.
“The thing you have to do when you have a bad outing is learn from it,” Kopech said. “And you know if you don’t, it was a wasted day … the rough ones are the ones that make me a better pitcher. Nobody wants to have a bad outing, but learning from those situations and taking them into the next start is really all you can do and I’ve been comfortable with the amount of focus I’ve put in.”
He may have some refinement still in the works at his last stop before the big leagues, but the confidence, accountability and sense of self-awareness that Kopech exudes seems to indicate that he will likely come out of the gate ready to face the challenges that lie ahead on baseball’s biggest stage.