(Audacy) It has been more than five years since the Boston Red Sox traded right-hander Michael Kopech to the Chicago White Sox, and he has changed in myriad ways in that time.
Now, he’s the pitcher many envisioned he could one day be.
A 2014 first-round pick, Kopech came up through the Red Sox system as a highly touted prospect. His eye-catching velocity is what helped him become one of the top players in Boston’s pipeline and ultimately part of the trade package going to the White Sox in the deal that sent lefty Chris Sale to the Red Sox.
But for all the tantalizing qualities about Kopech, there were also red flags. His control was erratic, there were concerns about how his arm would hold up and he was immature.
Now 26 years old and the MLB leader in ERA a month into the season, Kopech opened up on WEEI’s “Bradfo Sho” podcast on how he grew over the last half-decade.
“I’ve grown up quite a bit since (the trade),” Kopech said. “Had some major life changes, had a kid and have another kid on the way. But as far as baseball goes, I’ve taken a step back and realized what I needed to do to fill some holes on the field. Slowed myself down and not worried so much about throwing as hard as I can but actually pitching. I’ve got a long way to go with that still, but I feel like that’s the main difference in the pitcher I am now versus the pitcher I was then.”
It wasn’t always smooth sailing when he got to Chicago.
Kopech didn’t get promoted to the big leagues until August 2018, then made four appearances before one of the biggest concerns that surrounded him came to pass, as needed Tommy John surgery in September 2018. He missed the rest of that season and all of the 2019 campaign, then opted out of the shortened 2020 season for personal reasons amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
So it wasn’t until 2021 that he became a full-time big leaguer. All that time away from the game allowed him to refocus.
“We all have a tendency to (put a ton of pressure on ourselves),” Kopech said. "Getting into this game, it’s a dream for all of us to be big leaguers, so you do everything that you feel like is in your control to make it to the big leagues. You realize once you get here that you may have been pressing some of the buttons a little too much or a little too hard, and that there are some other things that you need to do to reevaluate.
“That’s kind of what happened when I got (to Chicago), especially with Tommy John, having to take that step back. I think having that injury and having that time away from the game, it allowed me to take the pressure off of myself and get better when I have the time to.
“I don’t know if it was one specific piece of advice or one specific moment as much as it was a collection of moments that just – I started going down, I think it happens to a lot of ballplayers when you get something taken away from you that you love to do – I was going down a rabbit hole of just being depressed and not getting to help my team play.
“I wanted to come back and make sure I was the best player I could be, and in doing that I realized that I needed to really focus on some things that I didn’t think were as important before. Like commanding all of my pitches rather than trying to throw wipeout pitches or staying as focused as I can in the moment rather than letting the moment build and trying to make a really big pitch.
“The game is a fast game and I think the key is to slow it down, and when you step out of the game, I think it’s a lot easier to recognize that then when you’re out there in it.”
It’s evident how much Kopech has grown up since that trade, as a person and on the mound.
Once able to clock 110 mph on the radar gun with a running start in training drills, Kopech now boasts a fastball that sits at 95, and he has better command on both that and his secondary pitches. That’s what has made him one of the toughest starters in the big leagues this season, and it’s largely the product of that growth. He has a 0.93 ERA and 0.97 WHIP in six starts in 2022.
“It’s been a blessing for me," Kopech said. "I’m a very different pitcher, I’m a very different person, but I think it’s been great for me because I don’t feel like I have to prove myself to anybody anymore. I can just go out there and do the job I’m supposed to do and focus on the task at hand and take it one pitch at a time rather than build up this persona of the flamethrower.”