Right-Handed Starting Pitcher
SSS rank among all right-handed starting pitchers in the system: 1
2021 SSS Top Prospect Vote: 2
2020 SSHP Top Prospect Ranking: 2
2019 SSS Top Prospect Ranking: 2
2018 SSS Top Prospect Ranking: 2
Like with Garrett Crochet, placing Michael Kopech as a starter here in the rankings is a bit of a cheat, because as he comes off of TJS and opting out of the 2020 season he’ll be on an innings limit, not due to start much.
It’s also a bit of a cheat that Kopech, seemingly around forever, still qualifies as a rookie. But many, “experienced” or not, consider this White Sox rookie class in 2021: Kopech, Crochet, Nick Madrigal, Andrew Vaughn! Whoa.
Kopech, a native of Mount Pleasant, Texas, enjoyed a terrific prep career, culminating with an 0.44 ERA, 18.14 K/9, and .115 OBA in his senior season. With those results and a fastball already reaching 94 mph, Kopech was unsurprisingly ranked among the top prep prospects entering the 2014 draft. When he fell to the 33rd selection, the Boston Red Sox couldn’t resist choosing him and signing him to a $1.5 million bonus in order to pry him from his verbal commitment to the Arizona Wildcats.
In his first three years in the Red Sox system, Kopech combined to post a 2.60 ERA and 1.20 WHIP while posting 11.49 K/9, 4.60 BB/9, and .201 OBA over a combined 135 innings. Kopech made headlines in Single-A ball when one of his fastballs was clocked at 105 mph.
However, during his Red Sox tenure, he also made the wrong kind of news. On July 15, 2015, he was suspended 50 games for testing positive for oxilofrine, a banned stimulant that was hidden in many dietary supplements sold over the counter. Unfortunately, things went from bad to worse when, in early March 2016, he broke a bone in his pitching hand during an altercation with a teammate. As a result of those two incidents, the most he pitched in the minors in his first three seasons was in 2015, when he pitched just 65 innings.
In 2017 for Birmingham, Kopech maintained a 2.87 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in 119 ⅓ innings, allowing just 77 hits (.184 OBA) but 60 walks (4.53 BB/9) while striking out 155 (11.69 K/9). Despite vastly exceeding his combining inning totals from the previous three years, Kopech got better as the season went along; In July and August, Kopech threw 44 ⅓ innings with 26 hits (.166 OBA), 11 walks (2.23 BB/9) and 58 strikeouts (11.77 K/9). As a result, he finished the season with three solid starts in Charlotte.
Struggles, primarily with control, haunted Kopech in 2018 — particularly in May and June. In those two months (totaling 58 ⅓ innings), he allowed 45 hits (.216) while striking out 76 (11.73 K/9); however, he walked a whopping 45 hitters (6.04 BB/9) which gave him an ERA of 5.25 and WHIP of 1.54 for that stretch. However, just like in 2017, Kopech kicked it into overdrive during July and August by ceding just 42 hits and eight walks over 47 innings and fanning 65 — posting a tidy 2.49 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in the process.
His improved control paid dividends, as Kopech finally earned a promotion to Chicago for his first career start, on August 21. Unfortunately, after doing well in three mostly rain-abbreviated starts, Kopech tore his UCL and ultimately underwent Tommy John surgery.
MLB Pipeline grades Kopech as 80-fastball, 65-slider, 50-changeup, and 45-control; what it doesn’t say is that Kopech has been getting great results from another pitch — a curveball. The key for Kopech, other than of course staying healthy in 2021, is to maintain his command while providing a nice speed variance between his fastball and off-speed pitches.
If Kopech’s fastball can return to pre-surgery levels while trusting his secondary offerings and maintaining the command he showed from July to September in 2018, the White Sox will indeed have a perennial Cy Young contender on their hands.