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Ohtani, Kopech, and the weirdness of possibility

Baseball is weird, with beauty blooming in the muck

MLB: Texas Rangers at Chicago White Sox
Michael Kopech has brought his career toward something wonderful, which doesn’t always happen.
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The first time I remember seeing Shohei Ohtani play was a Friday night in May 2018, at a bar in some lakeish town in Michigan (though aren’t they all?). The Angels were playing the Yankees, and I was excitedly telling my wife about what a freakish prospect he was, an impossible amalgamation.

But I also distinctly recall shading that praise with a typical warning to both of us not to get too excited. There’s no guarantee even the best player is going to do something cool on any given night. Baseball is weird like that. And beside, his skills might not be utilized completely over here. And really, don’t most prospects bust? Happy mediocrity with a side of cool isn’t a terrible career.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Los Angeles Angels
This is the opposite of mediocre
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Sox fans will recognize something darker here, something a little bit beyond my Solomonic remove. It was an unflattering emotion, one I didn’t even want to admit to myself. There was a lizard resentment of his talent that overwhelmed my overall baseball fandom. It was the bitter hope that, if none of our prospects hit, no one else’s should either.

The 2018 season was a weird, bad one for the White Sox. After a promising rookie year, Tim Anderson was about to have a .281/.406/.687, with a second straight year of about 150 strikeouts and sub-90 OPS+. It seemed like Ks were going to eat a hole in his career. Yoán Moncada, meanwhile, was about to lead the league with 217 strikeouts, with slightly better overall numbers than Tim. And while that was essentially an extended rookie season, there was reason to doubt.

The only prospect that you could say had really hit for sure was Chris Sale, a couple of years and a pair of scissors out of town.

So, needless to say, it was a dark time. It was a time where, as a Sox fan, you could be excused for being slightly bitter about Ohtani, taking cold comfort in a colder beer that the Angels would waste him. And for a few years, it seemed like he was on a leash, and baseball would rein him in. For a number of reasons, he didn’t become fully Ohtani until last year, and is now wrecking shit everywhere.

Baseball is weird like that. Things don’t always hit. But sometimes they do.

The jury is still out on Moncada and his health. Luis Robert appears to be what Luis Robert appeared to be. And Tim? Closed that hole in his swing and changed his game in a way that I’ve never seen before, on his way to becoming one of the best hitters and the most handsome man in baseball.

That brings us to Michael Kopech, facing off against Ohtani tonight. (For once, that unbearable cliche of “Pitcher X against Pitcher Y” isn’t meaningless; they’ll literally face each other a couple three times). Kopech also came up in that 2018 season, and spent a few years in the wilderness, working his way back to the rotation, where he is currently dominating.

As a Sox fan, this season’s maddening frustrations aside, it is wonderful to watch a guy — our guy — put it together. So few actually do. Most people have a flaw that eats their game alive. So when someone puts it together — be it Tim fixing things, Ohtani being unleashed, or Kopech rising up to the level of his awesome talent — it’s incredible. It’s rare.

So yeah — you aren’t going to find many happy baseball fans on either side of the scorecard tonight. Both the Sox and Angels are, at best, disappointing. But we’re going to see Ohtani pitch to Anderson. We’re going to see Kopech pitch to Ohtani. We’re going to see two great pitchers do their thing on a random June night, a burst of fulfilled potential in a season that is anything but.

Baseball is weird like that.