Texas sports ‘outcast’ Michael Kopech now on White Sox fast track – Chicago Tribune
An athletically gifted teenager growing up in northeast Texas seemingly has one destiny: Play high school football under the glare of Friday night lights.
For Michael Kopech, however, it was always about throwing a ball with stitches rather than one with laces.
That obsession helped turned Kopech into one of baseball’s top prospects and the pitcher with a thunderbolt in his right arm is a key component of the White Sox’s rebuild.
“I was kind of outcast in high school for not playing football,” Kopech said after making his debut with Triple-A Charlotte last week in Norfolk. “The head coach was asking me every year to play football and I had my goals set already from a young age and stuck with baseball. So far I like to think it’s working out.”
It has worked because of the vapor trails Kopech leaves after unleashing a fastball that reached 105 mph while he was playing for the Class A Salem Red Sox of the Carolina League in July 2016.
What is it like to throw a baseball 105 mph?
“I couldn’t tell you because honestly for me it doesn’t feel much different than throwing 95,” Kopech, 21, said flashing a smile.
It was under the tutelage of his father, Michael P. Kopech, that it became obvious there was something special in that right arm.
“When I was 13 or 14 I realized I could throw the ball harder than most kids my age,” Kopech said. “I hit 90 for the first time when I was 14 and I knew that I could really do something with my arm.”
During his senior year at Mount Pleasant High School, he topped out at 98 mph and that was enough to convince the Red Sox to make him the 33rd overall pick in the ’14 draft.
The following spring at Class A Greenville, Kopech reached 100 on the gun and his future was nothing but bright.
Until it wasn’t.
Two incidents threatened to derail Kopech’s career but at the same time helped shape him into the person he is today. On July 16, 2015 while pitching for Greenville, Kopech was suspended 50 games for violating the Minor League Drug Prevention and Treatment Program after testing positive for the supplement Oxilofrine.
Despite apologizing for the suspension at the time, Kopech says he has no idea how that banned supplement ended up in his bloodstream.
“It’s in the past now but at the time it was devastating,” Kopech said. “I not knowingly was taking something, apparently. That was my first full season so I was excited to just be pitching and it hit me out of nowhere. I felt like it was my whole career being crushed.
“But I stopped worrying about the negative and focused on the positive and that helped me get over it. Once I was able to do that I felt like I became a much better pitcher.”
But not before another misstep the following spring training when he broke a bone in his hand during an altercation with a teammate.
“I thought I was about to bounce right back and that put me in another setback,” Kopech said. “But I had that time to reflect and I was able to better myself as a person.”
After missing 2 1/2 months with the injury, Kopech resumed his career tack with Salem and on July 13, 2016 — almost a year to the day of the suspension — he unleashed the 105-mph heater — confirmed by two separate radar guns — in a game against Wilmington.
“It was one of my first starts coming back after I’d gone through all of that,” Kopech said. “At the time, I didn’t realize I was throwing as hard as I was. Once that got out in the media it kind of blew up but I realized that I’m a starter, not a reliever and I had to stop trying to throw as hard as I could and just pitch. It’s in the tank if I need to rear back and hit triple digits but right now I’m just working on pitching.”
Rated the Red Sox’s No. 1 pitching prospect, Kopech was a hot commodity around baseball, including with White Sox general manager Rick Hahn, who was set to embark on a radical rebuild. Perhaps the biggest step came Dec. 6, 2016 when Hahn traded ace left-hander Chris Sale to the Red Sox for four players, including Kopech and Yoan Moncada.
While Moncada was considered the top overall prospect in baseball, the deal wasn’t happening unless Kopech was part of it.
“It’s never easy to move a guy like Chris but certainly being able to start the deal with Yoan and Michael and the way we feel about their futures made it a deal that made sense for all of us and ultimately allowed us to move forward,” Hahn told the Tribune.
Hahn said the organization looked into the circumstances surrounding Kopech’s suspension and subsequent injury and “we were comfortable with the explanations.”
The Sox are even more comfortable with Kopech’s pitching arsenal, which has expanded beyond the blazing fastball and includes a slider he throws in the high-80s, often as as his out-pitch, a curveball and newly developed sinker.
“There’s no question that he has potential and the tools to be a starter in the big leagues,” Knights manager Mark Grudzielanek said. “He has the velocity, the strength and his off-speeds. It’s just a matter of fine-tuning it and putting it where he wants it.”
Kopech earned a promotion to Charlotte after going 8-7 with a 2.87 earned-run average and 155 strikeouts in 22 starts with Double-A Birmingham.
“He has exceeded our expectations for 2017 and there’s no saying he won’t continue to do that in the future,” Hahn said. “He’s already ahead of where we reasonably could have projected he would be at this time.”
When the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Kopech does arrive in the majors, fans will see a pitcher who is more than a strikeout artist. Kopech is insightful, philosophical and … a budding reality television star.
Kopech is dating Brielle Biermann, one of the stars of the Bravo reality show “Don’t Be Tardy,” and while that often has cameras focused on him off the field, he doesn’t allow the hoopla to become detrimental to his on-field development.
“She’s very positive as a person and the way that she has been supportive is really the reason we’re together,” Kopech said. “She has helped me a lot along the way and I don’t see it as a distraction at all. She tries to come to as many games as she can and she’s one of my top supporters as far as baseball goes. “She just happens to be more famous than most people.”
Being more famous appears to be in Kopech’s future as he nears his place in the Sox rotation.