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Michael Kopech Finds Groove After Battling Control Issues

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Michael Kopech (Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

DURHAM, N.C.—Michael Kopech needed this.

The White Sox’s No. 2 prospect entered Monday with a 9.00 ERA in his previous four starts this month, with more walks (21) than strikeouts (20) over 16 innings. The “What’s wrong with Michael Kopech?” whispers were getting louder, and the doubts that he possessed the control to succeed at the next level became amplified.

With a basic adjustment to get on line to the plate, Kopech rediscovered the form that made him such a highly touted prospect.

Kopech pitched six shutout innings with four hits allowed and nine strikeouts to lead Triple-A Charlotte to a 2-1 victory over Durham (Rays) in the series opener between the in-state rivals. Most important, he issued only two walks.

Kopech, the No. 10 prospect on the BA Top 100 Prospects list, threw 63 of 95 pitches for strikes, didn’t walk anyone after the third inning and departed with a 1-0 lead before settling for a no-decision to finish June on a high note.

“Guys that tend to throw the ball real hard, sometimes they can get out a little bit and jump out and rush and overthrow and lose some pitches, and he kind of battled with that,” Charlotte pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “But we’ve been doing a lot of talking, working on the side, and just making sure we stay on line and finish. We don’t have to throw it 110 (mph). Just try to keep it around 98. He’s an awfully talented kid. When he just stays on line and doesn’t overthrow, he throws the ball real well.”

Kopech battled his fastball command at times but mostly kept his heater in and around the zone all night. He ranged from 93-98 mph, sat 95-97 with life and held his velocity the entirety of his outing.

He particularly enjoyed using his fastball to toy with lefthanded hitters. Six of his nine strikeouts came against lefties, with his 97 mph fastball running away from them and drawing feeble waves for strike three over and over again.

“I just went out there more relaxed, had a little bit more fun, went out there to compete,” Kopech said. “Just trying to do what I’ve done in years past and what I did in spring training and be aggressive with guys, and I think that showed up tonight.

“There wasn’t a point tonight where I felt I was going to get beat. I just went out there and threw my best pitches and attacked.”

Kopech flashed four pitches on the night—his fastball, a new curveball he began throwing last month, a slider and a changeup.

His curveball was the best of his secondary offerings, sitting 81-84 mph and landing on the outside corner to righthanded hitters for strikes at its best, although it wasn’t always consistent.

“It’s kind of been a project,” Kopech said. “Sometimes it will be there and my slider won’t and vice versa. Tonight at certain points I had both of them. If I can get it to be a pitch I can throw whenever I want I think it will be beneficial for me, especially with me living up in the zone with my fastball a lot.”

Kopech’s slider, down to 85-88 mph from 90-92, frequently bounced in the dirt and didn’t draw any swings and misses. He threw his changeup just twice, a pair of firm offerings at 91-92 mph.

At the end of the day, it was his fastball he leaned on.

Kopech threw his fastball on 76 of 95 pitches, and each of of his nine strikeouts came on his heater.

“If you have a big gun, you gotta shoot it,” McCatty said. “That’s the way it is. I’ve always felt that."

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Number Of Minor League Pitchers Throwing 100 MPH Decreases In 2018

In conversations with scouts and front office officials during the season many of them mentioned seeing less pitchers with top-of-the-scale fastballs than they had seen in other recent seasons.

As much as his velocity, Kopech’s tenacity was on display. Every time he got in trouble, he worked his way out of it.

With two on and one out in the third inning after giving up a double and a walk, Kopech reared back and struck out Kean Wong and Brandon Lowe on six pitches.

In the sixth, after pulling up lame after a pitch and receiving a mound visit from the trainer—“I just overextended a little bit and thought I tweaked my hamstring but when I got back on the mound I felt fine”, he said—Kopech fired a 97 mph fastball on his first pitch after play resumed to strike out Lowe again.

And later in the sixth, after uncorking a wild pitch with the tying run on third, Kopech bolted immediately to the plate, got in the lane to block it, and hung in on a hard slide from Brandon Snyder to apply to tag, keeping his shutout and Charlotte’s slim, 1-0 lead intact.

“Just doing everything I could to save the run there,” Kopech said. “If he runs me over, he runs me over, but I gotta get an out there.”

Kopech openly admits he has work to do before he’s major league ready. His fastball command, breaking ball consistency and changeup development all have multiple steps to go before he’ll be able to turn over a big league lineup multiple times every fifth day, and he knows it.

But for now, Kopech in a good place. He’s back on the right track, finding the direction that made him successful, and on the upward trend after a month of struggles.

“He threw the ball very good,” McCatty said. “Obviously, he’s got a plus fastball, threw it for strikes. I thought he had good command tonight, his breaking ball was sharp, still working on the changeup, but he was very, very good tonight.

“He just turned 22. There’s stuff to learn. But he’s got a lot, a lot, of ability.”

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