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  • Michael Kopech is one of the buzziest prospects in baseball. Here's what you need to know about the White Sox' newest flamethrower.
By Jon Tayler
August 21, 2018

The latest top prospect has arrived. On Tuesday night in Chicago, righthander Michael Kopech will take to the mound for the White Sox in his major league debut against the Twins. Ranked in the top 20 of all three prospect lists this offseason and No. 15 on Baseball Prospectus’ midseason top 50, Kopech is the latest big name to float up from the minors. But what do you need to know about him before his start? Let’s meet Michael Kopech.

So what are his vitals?

Kopech is straight out of Pitching Prospect Central Casting: He’s built big, standing 6’ 3” and weighing 205 pounds; hails from Texas; and was drafted out of high school, in this case with the 33rd pick of the 2014 draft by the Red Sox. I’m pretty sure those are all default settings for building a pitcher in MLB The Show.

Wait, you said the Red Sox drafted him, but here he is on the White Sox. Have you gone colorblind?

Hardly! Kopech steadily rose in the ranks in Boston, breaking out in 2016 after posting a 2.25 ERA and 82 strikeouts in 52 innings in high A ball despite being nearly three years younger than the league average. But that winter, he was one of two headliners (alongside second baseman Yoan Moncada, then regarded as the best prospect in the game) in the four-player package sent to Chicago for Chris Sale.

Oh, I see. But why would the Red Sox trade away such a good prospect?

Well, for one thing, [gestures at Sale’s 2017 and ’18 seasons]. For second, despite Kopech’s impressive stuff, the results were still kind of shaky. Alongside that absurd 13.7 strikeout-per-nine rate in 2016 came 5.0 walks per nine. There was also a broken hand suffered that year in a fight with a teammate. And there’s the matter of the 50-game suspension he received the season before after testing positive for Oxilofrine, a banned stimulant. So there were some cons to go along with his pros.

Yikes, that’s not a great track record. But what are those pros?

A fastball that sits 96–99 mph and touches 100 with frequency will paper over a lot of flaws. Kopech is one of the hardest throwers in all of baseball, and will, the moment he throws a major league pitch, shoot to the top tier of starters in velocity alongside flamethrowers like Luis Severino and Gerrit Cole. There’s more to Kopech than just heat, though. His slider also grades out as a plus pitch, wiping out hitters with obscene break and high 80s velocity. And he’s got a changeup in development, giving him a terrific three-pitch arsenal when everything’s working. (I should also note that Kopech has apparently been a model citizen since his 2016 dustup.)

That sounds pretty appealing. So what’s he done this season?

In 126 1/3 innings for Triple A Charlotte, he’s posted a 3.70 ERA and struck out 170.

That’s good!

He’s also walked 60 batters, or 4.3 per nine.

That’s bad.

But in his last seven starts, he’s walked just four guys in 44 innings to go along with 59 strikeouts and a 1.84 ERA.

That’s good!
Yes it is, and that stretch of success is probably why the White Sox have finally decided to give him the call. Before that, he was sitting on a 4.70 ERA and 56 walks in 82 1/3 innings, and Chicago already has enough young hard-throwing guys in its rotation who can’t find the strike zone to save their lives (*cough* Lucas Giolito *cough*).

Yeah, the White Sox haven’t exactly had much luck with young pitchers, have they?

That’s putting it lightly. The 2018 season has so far seen all of the team’s prized prospects get torn apart on major league mounds. Giolito is toting a 6.08 ERA—the worst among all qualified starters—and an AL-high 74 walks and 13 hit batsmen in 137 2/3 innings alongside just 97 strikeouts. Reynaldo Lopez has a 4.72 mark in 143 frames thanks in part to 23 homers surrendered and a weak 6.5 strikeout-per-nine rate. And 2015 first-round pick Carson Fulmer was clobbered for an 8.07 ERA and 24 walks in 32 1/3 innings to start the season before getting sent down to Triple A, where the results haven’t been much better (a 5.67 ERA and 40 walks in 60 1/3 frames).

So will Kopech be the one to break the streak?
Maybe, maybe not, but the nice thing for Chicago is that it won’t make a lick of difference for 2018 either way. At 47–77, the White Sox are, to put it gently, awful, and only the futility of the rebuilding Royals has kept them out of last place in the dreadful AL Central. Just like last year, this season is all about the bright and shiny future on the South Side, as the Sox develop prospects and sift through the wreckage of their major league roster to see what will stick when the team is ready to contend again.

But that’s been kind of a mixed bag, no?

As noted, the pitching side of things hasn’t come together, with Giolito, Lopez and Fulmer all struggling mightily. Moncada has been up and down, hitting 15 homers but also striking out 176 times (!) in 503 plate appearances, or an Adam Dunn-esque 34.9% whiff rate. On the positive side, former top-five pick Carlos Rodon has looked good after missing the first two months of the season with injury, with a 2.69 ERA in 80 1/3 innings (albeit on some weak peripherals). And things are going far better in the minors, particularly with top prospect Eloy Jimenez, who’s hitting an eye-popping .338/.382/.611 in 170 plate appearances in Triple A … as a 21-year-old.

Wow, that’s incredible! So why is he not up along with Kopech?

How long do you have to hear about MLB’s exploitative labor practices?

Never mind. So what should we expect out of Kopech tonight?

A bunch of 100-mph fastballs that will make announcers go wild, a handful of walks, and probably five innings of okay results. Then again, someone with his caliber of stuff has the potential to go Full Strasburg Debut on us. So if you can stomach watching the White Sox’ offense, tune in tonight at 8:10 p.m. ET (7:10 central) and enjoy the latest look at a pitcher who could be MLB’s next big thing.

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