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In getting trounced by the Tigers on Wednesday, Michael Kopech showed why he needed to be in the majors. He only had to conquer the strike zone to solve his Triple-A problems. Major-league hitters will have plenty to say about the finishing process, especially when Kopech doesn’t have his best stuff.
Kopech’s ERA jumped from 0.82 to 5.02 over the course of his first MLB defeat, as he gave up seven runs on nine hits over 3⅓ innings, including his first four MLB homers.
He induced 11 swings and misses out of 82 pitches, which indicates that his fastball had plenty of movement and his slider enough break. But his stuff lacked power, and that’s a problem for a power pitcher who has never had to get by on precision. His fastball velocity was down a tick and a half from his previous start against Detroit, and it’s an even bigger drop when looking at his maximum velocity from each outing:
Kopech couldn’t get his best fastball higher than 96. Assuming the lack of oomph doesn’t stem from an injury and Kopech should keep pitching this season, these kinds of starts will at least show him the kinds of mistakes MLB hitters won’t abide.
Half of the dingers he allowed don’t quite qualify. The third and fourth homers he surrendered were ones that he’d given up in Charlotte. He hung a curveball to Ronny Rodriguez, and it went a long way, as it should. He left a 96 mph fastball up in the zone to JaCoby Jones, and he redirected it over the wall in right, which is a kind of blast BB&T Ballpark accommodates.
The first two homers — Jeimer Candelario in the first and Mikie Mahtook in the fourth — those were rarer. Both hitters got around on inside fastballs, and they crushed them well over 400 feet. These were not terrible pitchers in terms of location or movement.
The problem is that they were both at 93 mph.
Kopech’s fastball can dazzle and trigger PitchingNinja alerts even at lower speeds when it’s running away from a hitter off the plate, like in this strikeout of Victor Martinez …
Michael Kopech, 93mph Fastball Path. 😮 pic.twitter.com/pXvWuB87ko
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 6, 2018
… but it’s less imposing when it ends up in a hitter’s swing path — especially that of a hitter expecting fastball, like Mahtook in a two-ball count.
When Kopech was in Charlotte, he probably could go either/or with velocity/location. In the majors, he’s going to need both if he wants to be the fastball-oriented pitcher he touts himself to be. When Kopech is throwing 98 instead of 93, he probably saws off Mahtook, and Candelario probably pops up his attempt to get around. It takes a Miguel Cabrera-grade hitter to cover those fastballs without leaving himself incredibly vulnerable to even middling off-speed pitches.
Kopech responded to Mahtook’s challenge rather maturely:
That facial expression to me says, “OK, so this is what they were talking about.” Kopech stayed on the attack and threw strikes, which is preferable to nibbling and compounding issues with free baserunners. The escalating failure didn’t seem to rattle him.
What’s concerning is that increased velocity didn’t follow. I was skeptical of the line Jason Benetti and Steve Stone pushed early on, that Kopech was conserving his best fastball to throw strikes, and better heat was available. I’d seen him work 93-94 in Charlotte if he wanted to get a first- or second-pitch grounder, but he went to 98-101 when it came to getting it past a guy. That he didn’t ramp it up in strikeout situations set off one alarm.
Moreover, in his last season with the White Sox, Chris Sale would occasionally get burned on these EnergyStar fastballs, and the velocity returned immediately, whether it’s because he was aware or pissed. At the time Kopech’s fight-or-flight mechanism should’ve kicked in, he still topped out at 96.
There aren’t any satisfying answers from afar. The simplest conclusions are injury or fatigue, and the latter is entirely possible since Kopech is breaking new ground with his workload. He set career highs in 2017 with 25 starts and 134 innings, and the Sox let Kopech draw down his season with three five-inning starts at Charlotte. This year, he’s up to 28 starts and 141 innings, and here he is trying to figure out the best hitters in the world, even if these ones were in one of the league’s worst lineups. The mandatory rain delays that interrupt every home start don’t help.
“I don’t feel tired or anything like that,” said Kopech when asked about his season’s workload having an effect on his stuff. “I just feel like going into the game, there’s things that I needed to better that I didn’t do. I didn’t feel like I prepared myself well for the outing and it showed. Just better preparation and I need to get out there and take care of my stuff.”
There isn’t much to be made from this admission, because struggling athletes will typically talk about potential causes they can fix, rather than ones that have no immediate remedy. Also, like Reynaldo Lopez stressing a lack of “focus” in a couple of his rougher starts this season, fatigue can also drag down the mental aspects of pitching, making it difficult or pointless to attempt separating.
If Kopech sits 96 in his next start instead of topping out there, then maybe he figured out how to get his arm all the way there for a September start, or maybe it was a blip. If this more ordinary mid-90s velocity remains for the entirety of the month, Kopech will at least be more familiar with the mistakes he won’t be able to make as he pushes toward 150-160 innings.
This all assumes he’s not compensating his mechanics for this final push, which would be the unhealthy and dangerous version of “gutting through it.” Charlotte pitching coach Steve McCatty was in the dugout for this game, so perhaps the Sox are using all eyes on deck to protect Kopech and the entire organization from a wrong turn.