Charlotte Knights

White Sox prospect Michael Kopech stopped listening, went from struggling to sizzling

Two weeks ago, Michael Kopech stopped listening.

He’d heard the nitpicking all season long, about his lack of command and his high walk percentage and everything else that could be wrong with a Class AAA pitcher. He felt like he couldn’t do anything right.

Chicago White Sox fans were ecstatic about the team’s top pitching prospect one week, and impatient and frustrated the next. The criticism peaked with Kopech’s June 14 start against the Norfolk Tides, when he allowed five earned runs and walked eight batters in just three innings.

So, in the midst of that same road series, Kopech made a change. He was “all screwed up” for a good stretch of his 2018 season with the Charlotte Knights, he said. Now, things are different.

“I just stopped listening altogether,” he said, “because if I go out there and do what I know how to do, and pitch to the best of my ability, I know it's going to be good enough to play at the big league level.

"And that's really what you have to do at this level — you have to trust your stuff more than what you're hearing.

“There's a lot of people that are going to have their own opinion, and maybe they’re important, maybe they’re not. But if you let that affect how you play, then they're basically playing for you.”

Since Kopech stopped listening, the results have shown. His next start, on June 20, was solid — five innings, two earned runs and six strikeouts. His next was even better — six scoreless innings against the Durham Bulls on Monday night, with nine strikeouts.

In a situation like Kopech’s, the hardest thing to have is patience. He was drafted 33rd overall in 2014 by the Red Sox. He was a part of the blockbuster 2016 trade that sent All-Star Chris Sale to Boston. The White Sox are one of major league baseball’s worst teams — 26-51 after Monday night — and have a 6-foot-3 fireballer in their minor-league system.

In his first full season at the Class AAA level, it took Kopech, 22, a while to adjust to that pressure.

Then came his new mindset. Don’t focus on the call to the big leagues, or the prospect rankings, or other things you can’t control. Do focus on your preparation, your workouts, your diet and, most importantly, you.

“What I've done is I've kind of ignored everything I've heard over the past couple of weeks, started to get back into my comfort zone and started being myself,” he said. “Because there's really nothing else I can do.”

'God-given ability'

When the White Sox claimed Dustin Garneau off waivers in late May and assigned him to Charlotte, he heard the whispers.

“The first thing when I got here, everybody was like, ‘You’ve got to see this kid throw. Wait ’til you catch this kid,’” said Garneau, a catcher with 87 games of major-league experience. “I was like, ‘OK, I hold judgment ’til it happens.”

He didn’t have to wait long. In Garneau’s second game as a Knight, he caught for Kopech. The nine-year veteran saw, and felt, the raw power that has Kopech’s fastball sitting in the high 90s.

“His fastball’s just got an extra gear through the zone that guys just don’t see,” Garneau said. “It has so much carry through the zone, it just planes out. And guys don’t realize that until they’re hitting in the box. It was fun catching him.”

Kopech pitching
Charlotte Knights pitcher Michael Kopech throws a pitch to a Lehigh Valley IronPigs batter during action on Friday, June 8, 2018 at BB&T Ballpark in Charlotte, N.C. Jeff Siner

Earlier this year, one sports betting website gave Kopech the third-best odds to throw the fastest pitch of the 2018 major league season, at 4-1. He touched a career-high 105 miles per hour in game in 2016 — “but I started focusing more on pitching rather than just throwing the ball hard" after that season, he said.

Pitching, rather than just throwing. That’s been the goal for Kopech, especially since he was promoted to Charlotte from Class AA Birmingham last August. His fastball always has been and will be his go-to. But he’s been comfortable with a slider his whole career and is working to add and utilize more changeups and curveballs.

In doing that, he’s found a friend and teacher in Steve McCatty, the Knights’ pitching coach. Kopech jokes that they’re both equally stubborn, which can make sessions tough, But, he added, they have a great relationship.

McCatty is a major-league veteran himself — nine years pitching with the Athletics — and calls Kopech receptive, talented and a good kid. Kopech and McCatty’s conversations range from life to baseball to everything in between. If Kopech needs to tell his coach something in confidence, he knows he can count on ’Cat.

Kopech Garneau McCatty
Charlotte Knights catcher Dustin Garneau (left), pitching coach Steve McCatty (center) and pitcher Michael Kopech walk to the team's dugout prior to action against the Lehigh Valley IronPigs on Friday, June 8, 2018 at BB&T Ballpark in Charlotte, NC. This week in Fort Mill history, in 1998, Charlotte Knights Brian Daubach, outfielder, and Alex Gonzalez, shortstop, were selected to play in the 1998 AAA All-Star game to be played at Norfolk’s Harbor Park. Jeff Siner

During one four-game stint, Kopech didn’t throw a single changeup, because he couldn’t find a grip he was comfortable with. McCatty gave Kopech some space as he experimented with different grips, but the coach offered a subtle tweak after observing for a few games.

“He shows me a grip that he thinks may work, and then, all of the sudden, I have a changeup again,” Kopech said. “It's good to see when someone is a lot like you, in the way that they can figure out what may work for you better than you can.”

McCatty, the pitching coach for the Nationals from 2009 to 2015, isn’t one for comparisons. But in Kopech, he sees some shades of Nats star pitcher Stephen Strasburg — because neither has any ego, he says. When it comes to pitching, Kopech is his own unique individual, just like everyone else.

“He’s got a tremendous work ethic,” McCatty said. “He works really, really hard. I mean, you can look at him — he’s in great shape. He’s been given some God-given ability to throw a baseball.”

'Built to last'

Kopech owns a pair of white compression tights. Printed on the side of them is a lion with a flowing mane. It’s there to remind him of the single most important trait an athlete can have — confidence.

That’s why Muhammad Ali has been his idol for years now. To Kopech, Ali was the perfect example of such an athlete. He didn’t take his opportunity for granted, but he didn’t shy away from talk, either. He believed in himself, and he did it all the time.

“To me, I have the utmost respect for anyone that can do that,” Kopech said. “It's hard enough to play and perform in a sport like that, but to actually be that confident in yourself — day in and day out — is the most impressive thing that anyone can do.”

When LeBron James posted an Instagram photo, congratulating himself on becoming the youngest player in NBA history to hit 30,000 points, Kopech loved it. When Tiger Woods said in a 1996 interview, during his PGA Tour debut, that he was aiming for a win because "second sucks and third is even worse,” Kopech loved it.

He’s an avid reader and a deep thinker. In his Twitter bio, he calls himself a part-time life coach and a full-time life student. He starts each day with meditation, a practice he started in 2016 after meeting with a Red Sox mental skills coach. On game days, he’ll find a quiet spot in BB&T Ballpark, sit down and start with deep breaths. After that?

“You get to a point where you're almost out of body,” he said. “You get to experience life outside of yourself, and I know this all sounds kind of strange, but it's a situation where you can separate yourself from yourself. It separates the emotions. For me, that's been huge.”

Charlotte Knights pitcher Michael Kopech has struck out 97 batters in 73.1 innings of work this season. Jeff Siner

Kopech imagines his game preparation as a diagram, with multiple steps leading to one goal. Meditation is just one part of being ready. Eating right and working out are huge, too. Save for the occasional cheat, Kopech has refined his diet down to exactly what he needs for fuel — some of that comes from Rhino Market & Deli, his favorite Charlotte lunch spot on off days. Teammates call the 205-pound pitcher a gym rat.

“He’s built to last,” Garneau said. “A lot of 100-mph throwers are very lanky and fragile. This Kopech guy? I think he’s the real deal.”

After Monday night’s performance, Kopech is second in the International League in strikeouts with 97. He has started 15 games, tied for first among all pitchers. The less-glamorous stats are there, too — a league-high 48 walks and a 4.66 ERA.

If anyone wants to use those against him, though, Kopech won’t listen. He’s still the No. 12 prospect in minor league baseball. Being on the cusp of the big leagues use to bother him. Not anymore.

Right now, Michael Kopech is just focused on one thing: being Michael Kopech.

Chapel Fowler: 704-358-5612; @chapelfowler