Michael Kopech Has Become a True Asset for the White Sox

Michael Kopech has been a wonderful surprise for a White Sox team that entered the year with no late-game options at the back of the bullpen.

Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Michael Kopech delivers a pitch during a Major League Baseball game between the New York Yankees and the Chicago White Sox on May 15, 2022 at Guaranteed Rate Field.
CHICAGO, IL - MAY 15: Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Michael Kopech (34) delivers a pitch during a Major League Baseball game between the New York Yankees and the Chicago White Sox on May 15, 2022 at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

When he was traded to the Chicago White Sox from the Boston Red Sox following the 2016 season as the second key piece of the Chris Sale trade, flamethrower Michael Kopech was known for his 100+ mph fastball and unlimited upside.

Yet, after debuting late in 2018 and showing his incredible potential on the mound, Kopech missed the rest of the year and all of 2019 due to Tommy John surgery.

He then opted out of the shortened 2020 season, thus missing over two full years of live game action. Missing that type of time altered the way Kopech pitched, but that did not reduce the expectations he set for himself and that fans had for him.

In an effort to reduce stress on the right-hander’s powerful arm in his first time pitching in live games since 2018, the White Sox had Kopech operate out of the bullpen during the 2021 campaign, his first full professional season. He was effective as one of the key arms in the bullpen for Chicago, but the goal for Kopech was always to become an elite starter.

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His first proper season as a starter in 2022 came with some injuries along the way, but he did finish the year with a 3.54 ERA and 1.19 WHIP across a solid 119.1 innings pitched. However, his expected metrics pointed to some regression and that became a reality to the fullest extent in 2023.

Though he did show signs of being an effective pitcher at times, he was ultimately one of the least productive starters in the game last season.

His command drifted, as he walked over 15% of batters he faced, which is simply unsustainable for a starting pitcher. His 5.43 ERA, one of the worst among starters, was perhaps even better than it should have been, considering the underlying numbers. Kopech also allowed hard contact frequently, as demonstrated by his 29 home runs allowed, tied for ninth-most in MLB.

Coming into the 2024 season, he was still preparing as a starting pitcher. Yet, that plan was abruptly halted in the middle of spring training, which is fairly uncommon. Garrett Crochet’s emergence as a starter likely played a role, but ultimately, Kopech just seemed to be a better fit for the bullpen – at least in my eyes for the past year and change.

Here we are, nearly two months into the season, and what a world of difference his move to the bullpen has made! Kopech has a 3.18 ERA with some impressive advanced metrics, including strikeout and whiff rates over 30% and a .169 expected batting average.

Kopech’s most appealing ability used to be his velocity and fastball shape, which he has been able to lean fully into in his new role as a closer for the White Sox this season. After throwing 61.4% fastballs at an average of 95.2 mph as a starter last year, Kopech is now throwing 77.8% fastballs at an average of 98.9 mph and consistently grabs triple digits (per Baseball Savant).

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Furthermore, he has added in a sharp cutter while scrapping his curveball and changeup entirely. While the slider and cutter have played well as minimal-usage offerings, it has been all about the heater for Kopech in his new role.

Opposing hitters are batting just .148 and striking out at a 36.2% clip against the fastball this season. He has rarely needed to turn to his other offerings when the fastball is at its best on a given day.

For a team that had no end-of-game options in the bullpen entering the year, this experiment has worked out rather well.

While the White Sox haven’t needed a closer all that often in the midst of a rough season, Kopech has gone from a negative-value player to a legit asset for the rebuilding club. He won’t be a free agent until after the 2025 season, which opens up possibilities for a player who is all of a sudden going to be an attractive asset as a bullpen arm.

One option is to hold on to Kopech and keep him as a core piece of the bullpen. Yet, given his fluctuation over the past few years, it makes sense to explore his trade market. A guy who can deliver high-leverage innings at just 28 years old with a year and a half of control will be rather appealing to many contenders.

His struggles over the past few years should be negated to an extent given his shift to the bullpen and drastic change in arsenal, but the injury risk and lack of consistency will still limit his market. Given his 2023 season, any significant return the White Sox can net for Kopech will be a big win, especially if it includes a legitimate high-upside prospect.

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The White Sox’s focus at the deadline will be turning arms into bats given a deep farm system of pitchers and a lineup that certainly needs reinforcements. After a rough go at things in recent years, Kopech could be a pitcher that nets a strong return.

The best option for the White Sox is likely to wait out the Mason Miller market, as he’s clearly the top closer who could be dealt at the deadline. Once that situation plays itself out with Miller either heading to a contender or remaining in Oakland, Kopech’s trade market should pick up. Plenty of teams would like to add the flamethrower to the bullpen, and he should net a solid return.

For a team with sights set on 2025 and beyond, cashing in on any relief pitchers with value is a logical decision for the organization, and Kopech will be the most enticing one they have to offer.