The Boston Red Sox have a significant history of drafting right-handed pitchers in the first round this millennium. Eleven times since 2000, the Red Sox have invested their first-round pick (one of them, at least) on a young righty, and if you count Casey Kelly — who was drafted as an infielder and converted to a pitcher — you have a rounded dozen. The problem is none of them have really panned out as expected.
Michael Kopech is looking to change that trend, putting together an outstanding season in Salem.
The problem with Kopech is not necessarily his awkward mechanics or lack of secondary pitches, because those have both improved since being selected 33rd overall in the first round of the 2014 MLB Draft by the Red Sox. It’s that his off-field career has sometimes outshone his on-the-field career. That is, until he threw a 105 mile-per-hour pitch this season.
Let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of Kopech’s young career.
Kopech has now played parts of three seasons in his young professional career. In two of said seasons, he has missed time, and much of it was from his own doing.
Last season, Kopech was suspended 50 games for using the banned stimulant Oxilofrine. While sold over the counter, Oxilofrine is in the amphetamine class of drugs, so while it may not be used as a stimulant, it has all the effects that leads to raised alertness and improved endurance. Kopech, as with most teenagers who put things into their bodies with little regard, issued this statement when he appealed his suspension:
“With that being said, I never have and never will intentionally cheat the game that has been so great to me. I haven’t bought any supplements that aren’t NSF certified for sport. Therefore, I know I have not bought a supplement containing this drug. I have never heard of Oxilofrine, honestly. Apparently, it is a drug that many people use for weight loss. I have been trying to gain weight since I signed with the Red Sox. I do understand this is also a stimulant. This drug would have no positive outcome for me and that’s why I chose to appeal. I realized I didn’t have much evidence to prove that I’m innocent, but I didn’t have any understanding of how I could have failed a test. (MiLB.com)”
Kopech served his suspension and returned to the Red Sox spring training only to fracture his right hand — that’s his throwing hand, remember — requiring surgery that would put him on the shelf for three months. Just how did he fracture his hand? He got into a fight… with one of his own teammates.
While Kopech looked as if he matured learning from the errors of his suspension, he took a big step backwards with this incident. His performance this season, however, seems as if he may just be righting the ship.
The good news is that all the bad can be — and seemingly already has been — improved for Kopech. When Kopech was drafted, he came to the Red Sox with the ideal projectable frame, standing at 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds. A power pitcher by its fullest definition, everyone knew how attractive his overpowering fastball was, but showed concerns about how he would develop his secondary command in large part to a very herky-jerky motion.
The first video — courtesy of the Prospect Pipeline — is from high school. You can see he had a delivery with a lot of movement. He takes a very defined step back before the pitch and twists through his delivery, leaning back when he pulls the ball to his chest.
The second video — courtesy of Sox Prospects — is from his 2016 debut. Notice his delivery is refined. The step backwards is hardly noticeable and, most importantly, their are no turns or tilts as he repeats his throws to the plate well.
Kopech still has some wildness in him, walking 4.47 per nine in his nine starts for Salem in the Carolina League, but his improved mechanics should help. Some wonder how much he is getting by with his fastball, and if he is a one-pitch pony with triple-digit heat taking advantage of young batters. All reports indicate improved pitches, so it seems that he is getting it.
That fastball. It’s arguably the best in the minor leagues, and it is certainly the fastest. He hit 105 miles per hour in his third start off the disabled list, and now constantly hits in the high-90s. It’s fair to think that he is getting by with his fastball alone, but his secondary offerings are also improved.
His slider was once mediocre with inconsistent control, but like his fastball, it has become a pitch that has some power behind it. He lands his slider in the low-90s, and a 90 mile-per-hour slider is Noah Syndergaard-like. The God of Thunder seems to be doing just fine with his fastball and slider at the big league level.
His changeup was a hardly-usable pitch by most reports heading into the season, but he has developed some drop and consistency with it. He can strike out batters with the pitch, recorded in the upper-80s. That may seem high-velocity for a changeup, but when you calculate the fact the batters are seeing the other pitches in the high-90s, that’s a 10 mph drop-off. Th pitch also seems to have some movement, as MLB Pipeline sees a nice late drop to the pitch.
It’s been quite the journey for Kopech. He is currently amid the strongest stretch of his career, sitting at 3-1 with a 1.42 ERA over nine starts for Salem, striking out 72 and walking 22 over 44.1 innings. While he has seemed susceptible to balls in the air (50 line drives, pop ups and fly outs to 38 groundouts), he has been able to keep the ball in the yard, not allowing a home run. He is the top pitcher in the Red Sox organization for a reason, but there are still a lot of question marks surrounding him.
Has he put the “bad boy” image behind him for good? Will his secondary pitches continue to prove to be out-getters at the next level? What happens when — and if — advanced hitters catch up to his stuff? Those questions can’t be answered tomorrow, but if Kopech continues what he’s doing — coming off consecutive 11-strikeout performances — he will make believers out of any doubters still out there.
(The full article can be read and originally ran on Today’s Knuckleball.)