Michael Kopech and Jake Arrieta.
Could there be two pro athletes so similar yet so far apart?
They’re both major-league pitchers in Chicago, both right-handers, both good-sized (Kopech is 6-3, 225 pounds; Arrieta is 6-4, 230 pounds) and both trying to re-establish themselves. Kopech is in a comeback season with the White Sox and Arrieta with the Cubs.
As throwers, they once were fireballers supreme. At his peak, Arrieta could hit 98 mph. Kopech had an insane heater once clocked at 105 mph in a minor-league game. One day, for kicks, the kid threw a 3-ounce ball (an official major-league ball weighs between 5 and 5.4 ounces) at a clocked speed of 110 mph.
Everybody loves a laser-armed phenom, the raw and rare thrower who can blast a hole in a barn door or smoke a catcher’s glove into oblivion. Pure heat excites baseball fans the way pure height excites basketball fans.
Invariably, however, the real world intrudes.
Kopech was in his debut season with the Sox, called up in August 2018 with expectations through the roof. According to MLB.com, he was the No. 2 prospect in the rebuilding Sox’ system. Come see the circus act! Watch the ‘‘Amazing Michael’’ sizzle rawhide!
Unfortunately, in his fourth appearance, what the kid sizzled was the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. He needed Tommy John surgery to repair it and was out for the rest of 2018 and all of 2019. Then he opted out of the COVID-shortened 2020 season for family and mental-health reasons.
Kopech has pitched a grand total of 14 1/3 innings in the majors, yielding 20 hits — including four home runs — and has a 5.02 ERA.
Yet with his arm rehabilitated, his first child recently born, a pending divorce and acknowledgment of his anxiety issues, Kopech, only 24, is back to being the great unknown hope for the charging Sox.
‘‘Taking that time away from baseball was kind of hard, but it was important for me,’’ he said at Sox camp in Glendale, Arizona. ‘‘But now I’m back and ready to compete.’’
Arrieta is back, too, but in a whole different way from Kopech.
After three pretty weak seasons with the Phillies, Arrieta, now 34 and an 11-year veteran, has rejoined the club where he was something beyond special.
Indeed, for a stretch in 2015 and into 2016, Arrieta was as good a pitcher as you’ve likely seen. How good? In 2014-16, he went 50-19. In 2015, he went 22-6 with a 1.77 ERA. He won the National League Cy Young Award that season over Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, Gerrit Cole and Max Scherzer.
In 2016, he threw a no-hitter and went 2-0 with a 2.38 ERA in the Cubs’ only World Series championship in the last 112 years.
Everything that Kopech has promised, Arrieta has done. But he’s an older dude now, not a kid with unknown potential. During his time with the Phillies, he was hampered by injuries and went 22-23 with a 4.36 ERA, including 5.08 last season.
The Cubs don’t have much sizzle in the starting-pitching department, and a renewed Arrieta could help. And the redemption would mean a lot to him. It could replace the sense that the Cubs are just dumping their future and treading water, which is possibly why they parted ways with Arrieta in the first place.
Arrieta admitted at camp in Mesa, Arizona, that his fastball is never going to be in the upper 90s again, ‘‘and that’s completely fine.’’ It is, he said, ‘‘the natural progression of your career.’’
He knows there are many ways to pitch. When you get older, you had better get smarter. It’s the reason you see a pitcher such as Hall of Famer Greg Maddux cruise through his mid-30s. It’s also the reason you don’t see many gray-haired, arthritic gazelles on the Serengeti.
It would be wonderful if Kopech and Arrieta could succeed. Kopech could be the young man who has been scorched by unreal promise, wounded by fate, learned from setback and now is prepared to soar. Arrieta could be the wizened team leader who sparkles in his twilight sports years.
Comebacks for both. That would be a nice thing.
For both sides of Chicago.