In time of grief, White Sox prospect Michael Kopech still aiming to be the best
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Michael Kopech was sweating. ‘‘Profusely’’ only begins to cover it.
He and his fellow White Sox Class AAA pitchers were playing long toss before a game in late June at BB&T Ballpark. On a steamy afternoon, damp patches were spreading on the gray T-shirts of Kopech’s Charlotte teammates. The No. 1 pitching prospect in the organization, on the other hand, looked like he had fallen into a swimming pool.
‘‘I don’t really halfway anything,’’ Kopech said. ‘‘So if I do anything, I’m pretty much going to spark up a big sweat.’’
And then some. It isn’t exactly a five-alarm flaw, but the 22-year-old Kopech has enough of a sweating problem that he requires a prescription antiperspirant. During a start last weekend with temperatures in the 90s, Kopech experienced familiar trouble with gripping the baseball — and with maintaining his mental grip.
‘‘I let that kind of get in my head for a couple of innings there,’’ he said after taking the loss.
So what happens when Kopech is on the mound on a blazing late-summer night in the maelstrom of a big-league pennant race a few years down the road? If he is to rise to prominence with the Sox, he’ll have to learn to keep his cool no matter the conditions. We all can agree that having a sweaty hand attached to a 100 mph right arm won’t ever cut it as an excuse.
‘‘That’s something I’ll have to deal with for the rest of my career, so I can’t let that get in the way of the rest of my outing,’’ Kopech said. ‘‘It’s something I have to take control of.’’
Kopech is leading the International League in strikeouts with 111, but he also leads it in walks with 56. On Thursday in Charlotte, on a night when his record dropped to 3-7, he walked four batters in the first inning. Control has been hard to find.
Tragedy off the field
Kopech was grieving, but he took the mound anyway June 2 in Buffalo, New York, and had perhaps the worst outing of his professional career: seven earned runs, seven hits and four walks allowed in two innings. Two starts later, he walked eight batters in three innings in Norfolk, Virginia, eliciting this sarcastic tweet from former big-leaguer Mark Mulder:
‘‘But he throws so hard!!’’
Kopech’s struggles have become a story, pushing back against the narrative that a call-up to the Sox was imminent. What the public doesn’t know is that the northeast Texas native’s 21-year-old cousin, Hunter Suggitt, was killed June 1 in an automobile accident in Texarkana, Arkansas.
Ten years ago, Suggitt and his older brother moved into the Kopech home after their mother died of cancer.
‘‘He was one of the most wholehearted people I’ve ever met,’’ Kopech said. ‘‘We grew up together. I looked at him like a brother.’’
Kopech received the awful news on the morning of that game in Buffalo.
‘‘I didn’t really tell many people about it,’’ he said. ‘‘We kept it under wraps, for the most part. But it was devastating. My family was devastated. I was trying to handle that through my mom and dad and sister and everything but at the same time not really let it affect me on the field.’’
Though he emphasized he isn’t using the tragedy as an excuse for pitching poorly, Kopech still is wrestling with the loss.
‘‘It sounds cliché, but it always seems like the good go young,’’ he said. ‘‘It kind of tore our family up, but we’re working through it, and I know he’s in a better place.’’
The write stuff
Kopech is keeping a journal. If that doesn’t seem like the kind of thing a strapping Texan does, oh, well. In mid-May, the 6-3, 205-pounder posted images of his ‘‘Goal Book’’ on Instagram. The entry he shared — covering ‘‘what needs to be done,’’ ‘‘how it needs to be done,’’ ‘‘why it needs to be done’’ and ‘‘when it needs to be done’’ — was only the beginning of the book, rather like a table of contents.
Since then, Kopech has put pen to paper every day to record something positive that happened.
‘‘Threw a good bullpen.’’
‘‘In a good mood whole day.’’
The book also is sprinkled with important reminders.
‘‘Spread love today.’’
‘‘Don’t say ‘can’t.’ ’’
Kopech is a believer in self-help strategies — he reads Eric Thomas, Les Brown and Tony Robbins — and views the book as a self-fulfilling exercise and, at times, a haven in the storm.
‘‘It’s easy to have a negative thought pop up,’’ he said. ‘‘But if you write down everything that you want and it’s all positive, you can go back to it. You look at it, and there’s no negativity. You reread it, and, ‘Yeah, this is what I wanted.’ ’’
The book contains wonderful notions about taking care of his family, setting an example for his nephews and giving back to his parents (far beyond the Lexus he bought mom Tabbetha after being selected by the Red Sox with the 33rd pick in the 2014 draft). Above all else, however, it is about his goals on the field.
‘‘You know you want to be in the big leagues, but it’s not very definitive because you also have this thought running through your mind and that thought running through your mind,’’ he said. ‘‘But when I take the time to write it down, I have to focus in on one thought and be very definitive about it. I take a lot of pride in it. It’s made me home in on my goals rather than just saying, ‘I want to be in the big leagues.’ ’’
The long game
Kopech is waiting. For the winning streak that turns his season around. For the beckoning from the Sox that follows it. For stardom, too. He isn’t afraid to declare that his sights are set on being the best.
‘‘The falling-short thing doesn’t scare me,’’ he said. ‘‘I know if I do everything to my absolute best ability, if I give everything my all, whether it’s my diet and nutrition, my strength and conditioning, my mental-skills practice or just working on pitching itself — whatever it’s going to be about — if I apply everything I have to every single spectrum of what I need to do, then I won’t have any regrets.
‘‘At the end of my career, I know I’ll be the best I could’ve been. If that’s the absolute best there is, if that’s the best ballplayer there ever was, great. If not, I’ll still have been the best version of myself.’’
Kopech recognizes how key his dodgy fastball command is to the whole operation. He knows his secondary pitches, including the changeup he’s still just beginning to use, must continue to come along. But what he sees at the heart of it all isn’t mechanics. Rather, it’s ‘‘conviction and confidence.’’ It’s what he so admires in Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, LeBron James and the late, great Muhammad Ali.
‘‘They never have a doubt in themselves, and you can tell,’’ he said.
‘‘I don’t ever think of myself as a lousy player or anything like that. I know I’m a good player. Not to pat myself on the back, but I don’t think there are many people who can hit my fastball when I have the velocity I want and the command I want. I think I’m good enough to be in the big leagues right now. But conviction and confidence with everything I throw would be a real difference-maker.’’
It hasn’t been the 2018 season Kopech envisioned or wanted, but it’s only a tad more than halfway through. Besides, it’s the long game that counts.
Kopech isn’t wavering.