Part of Michael Kopech’s All-Star experience last weekend was advice from Al Leiter that he immediately finds more comfort with his secondary pitches.
The pitching great and current MLB Network analyst spent 20-25 minutes with the White Sox No. 1 pitching prospect shagging fly balls during batting practice before the All-Star Futures Game on July 9. Leiter -- who averaged 3.1 f-Wins Above Replacement from 1994-2004 -- suggested Kopech take advantage of his time in the minor leagues to learn how to use his slider and changeup and rely less on his fastball in critical situations. Leiter believes Kopech -- ranked the No. 11 prospect in baseball by MLBPipeline.com -- has a great future that could be even brighter if he learns how to become more of a pitcher instead of a thrower.
“Even with exceptional fastballs, you need to have a complement to your fastball and your number one secondary pitch,” Leiter said. “I’m a big advocate of having pitchers like Kopech believe you’re not giving in and you’re not wimping out by throwing offspeed pitches. It actually empowers you more because of the breadth of your options and the confidence you have in it, in particular slider/changeup, that he would have other places to go. And the only way you do that is that you have to trust it and the only way you trust it is if you use it.”
Leiter would probably be pleased to hear Kopech followed that plan in his first post-Futures Game start on Friday. The franchise’s minor league pitcher of the month for April produced his best start since May by incorporating a steady diet of sliders with a few changeups into his 97-pitch effort. Kopech threw 31 sliders and six changeups as he allowed a run, four hits and walked two with five strikeouts in six innings at Biloxi. While Leiter would prefer a higher number of changeups --- ideally 15 with 20-25 sliders --- the concept is to get away from heavy reliance on the fastball.
Kopech will make mistakes, of course, by hanging a slider or a changeup, Leiter said. But now is the time to make those mistakes so Kopech can be more well-rounded by the time he reaches the majors.
“I’ll let you pick your spot,” Leiter said. “But I want you to throw it not as an emergency but for you to feel and recognize that it’s an important pitch.
“If he brings out a slider early and a changeup early and gets results, he now gets more empowered on pitches other than his fastball.
“The reason why he needs to experience it on the mound and not on the side is you have to see the results. You have to get positive results to reinforce what everybody is telling you. The only way you do it is there.
“Don’t give up on it because at some point he will need it. He’s going to need it to be dominant.”
Kopech said the two also spent a fair amount of time talking about getting ahead in the count. The right-hander has 106 strikeouts this season in 84 1/3 innings. But he also has issued 55 walks, which in part has run up his pitch count and prevented Kopech from going deeper into games. Through 17 starts, Kopech is averaging a tick under five innings per start.
He said the Futures Game experience was enhanced by his discussion with Leiter and thinks the entire day would give him a boost to finish his second half on a strong note.
“(Leiter) said in his career that he had a lot of walks, too,” Kopech said. “Just the keys that helped him get ahead in counts and to not worry so much when I am walking guys. Play to my strengths, but don’t put too much pressure on myself.
“To get a chance to talk to a big leaguer about pitching, to be in the big league environment, it’s really everything I wanted.”
“We all get to kind of experience big league lifestyle for a day and, hopefully, get a taste of what it's really like. That's all we really want to experience out of this, is kind of get a taste of the big leagues. It kind of makes us a little more hungry for the real thing.”