GLENDALE, Ariz. — Michael Kopech was fairly upset with his performance Tuesday afternoon given how much he wants to make the White Sox look wise for their investment and silence his critics.
One of two highly-touted pieces acquired in the Chris Sale trade, Kopech intends to prove to his doubters that two questionable incidents from the past won't determine what appears to be a bright future chock full of 100-mph fastballs.
So even though Tuesday's outing was his first with the team and should have little bearing on what's to come, the White Sox prospect hoped to provide his new team with much more. Kopech was instead saddled with a long first inning in which he flashed his dazzling potential and later was hit hard. He allowed four earned runs and three hits, including a three-run homer on an 0-2 pitch, in an 8-1 loss to the Seattle Mariners at Camelback Ranch. Kopech also struck out two and walked one.
"That's probably part of the reason I'm pretty upset about today," Kopech said. "I'm trying to prove some people right. Obviously that's not the way to do it, but it is early. I think there's some adjustments to be made and once those adjustments are made I can actually be pretty helpful."
The third-ranked prospect in the franchise and 16th overall in baseball, Kopech endured a year-long rough patch beginning in July 2015 when he was suspended 50 games after a positive test for Oxilofrine. Kopech told the Boston Globe last November he didn't knowingly take the substance, but took responsibility for his actions.
His reputation then took another hit last March when Kopech broke a bone in his pitching hand. While it has been reported as an altercation between teammates, Kopech told the Globe he was trying to protect his teammate.
When he returned to action in June, Kopech shined with a combined 2.08 ERA in 56 1/3 innings Single-A Lowell and Single-A Salem. He followed by posting a 2.01 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 22 1/3 innings at the Arizona Fall League. Kopech said his performance to end the 2016 season was critical moving forward.
"Bottom line is you can't take anything for granted," Kopech said in December. "I've missed too much time in my opinion. This half of the year was very important for me. I needed to show people, whoever, that I'm still out here to compete and get better."
Despite his blemishes off the field, the White Sox determined in late November that Kopech had to be included in a package if they indeed were trading Sale to the Red Sox. To reach that point, where they'd ask for Kopech as one of two main pieces in a deal for potentially the best pitcher in franchise history, the front office turned to both their pro and amateur scouts to search every nook and cranny for opinions.
"Any major transaction you try to do as much due diligence as you can," general manager Rick Hahn said. "We were fully satisfied with the explanation that (Kopech) gave, but also what we were able to uncover through people in the know. This is a really good kid and a kid who wants to be great and he's willing to pay the price and put in the work necessary to be great."
Knowing they'd rebuild, Hahn said the White Sox began to focus their scouts on particular organizations in July. That's when the process of digging deep on Kopech started.
The team contacted old coaches and former teammates to discern what they could about the 20-year-old, who often uses his social media accounts to tweet out inspirational messages and talk about his determination. By the time the White Sox elevated Kopech from potential target to definitive piece they had contacted 12-15 sources.
"In all, it kept coming to back to everybody saying he's so dialed in," amateur scouting director Nick Hostetler said. "He's an intense kid. He's so hard core with everything he does. There's no soft with Kopech, that's for sure."
The hard-throwing Texan proved that point on Tuesday when he topped out at 101 mph on the radar gun. His fastball sat at 97 mph and he hit triple digits at least three times.
Kopech started his performance with a three-pitch strikeout of Seattle's Ben Gamel, the radar reading 99, 100 and 100.
Shortstop Jean Segura then got enough of a two-strike pitch to hit it in front of home plate, which led to an infield single. Segura stole second base and Kopech just missed outside on a 3-2 offering and walked Robinson Cano. Nelson Cruz followed with a rocketed opposite-field RBI double before Dan Vogelbach lined out to center. With two in scoring position and two outs, Kopech threw two quick strikes to Mitch Haniger and looked like he might escape the jam. But his 0-2 slider caught too much of the plate and Haniger crushed it for a three-run homer to left.
"There were some pitches that needed to be down in some counts and there's some pitches that needed to be way down," Kopech said.
Afterward, Kopech shied away from any possible excuses about his performance, one that ended with a strikeout of Carlos Ruiz. The adrenaline wasn't anything he hadn't dealt with before and he thought his pacing was fine. Even though he didn't get a borderline 3-2 pitch to Cano, Kopech thought it was a makeup for an earlier call that had gone in his favor. And even though it was his first outing in big league camp, Kopech wasn't awestruck by facing Cano and Cruz.
He was just disappointed that he didn't excel from the outset. Kopech knows there are plenty more opportunities ahead and believes he's everything the White Sox think he is. He just wants to prove it.
"The toughest part is to stop caring so much about what other people think," Kopech said. "Everybody wants that pat on the back. That's what I had to shy away from is just not to care so much about that because what's being written about me and being said about me wasn't who defines me. That was what I really had to come to grips with and figure out — I'm going to determine my career and not past experiences."