He’s never pitched more innings and yet Michael Kopech feels great from a physical standpoint. The White Sox prospect -- who was promoted to Triple-A Charlotte in a surprising move on Friday -- is also throwing as well as he has at any point in his young career.
Kopech and those around him attribute how he feels on the mound in spite of a large innings total to a rigorous offseason strength and conditioning program. Kopech, who spends up to an hour a day in the gym in between starts during the season, works out 15-18 hours a week during the offseason in order to be prepared to withstand the rigors of a full season. With an 0.66 ERA over his last 41 innings, Kopech feels that work has been validated.
“There’s a lot of natural fatigue throughout the season,” Kopech said. “I feel like I do a pretty good job in the offseason of preparing myself for a full-innings load and that’s what I’ve done every offseason.
“Unfortunately, until this year I haven’t had that opportunity. Now that I’ve finally got the opportunity, I’m starting to see the work that I did, it’s paid off. I do feel like that has had a lot to do with (the success).”
Kopech has done many things to impress his now former Birmingham Barons manager Julio Vinas. But one event that recently stood out was when Kopech hit 99 mph on the radar gun with his 95th pitch of the game without any extra effort. The right-hander naturally produced the same velocity fastball he had earlier in the game.
Vinas has little doubt about the origin of the pitch.
“He’s a workhorse,” Vinas said. “I get here early. He’s here and always doing something to better himself, whether you see him in the outfield getting some extra running in, you see him in the weight room, he gets after it. It just shows how hard he works. To maintain that 99-mph fastball when 95 pitches into a game, you’ve got to be in great shape. He is because you never see him laboring.”
But Kopech was struggling in June when he posted a 6.95 ERA in five starts and walked 18 batters in 22 innings. The stretch had the White Sox wondering if MLB Pipeline’s No. 12-ranked prospect had hit a wall. The pitcher had completed 75 innings by the end of June, which was 3 2/3 shy of what he totaled in all of 2016, including 22 1/3 innings in the Arizona Fall League.
The White Sox made no certain plans, but determined they’d be vigilant in seeing how Kopech handled the workload. The team gave him a nine-day break in between starts around the All-Star Futures Game and made a mechanical adjustment with Kopech, too.
Just like that, Kopech has soared, which led to his promotion on Friday.
“Since then he’s on the best run he’s been on,” player development director Chris Getz said. “He’s in a really good place. But we’re constantly having conversations on his work, physically where he’s at, his weight and then obviously the on-field performance. Are there any indications of fatigue or anything like that? We’re near the stretch run and then the finish line and well aware of the innings and what he has done in the past.
“If he were to hit a wall and we feel like physically he needed to be shut down we certainly were open to it. We weren’t going to force any issues, but he’s shown no signs. He’s a physically gifted guy who works very hard, has a goal in mind to finish a full season. He’s on track to that do that.”
Kopech thinks it’s due to the offseason work he has always put In but never had a chance to test out. This is the first time he’s had the chance to pitch a full season as 2015 ended with his 50-game suspension and the first half of 2016 was wiped out by injury.
Kopech said he works out two to three hours a day for five or six days in the offseason. He’s also “getting after it” in the gym for an hour on three of the four days in between his starts.
On road trips, Kopech also eats pre-packaged meals prepared by a nutritionist rather than normal clubhouse fare to eat healthy.
Kopech was expected to start on Friday at Birmingham before he was promoted. Now the plan calls for him to start on Monday at Charlotte. If he stays on a regular schedule, Kopech would be in line for three starts at Charlotte, a plan for which he feels physically prepared.
“I haven’t really felt very fatigued,” Kopech said. “I’ve felt comfortable. I feel like I’m within myself. I don’t feel like I’m overthrowing when I need to rear back. I don’t feel like I’m losing any velo. I’ve felt pretty comfortable in probably close to double the amount of innings I threw last year.”