Michael Kopech has returned to the White Sox and spoke to the media via Zoom on Saturday for the first time since last year's Spring Training.
Kopech, who is the No. 39 overall prospect in baseball per MLB Pipeline, elected not to participate in the 2020 season and discussed his reasons for that decision, along with touching upon numerous other topics in an honest manner typical of the eloquent 24-year-old since he came to Chicago. He also talked about limiting his distractions and not worrying about outside hypotheses as to why he didn’t pitch, but he also brought up a realization made during his time away.
“I think I learned that I need this game a lot more than I realized,” Kopech said. “It's a lot easier said than done to take a step away from something you've done your entire life. It sounds like an exaggeration, but no, it's been my entire life. So taking a step back from that and realizing how big of a piece it is to this entire puzzle for me has kind of put it all in perspective, and it's made me kind of regain the motivation to get back out there, along with some other things that have happened in my life.
“I've found that motivation that I may have lost -- not that I ever completely lost it, because I never want to be known as a guy that hasn't worked really hard for everything that he's had to earn. But with this time away, I've really had the chance to come back and prove to myself at least that this is what I want to do.”
Kopech was the last White Sox pitcher to start a Cactus League game, throwing a scoreless inning against the Rangers at Camelback Ranch last March 10 and dealing his first four pitches over 100 mph. It was the culmination of Kopech’s long rehab and recovery after undergoing Tommy John surgery in September 2018.
Following a rainout and a day off for the White Sox, Spring Training was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In July, the White Sox returned to Chicago for Summer Camp and the start of a 60-game season, in which they finished 35-25 and reached the postseason for the first time since 2008. But Kopech elected not to be part of that group.
“There are multiple reasons,” Kopech said. “COVID being one of the reasons, with having some health issues with my family, but there were a lot of personal reasons as well.
“I've been pretty candid in the past about my mental health being important and prioritizing that so I can be the best version of myself on the field. That's a lot of what it came down to as well.”
When asked how he felt about being back in action, Kopech responded, “Relieved. It’s been a long time for me, obviously.”
General manager Rick Hahn described Kopech as a long-term starter earlier this week, but he added that the righty could be used in a relief role this year in order to manage his innings and have him fresh for a September/October run, after having not thrown in a regular-season game since 2018.
Rave reviews have come in from teammates and manager Tony La Russa concerning Kopech’s early bullpen sessions, albeit not yet against hitters. His multi-faceted pitching role should make a deep White Sox pitching staff that much stronger.
“To have the luxury of a few guys in the upper 90s to three-digit area code is unbelievable,” Chicago left-hander Dallas Keuchel said. “If everything goes right, we have about seven, eight starters, and that’s a great thing to worry about.
“Now, if everything kind of hits the fan and goes awry, we still have some extra guys, so that’s good for us. I don’t think the White Sox have been in that position for a long time.”
La Russa said Kopech’s return was embraced by the team and that everyone was “really happy to see him.” They also were celebrating the birth of Kopech’s son, River, whose presence has influenced his change in motivation and clarity.
“My career doesn't just dictate my future anymore, but it dictates my son's. That's kind of all the motivation I need,” Kopech said. “In the past, I've put a lot of unnecessary pressures and anxieties on myself.
“For one of the first times in my career, I'm comfortable enough with what I'm doing where my only focus is internal. It's within the game itself, it's within competing, it's throwing strikes, it's working on my mechanics, it's doing all the little things right. And it's not that I didn't focus on those things before, but maybe they were affected by external factors and just trying to maybe worry about the wrong things.
“I'm a little more focused right now than I have been in the past. Cutting out distractions has been a big part of that. I'm looking forward to seeing where that focus leads me in my career.”