This SD Draft pick can thank dog for arm slot

After an important game of fetch, Kopps experienced a late breakout at Arkansas

July 13th, 2021

SAN DIEGO -- Kevin Kopps, based on everything he accomplished during his senior season at Arkansas, is not your average third-round Draft pick.

A sixth-year senior, Kopps was the SEC Pitcher of the Year. He won the Dick Howser Trophy as College Player of the Year. He's a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award, too, having posted a 0.90 ERA and a 0.76 WHIP, both of which were the best marks in NCAA Division I.

"He basically reinvents himself and has this unbelievable year," said Padres scouting director Mark Conner, after the team selected Kopps No. 99 overall in the 2021 MLB Draft. "One of the best pitching years in college baseball history."

And Kopps' reinvention story has quite an origin. He'd been shoehorned into an over-the-top arm slot that he said never quite fit his pitching style. Then ...

"I was just playing fetch with my dog, and I decided to throw the ball differently," Kopps said. "It felt really good out of my hands, so I just switched to that."

That was only one facet of Kopps' reinvention, but it was the biggest one. His delivery became more natural -- still slightly over the top, but not excessively so. His pre-release movements were more succinct and natural, and everything else fell into place.

"I stopped trying to be someone I wasn't, as far as pitching goes," Kopps said. "I went back to my normal arm action. I went back to where I'm really comfortable throwing, and that just accelerated all of my pitches."

Kopps boasts quite an array of pitches, too. His two-seam fastball is generally in the low-90s. He has a putaway curveball and a changeup that he's working on.

But Kopps' best pitch is a mid-80s cutter that was practically untouchable this year. The way Kopps views it, his cutter is actually three separate pitches -- depending on how much depth he wants and whether he wants to throw it for a strike or a chase.

"It's just about watching the hitter’s swing -- you can tell what they're doing, what will work against what kind of swing they have," Kopps said.

That's the root of Kopps' genius, added Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn.

"Teams would wait him out, try and get him to throw cutters out of the zone," Van Horn said. "They wouldn't swing at them, because they were swinging at too many bad pitches. So Kevin would just start throwing the cutter for a strike. He'd get ahead, and then Kevin would just see how they were trying to attack him. He's just so smart. He figures it out."

OK, Kopps has an elite feel for pitching and an elite pitch (maybe two, counting the curveball). He just posted one of the best seasons for a college pitcher in recent memory. So what gives? Why were 98 players taken before him in the Draft?

Well, Kopps is already 24, and he essentially missed three college seasons. He redshirted in 2016, rehabbed from Tommy John surgery in '18 and endured a pandemic-shortened '20 campaign. Kopps' breakout came as late into a college career as it possibly could have.

Clearly, the Padres are sold on the breakout. Conner cautioned against much action for Kopps in 2021, considering he endured such a heavy workload at Arkansas this year -- 89 2/3 innings, after only 52 2/3 in the previous three seasons combined.

But after that? The Padres expect to turn Kopps loose in a prominent bullpen role, likely at a higher level of their system. They'll give him a chance to move quickly.

“He'd have success in Double-A baseball right now,” Van Horn said. “Because he throws strikes, he can really field his position, and he's very much liked by all his teammates. He would shoot up through the Minor Leagues if they started him low. But I don't know why they would.”

Padres roll dice on HS pitchers
With two of their final three selections, the Padres made a pair of gambles that might pay some dividends for them. In the 18th round, they selected Gage Jump, a lefty from JSerra Catholic High School in nearby San Juan Capistrano. In the 20th, they took Chase Burns, a right-hander from Beech High School in Tennessee.

Both Jump and Burns were ranked among MLB Pipeline's top 50 Draft prospects -- Jump at No. 43 and Burns at No. 47. They fell because of questions as to whether they'd sign or attend college.

“They’re very talented young men that have a chance to have a very big impact if we can get things done,” Conner said. “Over the next week or so, we’re going to look and see how the numbers line up and how we can put this entire class together. But our staff loved them. Our analytics guys loved them. It’s an opportunity to add some really good players to the organization if we can get them done.”

Jump is committed to UCLA and has a supremely advanced blend of pitches -- a fastball, slider, curveball and changeup, all four of which could be solid out pitches. Burns, meanwhile, boasts a big-time fastball that can hit 100 mph, and he pairs it with two different breaking pitches. He is committed to Tennessee.

Trend watch
The Padres started the Draft by taking a pair of high-school bats, and they ended it with those two high-school arms. That certainly wasn't indicative of the rest of their week.

In fact, those were the only four high schoolers taken by the Padres. The other 17 of their 21 Draft picks were college players. Conner theorized that last year’s five-round Draft amid the pandemic sent a handful of players back to college for another season.

“It left a lot of good college players available,” Conner said. “As we were looking at the board today, that’s really just how it fell. We’re looking player for player at taking the best player available. There just happened to be a lot of good college players on the board.”

Of the Padres' 21 picks, 13 were pitchers, four of them left-handers. The Padres also took six infielders, an outfielder and a catcher.