Kopech grateful for time spent in 'Pony Tail Gang'

June 1st, 2022

This story was excerpted from Scott Merkin’s White Sox Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Somewhere in Michael Kopech’s collection of Major League Baseball memorabilia exists a "Pony Tail Gang" T-shirt, developed last season when he teamed with Liam Hendriks and Craig Kimbrel out of the White Sox bullpen while featuring a similar hairstyle.

“I have to cover up Craig’s face or put an LA on his hat or something,” said a smiling Kopech during a recent interview.

Those bullpen days for Kopech are history, as he has become an elite member of the White Sox starting rotation through the first two months of the 2022 season. Kopech returns to the mound Wednesday in Toronto, marking nine days' rest since he took a perfect game into the sixth inning at Yankee Stadium and allowed one hit over seven shutout frames. 

The break is by design to manage Kopech’s innings climb during his transition to a full-time starter. But it’s that bullpen work from ’21, where he made 40 of his 44 appearances, that helped him get ready for the starter’s role.

“I was just honestly grateful to be on the team last year,” Kopech said. “If I had that opportunity and not this one, I would be extremely grateful to still have that opportunity. 

“But I’m in a different role now and I think where I belong. I really enjoyed throwing out of the 'pen and getting to learn from guys like Liam and Kimbrel and now the guys we have in the bullpen like [Joe] Kelly and [Kendall] Graveman and talking to someone who has been in this organization for a long time in [Aaron] Bummer and just kind of getting his perspective on how things work and what makes a guy tick and what makes you good day in and day out.

“It was a blessing for sure to be able to throw down there with them,” Kopech added. “I think that really prepared me for this season.”

Kopech has a better appreciation and understanding of the bullpen perspective, knowing how difficult it is to be ready every day. As the right-hander stated in a story from May 27, he feels more comfortable in the routine-based starter’s scenario.

“I feel like I have the opportunity to kind of clean things up in between and take what I learned from the last one for five days into the next one and then take what I learned in a bad way and try to flush that,” Kopech explained. “Having that time is so valuable and it’s been so nice. It still has its own challenges, but I really enjoy it right now.”

Closing was once talked about as a possible fit for Kopech, who has a four-pitch mix with a four-seam fastball averaging 95.2 mph as a starter but 97.3 mph last year in relief, per Statcast. That role just doesn’t fit his personality as it does for Hendriks or Kimbrel.

“When I think of those guys, they are more eccentric or fiery guys,” Kopech said. “I can be that way, but I don’t think that’s typically me. When I’m my best, I’m able to kind of move at a rhythmic pace and not have to bring myself up to the competition.

“Those guys do a great job. If I had to do it, then I would do it. But I don’t think that was necessarily me.”