GIF Breakdown: Michael Kopech’s MLB Debut

We’ve been waiting for this debut all season.

Michael Kopech made his MLB debut Tuesday evening for the Chicago White Sox with plenty of hype surrounding the 22-year-old rookie. Throwing consistently in triple-digits, we’ve been waiting for his explosive arm to make his way to the bigs, though there has been a trail of troubling control throughout his minor league career. However, he hasn’t allowed a single walk in four of his last five minor league games and sporting a three-pitch repertoire of fastball, changeup, slider, we were anxious to see how he would play out in his first game in the bigs.

Like most pitching nerds, I spent my Tuesday night watching every pitch thrown by Kopech, hoping the hype was real. Here is the GIF Breakdown of Michael Kopech’s MLB debut in 15 GIFs.

First Inning

We’re all expecting to see triple-digits tonight but Kopech elected to take it easy to start the game, sitting mostly 96-98 with his heater. I don’t think I’ve ever been this disappointed in a 97mph average heater. The first pitch of his career at 96mph:

Here we get a good look at his mechanics. It’s rather smooth and easy towards home until a violent release with his arm quickly snapping. I would normally be worried, however his head is impressively still through the release point, making me believe he can stay avoid being labeled as an “effectively wild” arm.

Kopech’s second pitch to Joe Mauer was a hittable 97mph down the middle, which the veteran drove into center for a base hit. I’m okay with this, as I prefer Kopech pumping the zone with strikes early on to find a groove instead of risking an early walk by being too cute.

Eddie Rosario had a tougher time initially with Kopech, fouling a middle-middle 97mph straight back, then getting overpowered by a brilliant 98mph heater up-and-in:

I absolutely hate how Omar Narváez moved his glove from the spot as Kopech delivered as Kopech nailed the initial location to squeeze Rosario into an emphatic swing-and-miss. Moving past his battery mate, if Kopech can consistently locate his fastball here against lefties, it doesn’t matter what his secondary pitches are like, he’ll have success.

Speaking of secondary pitches, we got one to end this at-bat. After missing an elevated heater way too out of the zone (his front shoulder flew open too soon as he overthrew it), Kopech went with a slider that was supposed to bite at Rosario’s ankles and instead dropped along the outside corner:

It’s not a bad pitch, but because it’s left out over the plate, Rosario, caught on his front foot, was able to throw the bat out and easily pull it to right. I’m not ready to judge this pitch just yet but this one wasn’t great.

Jorge Polanco followed and was met with a rush of heaters. Kopech got to a 2-2 count with an excellent elevated heater for a whiff – just above the zone and enticing enough at 96mph to give chase – and elected to go back inside to end the AB:

You need a strikeout, a dribbler, or a pop-up, and he got the later by effectively getting a fastball inside enough to Polanco. I’d want it a bit higher – he didn’t quite get the high-inside corner during this at-bat but did plenty in others – but he threw strikes and forced Polanco to do something about it.

Now with one out and slugger Miguel Sano in the box, Kopech elected to show off his first curveball, which fell elegantly in the zone for a fouled strike one:

It’s a good pitch but my first impression is that it’ll be used early and not late. A strike-getter and not a strike-inducer. I’m curious what more we’ll see of the pitch, though it’s possible it’s his slider just thrown slower like Patrick Corbin’s slide piece. I’m hesitant to say that given that near 20mph difference between his fastball and this breaker (his other pitches that I’m certainly calling slider were around 82mph), I’m leaning to call this a separate pitch in his curveball.

Sano was the first right-hander Kopech has faced and I was wondering if we’d see a different approach. But after that curveball, we saw plenty of fastballs busting Sano inside:

This is a great approach as you can get ahead batters easily and create weak contact (that second one is perfect!), but what I want to see is the complement: a breaking ball off the plate away.

And that’s exactly what we got.

Beautiful. This was great execution starting inside the zone before falling off at the last moment at 15mph slower than his heater on the opposite side of the plate. A fantastic at-bat all around and a huge out for Kopech. I’m pumped.

Now back to a left-hander in Max Kepler. After falling behind 3-0 (the third pitch poorly frames at the bottom of the zone), Kopech stuck with heat, getting to 3-2 and zooming a heater down the middle resulting in a fly out to center. His fastball is good enough that he should be attacking hitters constantly like this when behind. He can give in; it will still be a tough at-bat.

After one frame, I’m impressed. I don’t see a wild arm, but a strong foundation with upper 90s heat on both sides of the plate. We saw flashes of great breaking stuff in his slider, a strike-getter in his curveball, but there is a worry against left-handers as Kopech didn’t throw an effective secondary pitch to a left-hander in the inning – just one slider that Rosario slapped for a single. I wonder if we’ll see his changeup and more sliders in future frames.

Second Inning

It’s more fastballs to start the second, with 97mph for strike one to right-hander Logan Forsythe. It’s Kopech’s MLB debut and I’m not surprised that he’s relying so heavily on his fastball – it’s a great pitch and clearly his most comfortable offering. He followed with a pair of fantastic sliders – the first somehow not called a strike – that made me incredibly excited to see the 1-2 combination in action through the rest of the game:

After throwing a third that Forsythe fought off, he painted the corner with 98mph heat and left Forsythe to walk back to the dugout:

Yep, not much you can do if you’re Forsythe. He had to be conscious of three straight well-executed pitches and then Kopech whips out 98mph on the black. Forsythe was just praying it missed off the edge or was slightly out of the zone as he was so far behind the pitch right on release. I want more. Spoiler alert: There will be plenty more. Same spot, actually.

As hinted in those italics, Kopech actually located his fastball in the same exact spot to get his final two outs of the inning. First a strikeout to Jake Cave:

And then a 1-2 pitch to Joe Mauer to close the frame:

I absolutely love how comfortable Kopech is going up-and-inside with four-seamers to left-handers. I preach this approach plenty and to see Kopech not only do it consistently, but with elite velocity makes me absolutely thrilled.

There is more to talk about from this inning, especially with that exact pitch. He wasn’t exactly perfect hitting that location through the outing, letting one get out of his hand as he tugged it, hitting Robbie Grossman in a 2-2 count:

It was disappointing and sure to happen more in the future as Kopech pitches inside. However, before it happened, we got a glimpse at more secondary stuff against Grossman.

First was a curveball for strike one (to a left-hander!):

Then this absurd pitch:

Yeah, that’s a changeup perfectly spotted starting inside the zone before fading out in a hurry. At 91 mph. Absolute Filth. FILTH.

Now, I wonder how consistently he can execute this. We only saw two more changeups today – later in the at-bat at 1-2 and to Mauer – and both were wasted, both floating way out of the zone. If we get this ridiculous Stephen Strasburg-esque pitch often, paired with his heat and slider, there’s no stopping Kopech. Seriously.

With Grossman on at first, Bobby Wilson stood in the box, taking the first two pitches that just fell under the zone. He hummed two straight heaters down the pipe after 2-0 for consecutive foul balls, but a third returned a flare into left-field for a single.

Again, I’m okay with this. Attack hitters, make them hit 98mph. Yes, a slider would have easily done work, but I’m not too upset. It’s a debut.

And back to Joe Mauer, though the only element of note here is that final fastball, with Mauer fouling off every other pitch save for the aforementioned poorly executed changeup.

We were excited. We were anxious to see what else Kopech was going to showcase the rest of the night…then the rain hit and knocked Kopech out of the game with 52 pitches under his belt. Baseball can be so cruel.

Conclusion

I feel a little cheated that we didn’t get to see more of Kopech. He focused mostly on his heater, though I wonder if the plan was to feature more changeups and breakers in the latter frames. He sat 96-98 as opposed to the anticipated 100 mph, but located plenty better than I expected given his pedigree of poor control through the minors (albeit, just 2 walks in his last five games). That heater sets the foundation for his secondary stuff and if he can keep the pitches down constantly, his combination of high four-seamers and low sliders/changeups will make him an elite arm right away.

Curveballs were reserved for early in counts to still strikes and that’s completely fine given Kopech’s solid slider and changeup. Moving forward, I’m curious if we’ll see a faster expansion to his secondary stuff in the early innings – I believe his heavy fastball focus is a big reason why he needed 52 pitches to get through two frames. The sky is the limit here for Kopech with this kind of control, and I can’t wait to catch his next game.

Nick Pollack

Founder of PitcherList.com. Rotographs and Washington Post contributor and has worked with CBS Sports, Grantland, and SB Nation. Former pitching coach and Brandeis alum.

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Comments


Shingo’s Frisbee

On Kopech’s arsenal, you’re right about the 2nd breaker being a curveball. The Sox gave him a curveball in the spring to complement his harder slidepiece. Before this year he was all FB and SL with an iffy CH.

AO

Any concern about how straight Kopech’s fastball is? Looks like hitters will know where it starts…and thus where it ends up.

Nick Pollack

His fastball averaged more RPM than Verlander’s – the current highest in the majors.

It’s not at flat pitch, it’s a four-seamer. I love it.

Duncan

Nick,
After watching many of the gifs I kept seeing Omar Narvaez’s glove move all over the place. On the last pitch to Mauer, it was easily a strike but the lack of framing could sell it as a ball, high/up.

I decided to see how he was as a framer. He didn’t show up in the top 30, so I sorted by worst-to-best. Yep, dead last at -11.8 runs.

Do you think that’ll affect Kopech or any other young CWS starters long term?

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