When a player is drafted by an MLB team, they face a daunting task in reaching the big leagues. That is especially true for high school pitchers. So when news broke that Michael Kopech was facing another self-inflicted setback, Damian Dydyn wondered how much hope was left for the youngster.
Earlier this week, it was reported that Michael Kopech broke his right hand – his pitching hand – in a fight with his roommate. He’ll miss at least 2-3 months as the hand heals and even more time as he rehabs. It might be enough to derail his career, as he will have missed significant portions of his first two full professional seasons – a critical time in his development. The big knock on Kopech when he was drafted was that his mechanics were too complicated, violent and difficult to repeat. Inconsistent mechanics often lead to problems with command and control, and when coupled with a violent delivery can leave a pitcher more prone to injury.
But if a pitcher’s elbows come higher than his wrists and shoulders, with the ball pointing down, he’s demonstrating an “inverted W” — a sign that his sequence is off and he’s fighting his own body.
The Red Sox selected him with the 33rd overall pick in 2014 and were largely lauded for it as Kopech was considered by most to be a late first round talent. Reports on his velocity varied, however, the general consensus was that he was going to be a hard thrower with a lively fastball and that the main obstacle preventing him from starting was going to be his control.
The early returns were fantastic. A 2.63 ERA, a 3.35 FIP and a 9.69 K/9 with reports of him touching 100 mph in class-A Greenville had Sox fans drooling after 65 innings in 2015. Unfortunately, that would be his final stat line with the announcement that Kopech was being suspended for 50 games for testing positive for a stimulant called Oxilofrine.
At the time, it looked like it may have been an innocent mistake. It still may have been. But with the latest news that he fractured his pitching hand punching his roommate, it’s a little harder to give him the benefit of the doubt. Mike Hazen’s reaction pretty much sums it up:
“It was stupid, he’s going to have to grow up, obviously, with the things that have happened so far. He’s got a long road to go to get to the big leagues. He obviously has a ton of potential. He’s got a long way to go. These types of things, you don’t want to put more barriers in front of you than playing professional baseball already presents you.”
So where does that leave Kopech? At the very least we’ve learned that the biggest obstacle between Kopech and starting isn’t his ability to command his pitches. It’s his ability to make good decisions. There are a lot of reasons prospects fail without adding poor decisions to the mix.
This isn’t the end for Kopech, of course, but he’s diminished his value significantly with this latest episode. He was rated as the number 89 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America recently. It is an honor he is unlikely to receive next year given the time he will miss. And his make-up isn’t the only concern that will contribute to his likely drop off the list. The lost development time for a high school draftee is an enormous problem.
Early on, it looked like he might beat the odds and stick in the rotation. Those odds just got longer and his most likely path to the big leagues is almost certainly now in the bullpen with all of the time lost that could have been spent on developing secondary pitches and learning to repeat his delivery consistently. Either way, the loss of time building strength and stability in his arm has to have a negative impact on his ability to get through the early spike in the injury nexus for professional pitchers.
No matter how you look at it, this is really bad news for Kopech fans. Maybe he’ll learn from this and come out a better person on the other side. Maybe he’ll even be stronger for it. But even if his reaction to this latest misstep is the best case scenario, he has added several more hurdles to a path in front of him that was already rife with pitfalls. Don’t hold your breath waiting for him to crack the rotation in Fenway.
Damian Dydyn has written about an illegal slide, Mookie Betts, rookies adjusting, and managing a fantasy baseball team.
Follow Damian on Twitter @ddydyn.
Photo courtesy of Kelly O’Connor.