If you had to pick one nit with Michael Kopech’s first outing of the year, it’s that he threw a few too many pitches. The four shutout innings were great. The seven strikeouts to just four baserunners, even better. But that effort consumed 77 pitches, so the inefficiency gave him something to build upon.
Perhaps not entirely intentionally, Kopech’s outing against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre on Saturday night looked like a dramatic correction with his pitch count, at the expense of sexier numbers.
Kopech threw six innings of one-run ball, scattering five hits and two walks while striking out merely three. “Scattering” seems more like a verb befitting of a crafty lefty, not a guy hitting triple-digits on Trackman, but that’s what his approach resembled. He induced 11 groundouts and zero flyouts. Best of all, he had gas left in the tank, throwing just 88 pitches.
Kopech seemed fine with the trade-off.
“I went into a few deep counts with some guys I didn’t think I would get into counts with, and on the flipside of that, I had a few really quick ABs that I think helped me get deeper into the game with a lower pitch count,” Kopech said.
“My main focus is getting deeper into games and limit (bullpen) damage and as long as I can do that I could care less about the strikeouts that come with it. For the most part, I am a strikeout pitcher, but with a lineup like that, getting deep into a game is beneficial.”
The bullpen inadvertently proved Kopech’s point. He left the game with a 5-1 lead, but Robbie Ross allowed all six batters he faced to reach. Juan Minaya inherited the bases loaded with nobody out, and all three inherited runners scored. As a result, the Knights entered the stretch trailing 7-5.
Kopech probably could have gotten more swinging strikes if he elevated his fastball, but he spent much of the night working lower in the zone. The 11 groundouts suggest it worked well enough, but subtracting a couple ticks with a two-seamer allowed the Railriders to square him up a few times.
The Charlotte broadcasters said Kopech’s command wasn’t as sharp as the Norfolk game, and while he kept a fairly rapid pace, he did go for some walks around the mound trying to find a rhythm. Kopech said he didn’t exactly keep his composure during his disappointing finish to spring training, and this may have been an exercise in succeeding without his best stuff.
“I’m a guy who gets pretty fired up pretty easily, so keeping myself calm is always a big focus in my starts,” Kopech said. “Even today, I felt myself getting a little worked up a little bit. I talked to a few guys in the dugout for a few innings and I was able to assess why I was getting mad and figure things out so I could go into the next inning feeling fine.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being competitive and really get after the guys at the plate, but I do need to stay in control of my emotions and I feel like tonight, even though I got a little worked up, I was able to do that.”
Kopech can put one point in his composure column for the second inning. He issued a five-pitch walk to Mike Ford to start the inning, then fell behind 2-0 and eventually gave up a ringing double to Billy Fleming to put runners on second and third. Here’s relative velocity at work: The stadium gun said 96 mph, the Trackman readings seemed to be reliable 2-3 mph higher, and yet Fleming still came within a couple feet of a two-run homer.
Kopech then fell behind Zack Zehner 2-0, missing outside with a slider and inside with a changeup. But he came back with a high fastball Zehner couldn’t touch and got in on his hands with another one for a foul, which opened up the outside corner for a slider Zehner swung through.
Erik Kratz was able to put the bat on the fastball for a routine grounder to short, which put the first run on Kopech’s tab. Up came Abiatal Avelino, and Kopech worked him over twice in one at-bat. He froze him once with a perfect 0-2 slider, but didn’t get the call he and catcher Alfredo Gonzalez wanted.
Kopech then missed with his second changeup of the at-bat, and Avelino fouled off a fastball. With all his pitches theoretically in play, Kopech went back to the fastball and got the backwards K for good.
Those were two of Kopech’s three strikeouts, but he was able to leverage them for when he needed them the most. He then threw four more scoreless innings after that, so let’s call this a win for the composure column.
If there’s one element that stands out as the primary objective for his next start, it might be the changeup. Scranton/Wilkes-Barre lineup sent seven righties to the plate, so Kopech didn’t get that many natural opportunities to use it. He threw seven by his count, but he said “they were pretty good ones.” Based on the one he threw to Avelino to set up the strikeout, it’s hard to argue.
Thanks to our man in Charlotte Jonathan Lee for contributing on-site reporting. He’ll be assisting us with our Charlotte Knights coverage throughout the season.