FORT MYERS, Fla. – Talent evaluators who passed through Greenville, S.C., toward the end of 2015 were left shaking their heads, marveling at the young talent amassed by the Red Sox’ Class A affiliate.
The list kept growing in the final days of the year: Yoan Moncada, Rafael Devers, Andrew Benintendi, Javier Guerra, Anderson Espinoza . . .
The group represented a who’s who of the top Red Sox prospects, with one exception. Righthander Michael Kopech should have been part of that group, but in mid-June, around the time he was selected for the South Atlantic League All-Star Game, the 19-year-old received news that fundamentally reshaped his season.
Greeenville manager Darren Fenster called Kopech into his office to inform the pitcher that he’d tested positive for Oxilofrine, a stimulant banned under the minor league drug program and the same substance sprinters Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell tested positive for. The failed test meant a 50-game suspension.
“I was shaken up – really shaken up,” Kopech said. “I didn’t expect to hear any news like that. The first thing going through my head was that I had to prove I didn’t do anything.”
Kopech tried to appeal the suspension, insisting then – as he does now – that he didn’t knowingly take the stimulant, which has been found in supplements. He says that he was stunned by the suspension in no small part because he thought he’d been careful to use only National Sanitation Foundation-compliant supplements.
Ultimately, however, after what he described as a month-long appeal process, the commissioner’s office upheld the suspension, a couple days after a July 12 start in which he threw five shutout innings to conclude his Greenville season with a 2.63 ERA in 65 innings.
The last weeks of a very promising season for the 2014 first-round draft pick proved particularly challenging as he tried to keep pitching while quietly navigating a suspension and appeal that remained secret to his teammates. Kopech’s father spent that month in Greenville, but even with the family support, the time proved challenging.
“That month that I was going through the appeal process, I was trying to pitch to the best of my ability,” said Kopech. “At the same time, it’s kind of hard to do that when you have a lot of pressure on you – a lot of pressure that not a lot of people knew about.”
A fork in the road
Once the suspension became official, the Red Sox told Kopech to go to the team’s extended spring training facility in Fort Myers to continue working. While his season was effectively done, his opportunity to improve as a pitcher was not.
“In a situation like that, the punishment is doled out by Major League Baseball. At that point, for us, it’s about trying to help the player on the field and off the field as much as possible,” said Sox farm director Ben Crockett. “He turned it into a productive time from a developmental standpoint.”
Kopech said he experienced confusion, frustration, and anger. But a conversation with Crockett helped him focus.
“When I was told to come down here, Ben Crockett told me over the phone, ‘Come down here and treat it as a chance to get better,’” said Kopech. “That’s what I planned on anyway, but to hear them already supporting me for next season was a big push.”
Being removed from the competitive context of the season and being limited to bullpen sessions and live batting practice sessions – but not games – allowed Kopech to get feedback on areas where he needed to improve.
In Greenville, he’d succeeded largely through his ability to overpower opponents with his fastball, which sat in the mid-90s and, for the first time in Kopech’s life, reached triple digits in the early weeks of the season. His command, however, was imprecise, owing in part to a max-effort delivery that permitted him to find the strike zone but not to locate pitches within it. Moreover, while his slider showed potential as a secondary weapon, he lacked a third pitch.
Kopech channeled his anger and his awareness that people would judge him through the prism of his suspension.
“I was telling myself that I have something to prove,” he said. “People are going to make an assumption with whatever the hell they want to make an assumption about, so I’m going to do the best I can do. I’m going to come out here and freaking pitch.”
Kopech spent hours on the mechanics of his delivery to maintain the power in his arsenal while sharpening his command. He would have sessions against live hitters where he would throw nothing but changeups.
The work appeared to pay off. By the time Kopech could pitch again in games at the start of the instructional league season in late September, the Red Sox saw a different pitcher.
“He was a more polished pitcher,” said Crockett. “He showed a three-pitch mix. His velocity was what it had been – mid- to upper-90s – and that changeup was a more advanced pitch than what we had seen previously. From a delivery standpoint, he was more consistent, a little bit less across his body and more under control.”
Whereas velocity had always defined his work on the mound – when in doubt, throw harder – Kopech started to understand that effectiveness is a product of more than throwing as hard as possible.
“Velocity has always come easy to me. I’m still going to want to go out there and pump triple digits out there every now and then when I start, but I think my main focus this year is going to be on better fastball command,” Kopech said. “I still may be throwing 100 this year, but it may not be near as often. I may be a guy who hits 93-94, then spots up late in the at-bat, try to hit 98-100. Mainly it’s going to be locating my pitches in general and throwing the secondary pitches when I need to. I view it a little bit differently now. I’m not just going to go out there and try to blow it by people. If I need to, I can. But I don’t think I’ll need to.”
The path forward
Kopech is still regarded as one of the Red Sox’ top pitching prospects, with most suggesting that only 18-year-old Anderson Espinoza is ahead of him. Because of his arsenal and frame (6-foot-4 and 220 pounds), it’s not hard to imagine a considerable ceiling in Kopech’s future.
If the gains he made on his delivery and changeup are sustainable, then multiple evaluators pegged him as a pitcher with the ceiling of a No. 2 starter. If not, his fastball-slider combination suggests a power bullpen arm.
Of course, he’ll live under a different sort of prospect microscope. Kopech acknowledges that he’ll be subject to more frequent drug testing – “They do test me more frequently now – and I think that’s to be expected after failing a drug test; I mean, I would test me more frequently,” he said – and it will be natural for evaluators to wonder whether last year’s failed test represents a cause for concern about his makeup, and whether he’ll make the right choices in his career to maximize his abilities. Moreover, another positive test would mean a 100-game suspension.
Kopech said he’s become incredibly cautious about what goes into his body. He’s worked with the NSF-certified Herbalife company to ensure that his supplements are compliant with all regulations, and he’s become more cautious about what he eats and drinks as well.
“I thought I was careful before, so you can imagine how much more careful I’ve been since,” said Kopech. “I’m really even sketched out about what I eat now. I’m doing a lot of cooking for myself right now, because I know when I’m cooking I’m not going to throw in something that will get me in trouble. I’ve been really careful. I’m staying away from energy drinks, drinking mainly water. I’m just seeing how everything goes. If I’m not as careful in the future as I’m being now, then something like this could come up again.”
He’s expected to open the year in High A Salem, rejoining many of the members of the prospect group with whom he parted ways midseason in Greenville, with an opportunity to re-establish his reputation – a sort of new lease on his young career.
“I think a lot of guys, when they get drafted, they feel like they’re finally living out a dream. After a few months, it wears off. It’s sad to say – it really is – but it happens. You get used to it. You get comfortable,” said Kopech. “This took me so far out of my comfort zone and angered me that now I’m able to chase a dream again. Not many people have that opportunity. I think that’s actually been helpful.
“I wouldn’t want to call it a blessing in disguise, but it kind of is. Having six, seven, eight months now to be angry, to be fueled about where next season goes, it’s all I needed. It’s another push. It’s helped – even though I would hate to give any credit to it, it’s helped me,” said Kopech. “I think this season will prove a lot for me. I know how hard I’ve worked, and I know what I need to do this season. I think it will prove a lot of people wrong and a few people right.”
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.