Salem manager Joe Oliver couldn’t believe it. He needed to verify that the 105 miles per hour reading on Michael Kopech’s hardest fastball of the night was indeed accurate.
“I’ve never seen it before,” said Oliver. “When we were doing the reports last night, we had to double-check, but there was another gun that had that reading. You knew he was throwing firm. With the naked eye, you can’t tell the difference between 100, 101, and 105. It’s coming pretty quick.”
“I put my glasses on, because when they start putting three digits in those little boxes, they get hard to read,” added pitching coach Paul Abbott. “He hit 103 a couple times the last start. . . . Matt Kent, a pitcher, and I did the chart. I looked at it and went, ‘Man, is that really a 5?’ I went and asked somebody, ‘105?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, and it wasn’t just my gun. Others had it, too.’ ”
Kopech had topped out at 103 in his prior start, sitting at 97-100 and averaging 100 for the night. On Wednesday, he averaged 98, according to Oliver, but that singular comet was unlike anything seen in the minors this year.
Consider: According to BaseballSavant.com, the hardest thrown pitch in a major league game this year was a 103.6-m.p.h. fastball from Aroldis Chapman.
In its own right, that number is mind-blowing. Yet Kopech not only exceeded Chapman’s velocity, but he did so while holding high-90s to triple-digit readings over the course of five innings in which the 20-year-old dominated with a swing-and-miss fastball and slider.
“When a guy throws 92 m.p.h., it’s firm. When a guy is throwing 97, it’s really hard. So imagine the 97 guy compared to 103 — that’s a whole other universe,” said Abbott.
That sort of arm strength — which, one evaluator noted, is complemented by some deception on the fastball — is almost never seen. Triple digits are more typically the province of single-inning relievers such as Chapman, Arquimedes Caminero, and Dellin Betances. Just two starters in the big leagues this year — Noah Syndergaard and Nathan Eovaldi — have hit 100 m.p.h. 10 or more times.
“He’s really ironed out some wrinkles to where he’s able to release the baseball a ton. He’s out in front. The ball jumps out of his hand. He’s athletic, he’s explosive, and he’s commanding. It’s really impressive,” said Abbott, who praised the improvements that Kopech has made in his mechanics in his two years since the Sox took him in the first round of the 2014 draft. “I think he can maintain it for the duration of 100 pitches. He’s big and strong enough to do it.”
Syndergaard offers a vision of the upside created by that sort of velocity. Eovaldi, who was moved from the Yankees’ rotation to the bullpen amidst his struggles, offers a reminder that throwing hard is no guarantee of success (and, of course, doing so also creates questions about sustainability and long-term health).
Kopech worked out of a bases-loaded, first-inning jam to post five scoreless innings. He allowed four hits (all singles), walked one, and struck out eight. Wilmington’s lineup, which eventually won, 6-5, squared up just one ball. In two starts with Salem, Kopech has thrown nine scoreless innings while allowing five hits and striking out 14.
He told Michael Leboff of MiLB.com that he’s “trying to come back and pitch the way I should have been throwing all year” after missing most of the season to date with injuries, including a broken bone in his pitching hand suffered in a spring training fight with a teammate. Oliver suggested the pitcher has been “amped up” in his initial outings.
“For a starter to go five innings and average 98 m.p.h., it’s not like a kid who averages 94 and touches 100. You’re seeing upper-90s and triple-digits consistently,” said Oliver. “He has a special gift. To see a young man that is battling through some setbacks, it’s pretty exciting to see what he brings every fifth day.”
The enormous velocity shown by Kopech creates the possibility that, even with his off-field missteps — both the fight and the 50-game suspension after a positive test for a banned stimulant last year — his prospect standing will be considerable.
“He’s still just a 20-year-old kid,” noted Abbott. “The scary thing is, he’s going to get better. His slider is going to get more consistent and create more depth. He struck out a kid on an 89-m.p.h. changeup last night. It’s going to get better. I’ve had two snapshots of him. So far, it’s been the most impressive guy I’ve seen since I’ve been here and maybe ever.”
Teams undoubtedly will ask about him, putting the Sox in a fascinating position about whether to cling to an arm of such rarity or whether they might consider dealing him at the trade deadline. Either way, Kopech’s performance may be deepening the reservoir of the Sox’ highest end of talent as Aug. 1 comes closer into view.