SURPRISE, Ariz. — Top of the first, against the Mesa Solar Sox, Michael Kopech rears back to pitch, and his blond curls momentarily conceal the ball. Four-10ths of a second later, it smacks into the catcher’s glove, and the pitcher’s momentum sends him sliding off the mound toward first base.
The radar gun behind home plate flashes 100 miles per hour. The 20-year-old Red Sox prospect, the fastest gun in the wild West, is at work. Only he’s not wild at all. The next eight pitches are all strikes.
On this day, the muscular righthander pitches four near-perfect innings for the Surprise Saguaros in the Arizona Fall League. He strikes out six and picks off the only player who gets a hit. Overhead, a pair of fighter jets from nearby Luke Air Force base roar across the desert, and it sounds like applause.
Here in the Valley of the Sun, the future of Red Sox pitching is blooming like a wildflower after a desert rain.
Kopech arrived on the national radar when he fired a 105-m.p.h. fastball on July 13 for the Red Sox’ Single A team in Salem. He has consistently shown Aroldis Chapman-like speed as a starting pitcher, and has developed two other effective pitches.
Recently he pitched two perfect innings in the AFL’s Fall Stars Game, striking out three — all looking — and topping 100 m.p.h. five times, according to MLB.com.
“He’s very talented and he continues to grow,” said Dave Dombroski, the Red Sox president of baseball operations who was in town for the general managers meetings. “He’s got an exceptionally gifted arm and he’s continuously making strides with his sliders and changeups.”
But his detractors say Kopech is trouble.
On July 15, 2015, he was suspended 50 games for testing positive for oxilofrine, a banned stimulant. That abruptly ended his season at Single A Greenville (4-5, 2.63 ERA), where he was an all-star.
He swears it was inadvertent.
“I did a lot of research on it,” said Kopech. “The sad part about it is that it is found in a lot of stuff. I didn’t know that at the time, and I wasn’t as careful as I should’ve been on what I took.
“I did take responsibility for that, but at the same time, I didn’t knowingly take anything that would make me perform better.”
A Cambridge Health Alliance report in April 2016 confirmed that oxilofrine was hidden in many dietary supplements sold over the counter. The FDA also sent warning letters to seven companies.
Things got worse for Kopech before they got better. In early March 2016, he broke a bone in his pitching hand during an altercation with a teammate. Then-Red Sox general manager Mike Hazen called the incident “stupid” and said that Kopech “needs to grow up.”
Asked about the cause of the fight, Kopech shrugs.
“It wasn’t about much,” he said.
Others have suggested that it wasn’t a fight at all.
“Basically, it was me trying to protect him,” said Kopech. “I’ll leave it at that. Yeah, and it kind of blew up on us.”
Did he start it?
“No, I didn’t,” said Kopech. “I won’t talk too much about that, because I don’t want to bring another player into it. Restart a fire that’s kind of burnt out.
“There’s nothing else that needs to be said about it. It’s something that me and the organization have already handled. I was just trying to keep him out of trouble is all it was.”
Out to change opinions
Kopech apologized to Red Sox fans and returned with a vengeance. He pitched the 2016 season opener for the Lowell Spinners before being promoted to High A Salem, where he was named Carolina League Player of the Month in August. For the season, he was a combined 4-1 with a 2.08 ERA.
He said he has been drug tested 10 times since the suspension, “so they’re not taking it easy on me at all.”
He believes he has cleared his name and wants to move on.
“I think I proved this year that I can do everything just as good if not better without anything,” he said.
He has worked hard on becoming a pitcher and not just a flamethrower. He believes he is more mature and has learned from his mistakes, even though he has received hate mail and threats after the suspension and altercation.
“There’s going to be guys like that,” he said in the clubhouse while icing his arm. “They’re always going to be there throughout my career even if there’s nothing I do wrong again.
“Doesn’t bother me. I think people are going to form their own opinion. I would like to change people’s opinions with the way I pitch and just leave it at that.”
In spring training this year, Kopech got a big lift from Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez. At first, he wasn’t even sure if the wiry Dominican was addressing him.
“He looked at me,’’ said Kopech. “This is after I’d gotten in a little bit of trouble, and said, ‘I never had what you have. Take advantage of it. You are going to be good.’
“From that point on . . . that really turned my thought process around and my work ethic. I already had one, but all my focus went into working harder.”
Kopech also was inspired by watching David Ortiz in the weight room in Fort Myers.
“It’s incredible,” he said. “I tried to stay in the background and observe. It’s just fun to see a guy like that approaching the end of his career and working his tail off every day. It’s very passionate. It’s inspiring and motivating.”
He also talked with Red Sox mental skills coach Justin Su’a nearly every day in spring training.
His mother believes he is misunderstood.
“He’s good-hearted, and people misjudged him,” said Tabbetha Kopech. “Other than that, we’re not allowed to talk.”
In Arizona, Kopech arises at 6:30 a.m. and drives teammates to the weight room before practice.
“No one will outwork me,” he declared.
“He’s a beast,” said Carlos Febles, the manager of both the Saguaros and the Portland Sea Dogs, the Red Sox Double A team. “There’s a competition in the gym for who works hardest. He’s the leader in that. His work ethic is better than anybody’s.’’
He is also fearless on the mound.
“I like to throw up and in,” he said. “The name of the game is disrupting hitters’ timing and making them uncomfortable. The No. 1 thing to make a hitter uncomfortable is 98 at the shoulders. I’m not necessarily trying to hit anybody, but if they don’t get out of the way, I don’t think it’s my fault.”
Kopech is flamboyant with his long hair and presence on social media. He’s in no rush to cut his hair, especially after being told it makes it harder to see the ball.
“I tell you what, it wasn’t intentional, but if it is, I won’t need to cut it for a while,” he said.
He has an extensive shoe collection. He uses Twitter to tell people things such as his five favorite brands of underwear. He’s dating reality TV star Brielle Biermann of “Don’t Be Tardy.” She has said on social media that she wants to get a ring, and not a World Series ring.
“Not anytime soon,” said Kopech.
For Halloween, Kopech dressed up as Thor, then called out Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard, who has that nickname.
“I’m a fan,’’ said Kopech. “I thought I was going to take that nickname but he beat me to it.’’
He grew up middle class in Dangerfield, Texas (pop. 2,560), a town 30 miles west of the Arkansas-Louisiana border. He calls it “a very small town, outside a small town.”
His father is a lawyer and his mother a court reporter. When there were no ball fields available, his parents found an old overgrown field in Cason, Texas (pop. 173), with 2-foot-high grass and vines strangling the bleachers. His parents attacked it with a riding lawnmower, and when that died, they used a power mower to get the job done.
“He was intense about baseball for damn sure,” said his father, Michael, who grew up a Nolan Ryan fan.
After a stellar career at Mount Pleasant High School that included several no-hitters, Kopech was selected by the Red Sox with their first-round pick in the 2014 draft. He took his $1.67 million signing bonus and bought his mother a brand new Lexus. She burst into tears.
Kopech isn’t interested in setting speed records with his fastball, but he said, “It’s great to know that if I want more velocity, I can rear back and get it. I’m glad that I have a good arm and everything, but I’m more worried about commanding my pitches right now. Getting guys out with an effective arsenal rather than trying to blow everything by people, ’cause they can hit fastballs in the big leagues.
“I’m not going to go out there and throw over 100 on every pitch like Chapman does. That’s not going to be who I am when I pitch.”
He calls himself an “innings eater” and said he’d prefer to remain a starter, but he will accept any role the Sox offer.
“I’ve worked really hard at being a starter the last few years,’’ he said. “I’d like to stay in the role.”
He will start next season in Portland, with Febles firmly in his corner.
“I’ve been very impressed by his performance,” said Febles. “I mean, he’s only 20 years old. He’s got a long way to go, but he’s not far off either.”
Kopech won’t speculate about a timetable for joining the Red Sox.
“I want to put myself in a good spot to get a big league spot eventually,’’ he said.
His long-term goal is a lot higher.
“I want to be a Hall of Famer,’’ he said.