CHICAGO — In hindsight, Michael Kopech wishes he had played baseball in 2020, when he opted out of the COVID-19 pandemic-shortened campaign after missing 2019 working his way back from Tommy John surgery.
But it was that time away that helped shape the right-hander into one of Major League Baseball’s elite starting pitchers at just past the quarter point of the 2022 season. There was never a doubt that Kopech’s high-end raw stuff would play upon his return, especially in Kopech’s mind. He also came back as a more centered individual overall.
“At the time for me, it was the right decision,” Kopech said. “And as hard as it is to say that, knowing I wanted to be out here competing, it gave me an opportunity to really analyze myself and know what I wanted going into the future when it came to this game and when it came to my personal life.
“So, with it being a hard decision, I think it was still the right one. I was worried at first with how things were with COVID. Not as concerned now, but we didn’t know where things were at. I did have a lot of personal stuff going on as well, and it just to me seemed like a heavy burden to try to take and normalize in a clubhouse full of guys who were trying to do what they can to support their own families.”
The 26-year-old Kopech returned from paternity leave last week after his girlfriend, Morgan, gave birth to their son, Vander, just in time to turn in the most dominant performance of his young career on Sunday Night Baseball at Yankee Stadium. He was perfect for 5 2/3 innings against one of the best lineups in baseball, after yielding only one hit over six frames in his previous start at home against this same Yankees squad.
Retiring the first 17 hitters gives any pitcher reason to think about making history. In Kopech’s focused mind, it doesn’t take that much.
“It’s kind of silly, but every game if I’m 1-2-3 in the first, I’m thinking about a perfect game,” Kopech said. “It’s just because I want to aim [to have] the most efficient start I can. It’s not because I want to throw a perfect game every time I go out [or] put crazy expectations on myself.
“I want to work as efficiently as possible and get the guys in and out, ready to hit. It was fun to think about it while I was going.”
With 17 hits allowed in 42 innings, Kopech’s .122 opponents’ batting average ranks first among all MLB starters entering play Friday. Kopech also sports a razor-thin 1.29 ERA, and his 1-1 record is not close to indicative of his overall dominance.
Starting is where Kopech belongs, although he enjoyed the 2021 season where 40 of his 44 appearances came from the bullpen. He’s a set routine sort of guy, and the more he can get into a routine, the more he feels comfortable on the mound.
That comfort brings this story back to 2020. Kopech feels as if the White Sox are a great fit, but as his career has progressed, he has realized that there is greater meaning in life above baseball.
“Once I figured out where my priorities lied, then it made it a lot easier to come back and play this game,” Kopech said. “But I couldn’t put pitching above everything else, and I still won’t do that. It’s my career and I’m blessed to have it, but it’s not my end-all, be-all.
“I have a lot more in my life that I have to focus on and be responsible for. I think that having that opportunity to re-prioritize really got things right for me.”
Of course, being a successful pitcher helps Kopech provide for those around him who he loves and cares about, which he has discussed before. But even without pitching, Kopech knows he’ll be fine.
“This is the best job in the world. But at the end of the day, there are other ways to support my family,” Kopech said. “I can’t take this and make it more important than everything I have going on with my family. This is just a part of it. It’s not ranked above it. It’s just a part of my life.
“The ballpark is great, but when you know you have a little one looking up to you when you get home, it’s definitely easier to get back. I’m in a good life spot. For me, it’s very comforting. It’s a spot that I longed for a long time, and to be in a good position with the family and a good position in baseball, I’m very content with life right now.”