As MLB teams prepare for opening day of the abbreviated 2020 season, numerous players have opted out of returning to action, including Ryan Zimmerman, David Price, and Ian Desmond. Chicago White Sox pitcher Michael Kopech recently announced he was skipping on 2020 as well, but his decision raised a few eyebrows and for someone who knows him well, it’s cause for concern.
Michael Kopech shines in minors
Since the Boston Red Sox selected Michael Kopech in the first round of the 2014 MLB Draft, things have never gone according to schedule. After a short season in rookie ball in 2014, Kopech had a strong start to the 2015 season in Single-A with a 4-5 record and 2.63 ERA in 15 games. Then, he was suspended for 50 games after testing positive for a banned substance.
At the start of the following season, Kopech had another self-inflicted setback when he broke his hand during an altercation with his roommate. The injury healed in time for the season opener and Kopech made the start. That season he played for a couple of different teams within the organization. While his numbers were solid, what caught the attention of those within the organization and around baseball was one game where he registered 105 mph on multiple radar guns.
In December 2016, the Red Sox packaged Kopech in a blockbuster deal that sent him to the White Sox with two other players in exchange for pitcher Chris Sale. With Double-A Birmingham in 2017, Kopech had a league-best 80 strikeouts en route to a 4-3 record and 2.93 ERA. The White Sox eventually promoted him twice that season to Triple-A Charlotte and to the big club late in the 2017 season.
Expected to contribute in 2020 but opts out raising concerns
Michael Kopech made two starts in the 2018 season with the White Sox and then it was announced he had injured his arm and would undergo Tommy John surgery. Kopech missed the remainder of the season and all of 2019. He was expected to be a big contributor for the 2020 season after he regularly touched the 100-mph mark in his only spring-training start.
In early July, however, Kopech announced he was opting out of the 2020 season. His decision was a curious one because he was not considered a high-risk candidate for coronavirus. Since he is not at high risk, the Sox won’t have to pay him, and he won’t accrue service time.
While Kopech’s decision was publicly supported by the organization, it caused concern for someone who knows him well — pitching coach Don Cooper.
“Last time I saw him in spring training, he was in a great place,” Cooper told the Chicago Sun-Times. “But let me put it this way: I sure hope the kid is OK. I’m concerned that he’s not OK.”
Cooper’s comments raised a big red flag and caused a great deal of speculation regarding Kopech’s mental health issues, which the player has openly talked about in the past.
Michael Kopech opens up on mental health issues
Late in 2018, Michael Kopech had an honest discussion with MLB.com where he described the mental health issues he has grappled with and how his injuries have only amplified those struggles.
“Honestly, it makes you feel worse and worse as the days go on. It’s going to be a mental struggle for me. I know that. I’m ready for it. I’m just going to do what I can to get better mentally in the time being.
“It’s depressing. There’s no way around it. As someone who deals with anxiety and depression, it’s a situation where I have to be aware of myself. I have to know what’s going on and I have to be willing to say, ‘OK, I’m not going to play next year. Let’s get better this year meanwhile and get ready for 2020.’ It has to be something where I come to realistic thoughts with myself. I’m in the process of doing that but it is going to be difficult.”
When you hear Kopech’s comments of 2018 and his plan to overcome the mental and physical battle of his injury for a return in 2020, and then link that with his recent decision, it doesn’t make any sense and paints a clearer picture of why Cooper was concerned.
In this day and age where athletes like Kevin Love are more open about their mental health issues in hopes that it will destigmatize the illness, you can only hope that Kopech, if he is indeed struggling with these issues as Cooper insinuates, gets the help he needs. And in doing so, he returns to the mound in 2021 both physically, and more importantly, mentally prepared for his first full season in MLB.