Salem righty softens blow of dealing Espinoza in deal for Pomeranz
By Mike Rosenbaum
When discussing why he was willing to trade Anderson Espinoza, one of the best pitching prospects in baseball, Red Sox president Dave Dombrowski cited the emergence of Michael Kopech, another right-handed pitching prospect, as one reason. Kopech showed why in a dominant outing on Wednesday night, during which he hit 105 mph with a second-inning fastball.
Making his second start for Class A Advanced Salem, Kopech used his triple-digit heater to rack up eight strikeouts, tying his career high, over five scoreless innings in a no-decision against Wilmington. Boston's No. 4 prospect scattered four hits, walked one and also generated five ground-ball outs, throwing 49 of his 75 pitches for strikes in the outing.
Yet Kopech's performance, which extended his scoreless streak to 13 1/3 innings, was secondary to the velocity he exhibited.
"Our charters in the stands actually texted my trainer during the game, and he didn't tell me until after I got into the clubhouse and stretched out and everything," Kopech said. "I just didn't believe it. [I thought] 'Dude, no way.'
"They showed me the chart afterward, and they said the visiting pitchers got the same read and I heard the other scouts got the same thing. Honestly, I don't know where it came from, but it felt good."
Hitting 100-plus mph on the radar gun is nothing new for Kopech, who boasts a 70-grade fastball on the 20-80 scouting scale, where 50 is considered average. He reportedly had been hitting triple digits with ease in his previous two starts, highlighted by a 103-mph fastball in his first start for Salem.
But at 105 mph, the 20-year-old right-hander isn't just challenging the boundaries of the scouting scale, he's putting his name in the same class as Aroldis Chapman.
Chapman has the two fastest recorded pitches since the introduction of Statcast™ in 2015, and he threw both of them against the Twins' Brian Dozier on June 29 of that year. Specifically, the Cuban left-hander threw a pair of four-seam fastballs at 103.8 mph and 103.9 mph that had perceived velocities of 105.1 mph and 105.3 mph, respectively. Prior to Statcast™, Chapman's velocity was clocked as high 105.1 mph, which came on on Sept. 25, 2010, against Tony Gwynn, Jr. of the Padres.
Whereas Chapman tends to light up radar guns in short bursts, Kopech has shown the ability to maintain his velocity while working deep into games. His efficiency and overall command of the pitch, however, will require refinement as he continues to ascend the Minor Leagues.
"Honestly, for me, the ones that feel fast usually end up being the ones that aren't that fast," Kopech said. "It's just when everything clicks and runs smooth and is easy, it's just throwing harder. I couldn't tell you which pitch I threw that hard. It was just one of those things; random count to a random hitter, and everything kind of clicked."
That Kopech is exceeding the century mark each time he takes the mound is particularly impressive, considering the right-hander didn't make his season debut until June 17, after he had recovered from a broken right hand sustained during an altercation with a teammate in Spring Training. At this point in his season, merely building up arm strength is of the utmost importance.
With his excellent start to the 2016 season, Kopech -- who ranks as Boston's top pitching prospect in the wake of Espinoza being dealt to San Diego for Drew Pomeranz on Thursday -- has pitched to a 2.54 ERA with 104 strikeouts in 92 innings since signing with the Red Sox for $1.5 million as the No. 33 overall pick in the 2014 Draft.
Kopech said he's honored to know the Red Sox think so highly of him.
"It honestly means a lot, especially with what I've got through in the past year, that I can have an organization that backs me 100 percent," Kopech said. "To hear that they have faith in me, they believe in me, that's a big deal. Especially after we give up a guy like Espinoza; 18 years old and the kid is filthy. He's fun to watch.
"To say I help lighten the blow, that makes me feel good. I know I still have a lot to work on, still have a little ways to go, but that's helpful to hear that coming from the big guys."
In his 2015 full-season debut with Class A Greenville, Kopech posted a 2.63 ERA and fanned 70 hitters in 65 innings (15 starts) before receiving a 50-game suspension in mid-July after testing posting for a banned stimulant.
Mike Rosenbaum is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GoldenSombrero. Cash Kruth contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.