NEW YORK — Equipped with a fastball that sits a tick below 100, it’s easy for Michael Kopech to overwhelm a hitter.
The 22-year-old flamethrower has done plenty of that through his first four big league outings — though he allowed seven earned runs in, what would be, his final start of the season on Wednesday. Prior to that, Kopech had struck out nine over 11 scoreless frames to start his MLB career. Kopech has mostly looked at ease on the mound for the White Sox, partly because he meditates before every start in an effort to ensure that he’s not the one feeling flustered.
“It’s something I do a lot, whether I may have anxiety, if I’m feeling lack of confidence, anytime I’m feeling any kind of overwhelming emotion in something I do,” Kopech told Sporting News. “I think that has a lot to do with why I do it before starts. Especially at the big league level, there can be a lot of emotion hitting you at once when you go out and stand under those lights. I’m big on it. It helps me stay calm, stay kind of even-keel.”
Meditation has been a key component to Kopech’s routine for three years now. Justin Su’a, a mental skills coach with the Red Sox, introduced Kopech to the practice when he was still in Boston’s system.
Just a teenager, Kopech described himself as being at “rock bottom” when the two began working together. The 2014 first-round pick had just broken his hand after punching a teammate and was contemplating walking away from the game. Su’a helped Kopech correct course as the youngster fell in love with meditation.
These days, it’s common to see Kopech deep in thought at the ballpark, especially on the days he’s slated to toe the rubber. He doesn’t require complete silence; his sessions are sometimes guided by an app called Headspace or accompanied by light music. With his headphones in, he’ll find a back room or curl up on a couch in the locker room.
The idea is to zone in.
“It’s really getting in touch with your inner self. It’s focusing on one thing, whether that be your breath or your thoughts or the outside noise, as crazy as that sounds,” Kopech explained. “As long as you’re giving 100-percent focus to whatever that is, it’s a form of meditation. It may not be dead silent in here, but it’s still a spot I’m able to find inner peace, so to speak.”
What Kopech does is a more modern version of meditation; there’s no crossed legs or chanting involved. He’s not the only major leaguer to seek a state of Zen, though such activities aren’t exactly common in a major league clubhouse.
“A lot of pitchers do a lot of weird stuff,” joked White Sox center fielder Adam Engel. “You see it [and] it’s like part of your day. There’s a lot of dudes that do a lot of different stuff when they pitch.”
This is what works for Kopech, who has struggled with anxiety before. He declined to elaborate, but pointed out that, “it’s not as uncommon as people think.” Meditation keeps Kopech sharp, whether it’s before a game, in the dugout between innings or even during his everyday life.
“That’s something that I know frees him up and he feels comfortable doing it,” manager Rick Renteria said. “It gives him probably a sense of an edge to do what he’s gotta do. Whatever it takes, everybody’s different.
“I haven’t really delved into it too much to be honest. We’re just getting to know each other at the major league level here. I’m sure we’ll have some conversations and I’ll have him explain to me some of the things that he’s doing. Maybe I’ll take ‘em on myself.”
A “good place” is exactly where Kopech seems to be right now.
Between thoughts of quitting, the aforementioned fight and a PED suspension, the prized prospect didn’t take a trouble-free path to the majors. Even his short time with the White Sox has been somewhat clouded by controversy; Kopech was the latest player revealed to have used racist and homophobic language on Twitter. He was 17 at the time of the tweets.
When those tweets first surfaced, Kopech insisted that he doesn’t hold such beliefs, nor was he still the same person who hit send. Questioned by reporters, he emphasized how much he’s matured over the last few years, the product of other mistakes made while climbing the minor league ladder, as well as life lessons away from baseball.
As for pitching, Kopech has tweaked his mentality in that regard as well. He was just a fireballer when he first turned pro, famous for topping the century mark on a radar gun with ease. Now, however, he’s focused more on the craft. He’s grown up on and off the field. Meditation has certainly played a part.
“Really going from a guy that was just a raw competitor to a guy that studies the mental side of the game and takes pride in being whole, so to speak, being with myself, that has a lot to do with maturing over the years,” Kopech said. “I’ve taken pride in the way I work and that may not just be physically or in the weight room or conditioning — it’s just as much mental. That has a lot to do with my maturity.
“If I can be more of a mental competitor, as well as a physical competitor, I’m going to be at the peak of my abilities.”