The video of White Sox right-hander Michael Kopech throwing 110 mph in an under-load drill understandably elicited varying levels of awe. I mean, the first glimpse we have of Kopech doing drill work after his acquisition from the Boston Red Sox is of him unleashing the fury?
Sign me up for more of that.
He then opened spring training doing the same thing, prompting a not-so-subtle soundbite from pitching coach Don Cooper:
To his credit, the 20-year-old is just trying to establish a reputation with a new club. As Kopech said, he’s “trying to impress people on a new club,” via Colleen Kane from the Chicago Tribune. And he’s a flame-thrower, right. What do flame-throwers do? They throw flames.
Cooper wasn’t done, though. He finished with this:
The roadsides in the Dominican, Venezuela, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the United States are strewn with dead bodies of guys [who] had a really good arm. But nobody ever told them, ‘Oh, it’s about throwing to the glove, about throwing strikes.’
Little excessive there, Coop. I mean, we get your point, but damn.
Now Cooper is most concerned with Kopech’s control. That is, at least, what he’s saying in this particular instance, but is there a chance Kopech’s exuberance is a precursor to injury? The answer is yes and no.
To start, a common misconception is that velocity is directly equitable to potential shoulder and elbow problems. The fact of the matter is that this view is not entirely accurate. Sure, the harder a player throws the greater the stress placed on the elbow and shoulder joint is. This does not mean damage is inevitable, however. Jonah Keri (writing for the gone-too-soon Grantland) spoke with Dr. Glenn Fleisig:
Velocity is a factor. All things being equal, throwing 95 miles per hour is more stressful than throwing 90. But throwing 95 miles per hour with good mechanics is less stressful than throwing 90 miles per hour with bad mechanics. Throwing 95 miles per hour with proper rest is less dangerous than throwing 90 miles per hour without rest.
There is quite a bit of other research on the topic, though the consensus is regardless of how hard a player throws (this goes for fielders, as well) the mechanics of the motion are what matter most, and Kopech’s delivery is much improved since the start of the 2015 campaign. This bodes well for the health of his arm.
Ironically, he can thank a 2015 positive test for the stimulant Oxilofrine and the resultant 50-game suspension for his improved delivery. According to Alex Speier from the Boston Globe:
Kopech spent hours on the mechanics of his delivery to maintain the power in his arsenal while sharpening his command. He would have sessions against live hitters where he would throw nothing but changeups.
The work appeared to pay off. By the time Kopech could pitch again in games at the start of the instructional league season in late September, the Red Sox saw a different pitcher.
‘From a delivery standpoint, he was more consistent, a little bit less across his body and more under control.’
Whereas velocity had always defined his work on the mound – when in doubt, throw harder – Kopech started to understand that effectiveness is a product of more than throwing as hard as possible.
This assessment has played out to this point in camp. He seems controlled from the video released and the comments from the coaching staff have not mentioned concerns about the repeatability of his delivery. And again, Cooper is concerned about throwing strikes, not his delivery. So even if Kopech is going HAM right now, his refined delivery lessens the chance of an injury.
And let’s use our eyes for a minute. You know, those things that look past WAR, ERA and wins. What do our eyes tell us?
— Dan Hayes (@CSNHayes) February 15, 2017
Well, it tells me there is a distinct difference between Kopech’s motion and that of, say, Carson Fulmer. Just looking at the two is an exercise in opposites. Fulmer has an excited delivery (he switched back to his college delivery last season after changing his mechanics at Cooper’s behest), while Kopech smooths through load transfer. Largely gone are the concerns about waist turn and balance. He does have work to do with his lower-body mechanics, in specific, but all in all, his delivery passes any eye-test.
That said, there are concerns moving forward.
Overuse is one, and while relief pitching may be in Kopech’s future, he is still being groomed as a starter. The White Sox would love nothing more than to have Kopech reach his ceiling, developing into a No. 1 or No. 2 starter who logs 200+ IP per.
Throwing max-velocity before camp begins and then trying to light the world on fire over the first couple of days may get the retweets but is likely a bad play from a longevity standpoint in so much as what we do becomes habit. If he habitually treats his right arm as an inexhaustible commodity, he is in for problems at some point.
Something else Dr. Fleisig warns about is fatigue, which can lead to “stride shortening and elbow lowering” over the course of a long season, via USA Today’s Joe Lemire. In essence, deliveries change as the arm gets tired. And when deliveries change, uncommon stress is put on the various joints, increasing the chances of an elbow or shoulder injury. And while fatigue in Kopech’s case won’t set in for some time, going too hard at the start of spring training certainly expedites the situation.
The bottom line is this: pitchers that throw mid-90’s or higher over an extended period of time run a greater risk of getting hurt, but it’s not a guarantee no matter how many innings one throws. Justin Verlander famously threw harder in the eighth inning than he did in the first for several seasons and hasn’t seen the old Tommy John scalpel yet even though he’s averaged well over 200 innings per season over the course of his career. Nate Jones did have TJ, though, and his career high is 78.0 frames thrown.
So Cooper has a point…to a degree. He and head trainer Herm Schneider have largely kept the pitching staff on the field over the last forever. They do good work. Focusing on control and not MPH is Kopech’s play.
Cooper’s hyperbole is a tired act, though. Just get the righty ready for the season, coach, and save the theatrics for mound visits.