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Scott MillerNational MLB ColumnistMarch 15, 2017

TYLER, Texas — To the classic Bull Durham scene in which we learn candlesticks make nice wedding gifts, add this: Trailer hitches make awesome Christmas presents.

It’s true.

I am in a rental car trailing The Most Interesting Prospect in Baseball to a health-food restaurant for lunch. He has just finished a three-hour-plus workout at his gym, Accelerate Performance Enhancement Center, with a small group of fellow baseball players. It is late January, and in case I lose the gargantuan black Hummer H3 or confuse it with another on the road, I keep my eyes glued to a trailer hitch with the Chicago White Sox logo on it.

Michael Kopech’s father gave it to him as a Christmas present shortly after the Boston Red Sox shocked him by making him a centerpiece in their trade for Chris Sale. Really, it was the perfect gift, because suddenly Kopech badly needed to replace the Boston Red Sox trailer hitch that had adorned the back of his H3.

Of course, this alone isn’t what makes Michael Talbert Kopech The Most Interesting Prospect in Baseball. Nor is the fact that he learned of the deal just as he was emerging from the cryogenic chamber at APEC on Dec. 6.

Those are parts of it, but so too is his 50-game suspension in 2015, when he was with Class A Greenville, for testing positive for a stimulant banned under the minor league drug program. And the incident last spring, when he broke a bone in his hand while punching his roommate, a teammate, and put himself on the shelf for two-and-a-half months.

And then there is that fastball, all 105 mph of it. He created a buzz in January when he hit 110 mph at APEC, but that was while he was doing a drill in which he took both a running start and a crow hop before he released the pitch. Still, it went viral.

At the age of 20, and ranked by ESPN.com’s Keith Law as the game’s No. 1 overall pitching prospect entering spring training, Kopech has miles and miles of open road in front of him.

If it isn’t already, it’s going to be difficult not to notice Kopech. Already he has a made-for-the-tabloids relationship with girlfriend Brielle Biermann, a television personality who is the daughter of Kim Zolciak (The Real Housewives of Atlanta) and the adopted daughter of former NFL player Kroy Biermann (Atlanta Falcons), a blond mane straight from the Noah Syndergaard Collection (until he clipped it this spring because of club regulations) and a Twitter account, both philosophical and inspirational, in which he delivers motivational musings, team news and even some romantic moments.

Michael Kopech acknowledges he has had to adjust to the attention his girlfriend, Brielle Biermann, receives but says her positive attitude has helped him.

Michael Kopech acknowledges he has had to adjust to the attention his girlfriend, Brielle Biermann, receives but says her positive attitude has helped him.Photo courtesy of Michael Kopech

“I feel like this is a kid who can change the game,” says Bobby Stroupe, Kopech’s personal trainer and the founder and president of APEC. “I think he’s going to throw 107 mph. I really do. And not just once or twice a month.”

So does Kopech, who tweeted as far back as 2013 that a 107 mph fastball was a goal of his and then reiterated it in January over a curry chicken salad sandwich at the Honey Tree eatery and health-food store.


Despite the snap, crackle and pop of the noise, spend a day with Kopech and you’ll find an unfailingly polite, relentlessly honest and unflinchingly friendly kid to whom there is far more substance than some of the swirling headlines might indicate.

    

THERE IS NO HITCH to Kopech by the numbers.

One hundred and five miles per hour?

Really?

Really. It was in a game for Class A Salem in July when one of Kopech’s fastballs was clocked at 105 mph. The potential for that kind of dominance is why the Red Sox picked the 6’3″ right-hander from Mount Pleasant in the first round (33rd overall) of the 2014 draft and handed him a $1.5 million bonus. The way his fastball sizzled as he grew has fueled imaginations for years—starting with his own.

Throwing 100 mph always was a goal. He hit 97, 98 in high school, and 99 multiple times after he turned pro. Then, in a game at Class A Greenville the week before he turned 19 in 2015, one of his fastballs finally lit up radar guns at 100.

“So I stopped caring [only] about how hard I threw,” says Kopech, whose very first pitch in his first Cactus League game earlier this month was clocked at 100. “I hit 100, so I can throw 100. I started worrying more about how I was pitching. After that, the velocity just came. It was easy. Sometimes I’d be in the sixth inning throwing 100. It was pretty easy for me after that.”

Much of it, he says, has to do with his regimen at APEC. He likes that the training is from the ground up.

“Once I got stability under me, mobility, everything just seemed easier,” he says.

Always, he was strong for his age. But once he developed his legs and his core, that’s when he began to feel comfortable inside his own body.

Nobody has thrown more heat in a game during the radar-gun era than New York Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman, whose fastball has been clocked at 105 mph. Yet Kopech, along with Stroupe, believes that as he develops, he one day will hit 107.

“It’s something I told a scout right before I got drafted, and the scout actually laughed at me,” Kopech says. “And you know, I understand. It’s laughable almost to have goals that big. But I think that’s the size your goals should be. If you’re reaching a level of something somebody laughed at before, that’s pretty amazing. If you’re setting goals that someone has already reached, then it’s not that big of a goal, in my opinion.”

When he first spouted about hitting 107 on Twitter, Kopech didn’t really think that much about it because he was 17 and, well, it was social media. But it’s out there, and now it’s something for Kopech to chase.

He emphasizes, however, that 107 is not his main goal. What he really wants is to reach his potential, which “is to be a dominant pitcher that’s throwing 97 or 107 or 67—whatever. It doesn’t matter.”

Velocity can be a sensitive and misleading topic, especially for prospects who must harness other parts of their ability before everything comes together. So it was no surprise that as news of the 110 mph throw began to spread Jan. 17, Kopech’s phone blew up with texts and messages, many from the White Sox front office.


The general tone: What in the ever-loving name of Bob Feller is going on? Are you whacked, cranking it up that much in mid-January?

“Not quite in those words,” says Chris Getz, a former big league infielder and now Chicago’s director of player development, smiling. “First and foremost, we were trying to build a relationship, and we had to learn who the kid is.”

Pretty much the White Sox’s entire baseball operations department called or texted to make sure they didn’t have a five-alarm fire on their hands. Getz was first to reach the club’s new right-hander. Pitching coach Don Cooper followed in short order.

“Which is understandable,” Kopech says. “I know they don’t want me out there blowing out my arm or going 100 percent in mid-January when we’re not even in spring training yet. I think they were just being precautionary.

“Most people looked at the video, and it looked like I just went out there and started throwing as hard as I could. But, really, we were doing max-velocity throws for the first time, and I was already at a point I didn’t think I’d be at yet.”

Getz and Co. were looking for information, wanting to understand Kopech’s training philosophy before they accused him of doing something stupid. He explained his program to them, and that eased their minds some. Still, they reminded him to be careful.

“I understand,” Kopech says. “As a player, I realize that we’re investments. It makes sense.”

Says San Francisco Giants first baseman Brandon Belt, who was a frequent participant this winter in Kopech’s workout group at APEC: “I don’t care what anybody says; you don’t hear that—not in the offseason, not in January. That is superimpressive.

“It’s gotta be unheard of.”

    

THERE IS A SMALL problem. Nearly three years into his career, and with his clearest path to the majors yet in a rebuilding organization, Kopech has not yet completed a full season as a professional.

Because of the suspension for the banned stimulant and the fistfight, he too often has remained idling, like a sports car stuck in the garage.

So Kopech spent the winter working at APEC, and doing little else. Though he commuted roughly 90 minutes each way between his parents’ home in Mount Pleasant and the gym the previous offseason, he moved into an apartment a few blocks from APEC in the fall so he could build his days around offseason workouts.

Michael Kopech moved into an apartment close to the APEC facility to shorten his commute to and from his frequent winter workouts.

Michael Kopech moved into an apartment close to the APEC facility to shorten his commute to and from his frequent winter workouts.Scott Miller/Bleacher Report

“That’s the big reason I like living alone,” he says. “Nothing against other people, but I think I’m more focused. Not that others aren’t—maybe they’re just as focused as me—but not in every category I find important.”

Workouts, nutrition, sleep and mental discipline—all grabbed Kopech’s utmost attention over the winter. And it’s hard to argue with someone who declines to put himself in a position to be tempted by things that might knock him off course.

“It’s not necessarily that I don’t have the willpower to say no to something,” Kopech says, “but I don’t want to have someone bringing home a chocolate cake and leaving it on the counter when I’m having grilled chicken and broccoli for the 29th time in a row. Little things like that. Or someone wanting to hang out at a buddy’s house at 11 p.m. when we have to report at 7 the next morning.”

That, he says, is close to what happened last March when he was helping to celebrate his Red Sox roommate’s birthday not long after they reported to camp. He declines to mention his sparring partner’s name because it never was made public and “I don’t want him to be brought into it now after it’s all over with. He had a good year last year, and I hope he continues to do great. He was one of the first persons who called me after I got traded. He’s a good friend of mine.”

What happened?

“Just a disagreement,” Kopech says. “I was trying to get him to bed. It was late, and I was trying to get him in the house, and he didn’t want to get in the house, and it escalated pretty quickly. He took a swing at me, and I took a swing back.

“I didn’t want to keep him from celebrating his own birthday, but at the same time, we had to report at 6 a.m. the next day. It was one of those situations.”

Kopech connected with the back of his friend’s head and fractured the fifth metacarpal in his right hand. His friend connected with his face, and Kopech says he broke his nose.

“If I had advice for anyone else, it’s that you shouldn’t fistfight. At least, not with your pitching hand,” he says with a wry smile.

Predictably, the Red Sox were livid. Then-general manager Mike Hazen publicly said it was “stupid.” Kopech didn’t disagree. Things happen, and you move on. What he knows is this: If it happens again, he will react far differently. He still has a screw in his hand to keep it stable, and his doctor told him that if he hits anything else, the screw could seriously damage his hand.

Sidetracked by a failed test for stimulants and a scuffle with a teammate, Kopech has yet to complete a full minor league season.

Sidetracked by a failed test for stimulants and a scuffle with a teammate, Kopech has yet to complete a full minor league season.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

It was the second sketchy incident in eight months for Kopech. The first came the previous June, just after he was named to the South Atlantic League All-Star Game, when he was placed on the suspended list. He’s still baffled by how he tested positive for oxilofrine, the substance for which sprinters Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell had tested positive. He says he was extremely careful to take only supplements that had been approved by NSF (an organization that develops health standards for food, water and consumer products).

“I wish I knew what it was to this day,” Kopech says. “It’s not something I want to talk about a whole bunch because it draws a lot of negativity. People either believe what I say or they don’t. But the fact of the matter is I made a mistake somewhere, and I have to own that. I just don’t know quite where I made the mistake.”

So now he inspects food labels closer than the FDA. Scours ingredients. Avoids supplements most of the time, opting instead to limit himself to natural foods and the occasional protein shake. It is why we are parked here at a Honey Tree table, and why Kopech orders most of his offseason meals from this place. They make a week’s worth of food for him at a time.

The way he sees it, you must find places you trust. And all the food here is natural and organic.

Since the stimulant was found in his system, he figures he’s been drug tested “more often than most guys. But it’s a given. I understand. I don’t take any offense to it. I just have to pass them, and I’m comfortable with what I’ve been eating.”

Says his father, Michael Peter Kopech: “It was devastating on so many levels. It’s hard to describe.”

So on to Chicago Kopech goes, a fresh start in hand, lugging with him some fairly heavy baggage for a man so young.

“It’s a big reason why I got into the mentality I’m in now, the mental game and what kind of mindset you should have,” says Kopech, who keeps a cluster of self-improvement books on his nightstand, including Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret. “I wouldn’t think this way if I hadn’t gone through the adversity I’ve gone through. I wouldn’t have the people around me I do have around me if I hadn’t gone through what I have.

In three seasons as a professional, Kopech has struck out 172 batters in 134 2/3 innings.

In three seasons as a professional, Kopech has struck out 172 batters in 134 2/3 innings.Ron Vesely/Getty Images

“As much as I don’t like talking about it, it has put me in position to be more successful and handle more adversity and stay away from negative people with bad intentions. It’s changed my whole life.

“I hate giving credit to anything that didn’t do much for me, but at the same time, it made me realize who I need to be instead of who I am.”

Says Belt: “I’d like to see him go out and get a full year in and see what he can do. He is on the cusp of making the big leagues.”

    

THE NIGHT BEFORE WE meet, as part of an outing with his new representatives, Creative Artists Agency, Kopech spent time with major leaguers Syndergaard, Michael Wacha, Shelby Miller and others in a suite at a Dallas Stars NHL game.

He asked Syndergaard, a grizzled veteran who is all of 24, what he wished he knew when he was Kopech’s age. Syndergaard told him that one day, Hall of Famer Greg Maddux came to speak to the team, said “learn how to control your fastball” and walked out. That brief encounter, Syndergaard said, is what took his game to another level. It wasn’t simply about Syndergaard’s pure cheese but about him throwing strikes when he wanted to and backing hitters off the plate when he needed to.

“Obviously, [Kopech] is a very physical guy, and he’s extremely nice,” Wacha, a fellow Texas high school product, said this spring of hockey night with the Stars. “I had heard about him over the offseason throwing fuzz.”

They talked pitching, training and assorted other things. With Kopech headed for his first major league camp, Syndergaard and Wacha told him of their experiences.

He’s wanted what Syndergaard and Wacha now have since he was four: the major leagues, the competition, the proving himself at the top level. His father, a lawyer, never played baseball but read everything he could while providing his son a self-taught hardball education.

“If there was something written about baseball and pitching that I didn’t read, it probably was because it wasn’t published,” Michael Peter Kopech says. “I plagiarized, stole and borrowed everything I could, and the good stuff I applied to him, and the bad stuff we flushed and went on to the next thing.

“That’s always what I’ve told him to do with everything in life.”

Kopech is not a Jr. His middle name, Talbert, comes from his great-grandfather, but he lists his father as one of the biggest influences on his life.

Kopech with his family. From left: sister Kaysi, mother Tabbetha, nephews Cruz and Cash and father Michael Peter.

Kopech with his family. From left: sister Kaysi, mother Tabbetha, nephews Cruz and Cash and father Michael Peter.Photo courtesy of Michael Kopech

“I could go on about my dad all day,” he says. “He’s something else. He’s a big part of the reason why I want to be so successful.”

He says his father put himself through college, trashed his body in a serious motorcycle accident, then pulled himself back together and put himself through law school.

His father’s family lived on a farm in Texas and worked hard to keep that going. The motorcycle accident occurred during his senior year at the University of Texas. He had been accepted into the UT School of Law, but the accident instead sent him into traction for three-and-a-half months, followed by more time in a body cast. So much for law school. When he healed, Michael Peter Kopech went to St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio.

“I was a member of a law firm that went on to become one of the most successful law firms in the state of Texas, and each one of the people involved in the firm has more money than they know what to do with,” he says. “But I decided—because my son at age four wanted to be a professional player—I’d be a T-ball coach instead.”

You might have heard that there isn’t much money in T-ball coaching.

“But I’m rich beyond imagination because of him,” Michael Peter Kopech continues. “I’m just a poor country lawyer now; I make enough to keep the lights burning and to go watch him play every now and then, and I’m really happy with that.”

Kopech became aware early on of his father’s favorite player, Nolan Ryan. Then he gravitated toward watching Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens. Guys who brought pure heat.

Then Tim Lincecum won the first of back-to-back Cy Young Awards in 2008, when Kopech was 12, and that further fueled his imagination.

“I feel like if you take a big guy and do what Lincecum did, you could do more than anyone’s ever done,” he says. “And that’s what I want to do.”

Kopech is 6’3″ and 205 pounds. Lincecum is 5’11” and 170. The way Lincecum fired off the mound toward the plate in his delivery, and the velocity and movement that generated…

“I feel like if I could be that explosive, as big as I am, then I would have an advantage over everybody,” Kopech says. “I try to incorporate what he did into what I’m doing.

“That’s the guy who really changed the way I look at pitching.”

It wasn’t long before the Kopech family hosted a parade of professional scouts. Of the 30 MLB clubs, representatives from 27 scheduled in-home visits. They sat at the Kopechs’ kitchen table. They flattered. They talked. They ate. And they listened intently as the schoolboy star expressed his desire not simply to become an impact major leaguer, but also one day to become a Hall of Famer.

    

THERE IS NO TELLING whether they will get, ahem, hitched in the end, because as they navigate their very public romance, both Kopech and Biermann are on career tracks that could shoot them into the stratosphere.

But when she Instagrams a photo with a caption like this…

…let’s just say it doesn’t go unnoticed by even the most focused and oblivious of seamheads.

“I don’t know where that came from,” Kopech says, chuckling. “She’s obviously beautiful, and people call her ‘Barbie’ all the time for obvious reasons. I think she embraces everything from every aspect of life, and that’s what makes her who she is. She can take negativity and turn it into positivity.”

Hers is a different world, he acknowledges, and all you need to do to confirm that is check the couple’s social media followers. Biermann has 931,241 on Instagram and another 214,033 on Twitter. Kopech has 66,651 on Instagram and 18,246 more on Twitter. While his focus is the narrow strike zone, hers is the broad world of entertainment.

“She just has a lot more guys around, and that makes me uncomfortable,” he says. “But it’s something I have to realize, Hey, it comes with the lifestyle, and it’s only going to get worse, so no sense harping on it now.”

Besides, he knows, the insecurity could run both ways, but Biermann is cool with his diamond life, so that’s the prism through which he views things.

The two met last summer through, yes, baseball. Red Sox prospect Michael Chavis, whom Boston picked seven spots ahead of Kopech in the first round in 2014, knew of Biermann from his hometown of Marietta, Georgia. Kopech reached out, and Biermann visited him in Florida while he was rehabbing his broken hand. Then as he was driving north to join Class A Salem, he stopped to visit her in Georgia, and it’s been love and social media ever since. She’s learning baseball. He loves the mental discipline she practices. And she’s not the only one who sends digital roses.

Fact is, Kopech expresses himself quite a bit on social media. Read enough of his tweets, and you may feel like running through a wall for the guy:



“This sounds kind of selfish to say, but I want everyone to be like me,” he says. “I want everyone to have this mindset that, no matter what you do, you can be successful. There are too many people who settle. I’d never want to settle, and I never will settle.”

He has the early stages of a changeup, a pitch he worked on refining in the Arizona Fall League, where he went 3-0 with a 2.01 ERA in three starts in autumn, with 26 strikeouts and eight walks in 22 1/3 innings. The experience boosted his confidence, and while Cooper, the White Sox pitching coach, continues to work with him on that pitch this spring, he also would like to see Kopech develop a curveball because he likes his starting pitchers to have four pitches in their repertoire.

As close as Kopech appears, the majors aren’t just over the next hill. There is work to do, and plenty of it. As Getz says, there is no substitute for innings, and getting Kopech to pitch his first full season as a professional is the Sox’s primary focus right now. He will start the season either at high-Class-A Winston-Salem or at Double-A Birmingham. With a great summer, he possibly could see Chicago late this season. Probably, it will be 2018 at the earliest before he makes his major league debut.

“I never had a full season, so I’ve never really had a chance to advance during the season,” Kopech says. “If I want to move, this is the year to move. If I go in and have a strong spring and then start at Double-A or wherever, start strong there, I think I can give myself a chance to move pretty quickly this year.”

One day soon, the White Sox hope to hitch their fortunes to Kopech and a plethora of other young, talented players they’ve recently acquired through trades and the draft like Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito and Carson Fulmer.

Gone but not forgotten, of course, is the old Red Sox trailer hitch that once served as the beacon for Kopech’s future. He remains thankful to Boston for many things, including the way it handled him. There is no chip on his shoulder to prove the Red Sox wrong as he moves forward. At least, no chip that can be easily seen.

“The Red Sox were very supportive of me since I was drafted,” Kopech says. “It was a rough couple of years, but they never gave up on me. All I wanted to do is show them I could be a guy for them.

“I hope this trade, getting Chris Sale, is very fortunate and works out for them. And I’ll feel like I helped them from that standpoint and maybe give them back a little bit of what they gave me.”

    

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.



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