The offseason supplies many things to the casual sports fan: Trade rumors, shocking deals and honest confessions. On Wednesday, White Sox prospect Michael Kopech gave us the latter with unvarnished honesty about his emotional state during the 2018 season.
In an article by MLB.com‘s Scott Merkin, Kopech summarized his 2018 season and the challenges he faced.
“I went from having the yips for a month and a half to getting my big league call to blowing out my elbow and not getting to pitch again,” Kopech told MLB.com by phone from Matt Davidson‘s charity event in Yucaipa, Calif. “It was kind of a crash and rebuild and then crash again. But it was definitely an unforgettable season.”
The yips?! Kopech faced a few hiccups in the middle of the season, but the yips he did not. When I think of the yips I think of Rick Ankiel launching fastballs off the backstop or Chuck Knoblauch lobbing balls into the first base dugout from second. What Kopech endured was not the yips. It was the trials and tribulations of a young player facing adversity for the first time, something the White Sox were waiting for.
But no one expected the sad news in August when Rick Hahn announced Kopech had torn his ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) and would undergo season-ending surgery and miss the 2019 season. That, my friends, was a gut punch. And not only to the clamoring fanbase but to Kopech himself. Now that he is two months past surgery and out of a sling, the confusion of what his body is saying and the surgeons are telling him is making the recovery difficult.
“Honestly, it makes you feel worse and worse as the days go on,” Kopech said. “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.”
Injuries are not enjoyable, that’s for sure. They can, in fact, be depressing considering the extended period of recovery, especially with Tommy John surgery. And as for anxiety? When you stand in front of 30,000 fans knowing that half a city is counting on you to immediately be every bit of the fiction we’ve created to guide us through the muck of rebuilding, I’d say that’s nerve-racking for anyone.
So, Kopech did a little soul searching and found a way to quiet his soul with meditation. According to Merkin’s article, Kopech discovered mindfulness while suffering through a months-long period of turmoil.
“I was having trouble figuring out how to throw a baseball,” Kopech said. “I felt like I had never done it before, and I was having to figure some things out. It depended on the first pitch of the game for me. If the first pitch of the game for me was a strike, then most likely the next pitch was going to be a strike and most likely I would be able to get through that start.
“If the first pitch was a ball, then it was going to escalate. There was a point where I walked eight or nine in 2 1/3 innings or something like that (eight walks in three innings on June 14) and I just had no idea where the ball was going. It was my own mental struggles.
“That didn’t have anything to do with my arm or mechanics or anything like that. I was seeking for answers the wrong way. It’s really hard to put into words how I felt physically. I mean, I couldn’t feel my legs. My arm felt like it wasn’t attached to my body. It was a really tough time for me physically, but more so mentally than anything.”
Yes, the mental adjustments of facing unfamiliar challenges is a seminal moment for all prospects. Kopech, I’m sure, is used to relying on his physical ability to get him out of jams, but now he has the confidence of knowing he endured a bleak time in his career, albeit if it was only two months long.
The feeling of numbness and panic is something I’ve known as a player and witnessed in others. The profuse sweating and dazed appearance is the hallmark of someone in the throes of panic. I remember one hot summer night when I called a mound visit to check in on Justin Stires who couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat. I went to the mound and tried to catch his attention with a funny quip, but his mind was in outer space somewhere. That’s when I knew the night was over for him in the first inning.
Kopech added weight to his comments about anxiety in a few insightful tweets later Wednesday evening.
Too many people stay quiet about anxiety. Talk to someone. More people deal with it than we realize. Trust me. https://t.co/F2rQ5CX4KU
— Kopech (@MichaelKopech5) November 14, 2018
Mental skills are great and I’m a huge advocate of practicing them as most people see from my regular twitter feed but there are still struggles within that can seem impossible to shake. Most of us don’t admit to it because of our egos. I’m just as guilty of that as anyone else.
— Kopech (@MichaelKopech5) November 14, 2018
It’s always difficult to sift through the canned comments of professional athletes in search of candor, but this hit me as sincerity. From afar, Kopech appears to have a softer side, one that is more introspective than he might present with his digital thumbprint. I for one, admire his authenticity and willingness to engage on this topic with the media and fans. Twitter might not be the best place to air confessions, but if he’s talking about these obstacles it means he dwells on them when no one is around.
But enough of my psychobabbling. I’m eager to see Kopech back in black in 2020 and he admitted to MLB.com that he is happy to have conquered the mental hurdles he faced during the 2018 season.
“Mentally, I felt like a completely different guy and that’s what earned me my callup,” Kopech said. “It was absolutely something I needed to have happen before I got to the big leagues. I know that sounds silly to say I needed to get the yips. That experience made me grow as a pitcher so I’m glad it happened.”
That’s a healthy dose of maturity from a young pitcher. I said it early in the season when Kopech dominated the first month of the season at Triple-A that he needed to squirm a little before he reached the big leagues. He went through it and came out the other side stronger. Kopech has a particular set of skills that Chicago will be blessed with very soon. Who’s not excited for 2020?