Michael Kopech after returning to White Sox: 'I need this game a lot more than I realized'

Kopech opted out of the 2020 season in part to prioritize his mental health.
By 670 The Score

(670 The Score) Michael Kopech found himself in a place last summer in which he wasn't ready to be a pitcher for the White Sox.

As players began reporting to their teams for a 60-game regular season that started in late July, Kopech couldn't bring himself to join the White Sox -- not with concerns for his own family's health amid the COVID-19 pandemic and not if he couldn't be his best self.

The 24-year-old Kopech has been honest about his struggles with anxiety and depression. Rather than reporting to Chicago and pitching without his focus, he opted out the 2020 season and chose to prioritize his own mental health.

"I learned I need this game a lot more than I realized," Kopech said Saturday in his first public comments since returning to the White Sox. "It's a lot easier said than done to kind of take a step away from something you've done your entire life. And that sounds like an exaggeration, but it's been my entire life. So, taking a step back from that and realizing how big of a piece it is to this entire puzzle for me just kind of put it all in perspective. It made me kind of regain the motivation to get back out there. There were some other things that happened in my life.

"I found that motivation that I may have lost. Not that I ever completely lost it, because I never want to be known as a guy that hasn't worked really hard for everything that he's had to earn. But I think that with this time away, I really have gotten a chance to come back and prove to myself at least that this is what I want to do.

"In the past, I've put a lot of unnecessary pressures and anxieties on myself. For one of the first times in my career, I'm comfortable enough with what I've done to where my only focus is internal."

Billed as a prized pitching prospect with velocity reaching triple-digit speeds, Kopech joined the White Sox in December 2016 as a key return from the Red Sox in a blockbuster trade that sent All-Star left-hander Chris Sale to Boston. He made his MLB debut in August 2018, pitching in four games before suffering a torn UCL in his right elbow. It required Tommy John surgery and kept him off the mound in 2019. Two years later, Kopech feels he's physically and mentally stronger.

Just as Kopech had the blessing of the White Sox organization when he chose to opt out in 2020, he has felt support upon returning. New manager Tony La Russa has been among those to celebrate Kopech becoming a father for the first time. Teammate Lucas Giolito spoke to Kopech over the phone this winter, a conversation he said was more about life than baseball. Giolito was eager to welcome Kopech back to the White Sox this past week.

"Despite the decision to not play last year, he definitely missed baseball," Giolito said. "He's excited to be back. And the expectations are pretty high. I mean, he has some of the best stuff in the league.

"He has to kind of move at the right pace, can't rush into it, can't try too hard. Nothing ever good comes from that."

White Sox newcomer Lance Lynn hasn't gotten to know Kopech, but he has seen enough to have an early impression.

"You're starting to see a guy that looks like he has confidence in his stuff again and feeling strong," Lynn said.

The White Sox plan for Kopech to build an innings base this spring and into the regular season, general manager Rick Hahn said. That suggests he won't be part of the team's starting rotation until later in the season.

As spring training has begun, Kopech is healthy and throwing with the same velocity. He's a player at 24 whose career could still just be taking off despite a few years of challenges. He has a new perspective on baseball and a sharpened focus after being away.

"Taking that time away from baseball was hard, but it was important for me," Kopech said. "But now I'm back and I'm ready to compete."

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.