Michael Kopech born too late to get the rush act like former White Sox phenoms

By on March 21, 2018

Michael Kopech is a man out of his time.

The White Sox’s flame-throwing prospect, from all accounts, is ready for the major leagues. By the standards of the 1970s, Kopech — after 155 strikeouts in 118 1/3 innings in Double-A Birmingham — would start the season in the Sox rotation. But since the date registers 2018 and a series of Collective Bargaining Agreements have codified service time, Kopech will likely cool his heels for a short time in Charlotte before the call to G-Rate Field.

Sox GM Rick Hahn does not want to rush his cache of prize prospects gathered from all over baseball and foreign shores anyway. And if Kopech’s aim catches up to his golden arm, the Sox brass want control of him for a full seven years from his big-league debut. Should he break camp with the Sox, he’d be contractually beholden on the South Side for just six seasons. Delaying the full season accrual of service time is now a fact of life for the best young players.

Bart Johnson’s high-kicking style added the illusion of speed to his fastball.

Kopech, turning 22 near the end of April, would have loved to play in the early days of the Marvin Miller-run Players Association if a fast track to the majors was free of such hindrances. However, he would not have favored the rock-bottom rookie salaries ($12,500 in 1969, for instance) or the near-servitude status of the players to their bosses.

A bright, engaging fellow, Kopech ought to seek out the likes of Bart Johnson, Terry Forster and Goose Gossage for history lessons. That old-time Sox trio had little trouble reaching the majors at precocious ages under Sox front-office chiefs Ed Short and Roland Hemond without the question of service time.

In the franchise’s true Dark Ages of 1969, Johnson made it first at 19, a year out of his freshman year at Brigham Young University. His 6-foot-5 frame and strong arm was made even more visually impressive by a high-kicking delivery. Johnson soon developed the nickname “Senor Smoke.” He had a cup of coffee with the Sox in ’69, logged more time in 1970 and divided his duties between closer and the rotation with a 12-10 record in 1971, manager Chuck Tanner’s first full year at Comiskey Park.

Johnson was hurt in ’72, and the Sox surely missed his presence along with bad back-addled third baseman Bill Melton during a close pennant race against the Oakland Athletics. He came back by 1974 to go 10-4 with eight complete games and two shutouts in 18 starts. He hung around the rotation through 1977, when he was a member of the pitching-shaky, home-run-bursting South Side Hit Men. Retiring young, Johnson became a familiar face around ballparks as a big-league scout in the 1990s and 2000s.

Forster was next, only 19 when he was summoned from Class-A 1971. The second-round Sox pick in 1970, the fireballing lefty was simply too good to have a long apprenticeship in the minors. He got into 45 games, with 48 strikeouts in 49 2/3 innings for the reviving 1971 team

Terry Forster was particularly intimidating to left-handed hitters.

Tanner had no qualms about moving Forster up to closer at 20 in 1972. With 29 saves, a 2.25 ERA and 104 whiffs in 100 innings, Forster was a major contributor in the race against the Athletics (he also had 1.076 OPS at the plate that year—better than Dick Allen–going 10 for 19 plate appearances). Throwing what now would be timed in the mid-90s, Forster was particularly intimidating to lefty hitters.

In that less-sophisticated pitching era, though, the goal of all great arms was to start. Forster was moved into the rotation with mixed results in 1973. He went back to closing in 1974, was injured part of 1975 and dipped to 2-12 with a move back to the rotation for the truly bad first time of Bill Veeck’s return to Sox ownership in 1976.

Forster went on to a pretty good relief career with the Pirates, Dodgers and Braves. Gaining weight, he made fun of himself as a “big tub of goo” in Los Angeles, but also pitched in two World Series, earning a ring in 1981.

Gossage was the last of the hard throwers to debut, but enjoyed the by far the most productive career as a Hall of Famer. Again summoned from Class-A, he helped set up Forster, such as that task was in the pre-specialization bullpen days in 1972. Gossage was 7-1 in 36 games, all but one out of the bullpen.

After some rough times in 1973-74, Gossage truly found his niche as a closer with a 1.84 ERA and an AL-leading 26 saves in 1975 for a poor Sox team. Veeck and antique manager Paul Richards had a desperate need for starters in 1976, so Gossage was moved to the rotation, sporting a 9-17 record. That would be the last time Goose would have to work in the first inning.

Goose Gossage as a Hall of Famer.

He and Forster were packaged in a deal to the Pittsburgh Pirates for rent-a-free agent Richie Zisk and pitcher Silvio Martinez at the 1976 winter meetings.

One year in Three Rivers Stadium preceded Gossage’s true ascent to national prominence with the New York Yankees. He became the AL’s most dominant closer, and continued to thrive in the ninth inning when he moved cross country to the San Diego Padres in 1984. Gossage’s final year as a closer was a forgettable season with the Cubs in 1988, as a desperate replacement for the traded Lee Smith. He pitched in middle relief for six more seasons with five different teams, finishing with 310 saves as his entree to Cooperstown.

Kopech would do well to emulate any of these careers, although he’d prefer to do so as a starter. But he’ll have to acquire a quality none of the above Sox threesome needed to show early — patience. For what he’ll need, though, that will be a good trait to exhibit in any role.

 

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