White Sox have plenty of Tommy John experience for Michael Kopech lean on: ‘He'll be just as good as he was if not better'

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News of Michael Kopech’s UCL tear and his likely Tommy John surgery was a huge bummer for the world of South Side baseball. In the front office, in the stands, in the clubhouse, everyone was down about the team’s top-ranked pitching prospect missing the entirety of the 2019 season.

Kopech, of course, was the one with the most reason to be upset, the high of his major league debut at the end of last month matched by the low of his next major league start not coming until 2020. The 22-year-old flamethrower shared with reporters his feelings on the matter, understandably saying that “it sucks.”

But among the silver linings the involved parties were able to take from the situation was the fashion in which Kopech is expected to approach his rehab. Kopech’s got a reputation as a workout freak, and the way he battled back from midseason struggles this season to reach dominance in his final seven starts at Triple-A Charlotte inspire confidence that he’ll succeed in his return to the mound.

His teammates share that sentiment.

“Obviously we’re down. We feel bad for him and it sucks for the team,” Lucas Giolito said Saturday. “We see him as a great teammate, first and foremost, and secondly as a huge part of the future of this team, starting pitching staff. He’s a big part of that. It’s unfortunate we’re going to lose him for one year, but it’s not the end of the story. He’s only 22 years old, he misses one season to rehab and then he’ll be back and contributing. So I’m not too worried about.

“The success rate nowadays is pretty up there, and given the type of person he is — dedication, hard work — I’m not worried at all about his recovery process. He’s going to get the surgery, recover from it well, get through the (physical therapy) rehab and he’ll be just as good as he was if not better.”

Giolito is one of several White Sox pitchers to go through exactly what Kopech is about to go through. Giolito had Tommy John surgery. So did Aaron Bummer. So did Caleb Frare. So did Jace Fry, twice. And so did Dylan Cease, not a part of the current major league pitching staff but like Kopech a highly ranked prospect who figures to be a big part of the team’s long-term plans.

It’s a wealth of resources for the soon-to-be-recovering Kopech, and a wealth of examples for White Sox fans that pitchers make full recoveries from Tommy John surgery all the time. Kopech doesn’t even have to leave his chair in the White Sox clubhouse to hear about a Tommy John success story: Giolito, who had Tommy John as an 18-year-old, has the locker right next to Kopech’s.

“I talked to him about it yesterday plenty,” Giolito said. “There’s kind of two sides to it, the way I see it. You have the physical side and the mental side. Physical side is obviously getting the surgery, recovering, getting to physical therapy, getting your routine set for the physical side of the recovery process, which is getting your range of motion back. And then just getting with your PT, getting with the training staff and just hammering out the little mundane exercises you have to do everyday just to get your arm right.

“Then the mental side is once you get through all that, which in of itself is kind of a mental grind because you’re doing all these things that you never really had to do before and that can be boring and at times uncomfortable. You get over that part, you start throwing again, and there’s going to be times where you have scar tissue releases. There’s going to be times when your arm doesn’t feel good on a certain day but you just push through it because it’s part of your throwing program. Especially once you get through all that and get through your first full season, you’re going to have games where your arm doesn’t feel good. You’re going to have bits of stretches where there just might be some scar tissue there that’s bothering you, but you just keep pushing through it.

“It’s a pretty long process, but I think the biggest thing is just being mentally tough through it all. … Going through that process helped me develop a certain level of mental toughness that I think has helped me in my career.”

The questions fans and observers are asking, understandably, have more to do with what happens once Kopech returns. Will he be the same pitcher? Will his ceiling be as high as it was a couple days ago? Will he still be able to throw 100 mph? Will he still be able to be the ace of the White Sox rotation of the future? Will he be able to catch up to rest of the pieces of this rebuilding effort? Will his injury and injuries to other top prospects alter the timeline of the entire rebuild?

The answers to those questions won’t come for more than a year. But Giolito was peppered with many of those same questions and spoke from his own experience in a way that should help to allay some of the fears floating through the fan base right now. He said that his velocity was unaffected by the surgery and that the recovery process actually helped him develop a changeup he didn’t have before.

That’s encouraging news for those expecting the worst in Kopech’s case.

“I think it’s all a mental thing,” Giolito said, asked specifically about returning to the same velocity. “A lot of guys have trouble — I had a little bit of trouble with this — once you start to get past the early stages of the rehab throwing where you’re just tossing and lobbing, allowing your arm to lay back, it’s kind of a mental hump to get over. It’s like, ‘Hey, it’s not going to hurt, it’s going to be fine.’ But in the back of your mind, it’s like, ‘Well, the last time I did this, I had to get surgery.’ You just get over that. It takes some guys longer than others, but for the most part you get over that mental hump and then you’re fine.”

So, yes, Kopech's situation remains a bummer for the world of South Side baseball. But there's a great deal of faith in his ability to recover, which should keep the hopes for the 2020 season high.

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