Razorbacks Pitching Coach Matt Hobbs claims no credit for the transformation of fifth-year right handed reliever Kevin Kopps. After posting an ERA of 8.18 in the shortened 2020 season Kopps has bounced back in 2021 to post some astounding numbers. He’s 4-0 in 13 appearances out of the bullpen with an ERA of .82. He’s given up just 12 hits in 22 innings of work with 40 strikeouts.
“Some real reflection for him after that 2020 season was, am I gonna try to pitch to be somebody that I think people want me to be or am I gonna try to pitch to be who I am?” Hobbs said of Kopps when discussing his turnaround with the Pig Trail Nation. “What we’re seeing now is maybe the first time Kevin has been comfortable with his pitching since his senior year in high school when he was a sinker, slider guy. He’s flipped to a two-seam fastball. It’s probably a five inch difference in his release side and that brought down some of the vertical break numbers on his cutter.”
The bottom line, Kopps is no longer hanging his pitches over the strike zone. He also made other changes during the 2020 COVID summer shutdown when the players were off campus and away from the coaches. He changed himself into a sinker baller with a good cutter curveball, according to Hobbs, and also made some changes to his body.
“The credit goes to Kevin,” Hobbs emphasized. “He came back a different guy. He got himself in great shape. I think he dropped something like fifteen pounds and he looked completely different in the way his body was shaped and it looked different in how the ball was moving.”
Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn gives Kopps credit for never giving up during the roller coaster ride he took through his first four seasons after arriving in 2016 from Sugar Land, Texas George Ranch High School.
“He redshirted his first year,” Van Horn recalled. “Next year he’s pitching pretty good. Pops his elbow and he was devastated.”
Doctors repaired the elbow. Successful Tommy John surgery is a staple in baseball these days. But the physical and mental stress while trying to get his pitching back to a high level wore on Kopps.
“Your arm kind of always feels sore and tired,” Kopps noted. ” You don’t really feel like you have stamina. So it’s always kind of in the back of your mind that you’re going to break it again.”
His 2019 numbers were okay. Kopps finished with a 3.89 ERA and a 6-3 record in 41.2 innings of work. But by 2020 something was wrong.
“It was strange,” Hobbs explained. “He was trying to raise his arm slot. Maybe throw a little harder. It was like a transformation in the wrong direction.”
After the shutdown Kopps had plenty of time to reflect on what had gone wrong and what to do next. “I stopped caring,” he admitted. “But I also stopped worrying. Stopped worrying about mechanics. Just went out and started pitching. Pretty much not thinking about it so much makes it work.”
Kopps’ teammates were impressed with his transformation in Fall Ball last year but watching what he has done to open the season has been almost jaw dropping to some. “It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen,” sophomore Saturday starter Peyton Pallette raved. “Him goin’ out there and throwing all those strikeouts. Everybody in the dugout, whenever he goes in, we’re like, Okay, he’s gonna get three outs real quick.”
Kopps’ quiet brand of leadership has always made him popular with his teammates. But watching the dramatic bounce back in his final season with the team has sealed the deal in that respect.
“The players love Kevin,” Van Horn affirmed. “Kevin gets voted captain three years in a row here because of his work ethic, the type of person he is in the locker room, away from the field and just everything he’s been through to get where he is now.”
Where Kopps is now is a long way from the young man who worried about his arm going out again. Van Horn said it was Kopp’s idea to come back for a third relief appearance against Auburn with the Hogs down 5-4 in the 9th. He did give up a hit trying to keep the Tigers lead at a run, but ended the top half of the 9th with a strikeout allowing Arkansas to tie things up in the bottom of the 9th and win it in the 10th to take the series two games to one.
“His stuff wasn’t as good,” Van Horn noted. “He just pitched with some toughness.”
That’s an apt description of what Kopps’ journey as a Razorback has required.