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FAYETTEVILLE — Now in his sixth year of college, Kevin Kopps is enjoying a renaissance in Arkansas’ bullpen.
As the Razorbacks’ top reliever, the right-hander is putting up incredible numbers and making a case for All-SEC and All-America recognition. The latest entry on his resume is arguably his best of the season.
Appearing in all three games against Auburn last weekend, Kopps threw five scoreless innings in which he allowed only three base runners – two hits and one walk – while striking out 11 batters. He lost out to Mississippi State’s Christian MacLeod for SEC Pitcher of the Week honors, but head coach Dave Van Horn felt he was certainly deserving.
“That was an incredible effort and he backed it up with really good performances, not just the fact that he went out there today and got us through a tough inning,” Van Horn said. “To me, he’s worthy of an SEC Pitcher of the Week type award. He’s our MVP of the weekend, I’ll tell you that.”
On Thursday, Kopps’ first pitch missed the zone and then he threw nine straight strikes to strike out the side, narrowly missing out on an immaculate inning. Pitching the final three innings of Arkansas’ 2-1 loss, the only hit he gave up was a weak infield single and all but one of his outs – 8 of 9 – came via the strikeout.
He was back on the mound the next day and needed only 12 pitches to retire the Tigers in order, with another two strikeouts, and earn the save in a 6-5 win.
Although he wasn’t quite as efficient his third time out, Kopps again threw a scoreless ninth inning Saturday, stranding an insurance run on third to preserve the Razorbacks’ one-run deficit and give them a chance to tie it up in the bottom of the inning.
“I have no words,” teammate Peyton Pallette said. “It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen… Everybody in the dugout, whenever he goes in, we’re like, ‘Okay, he’s going to get three outs real quick.’”
Coming off an abysmal pandemic-shortened 2020 season in which he posted an 8.18 ERA in 11 innings across seven appearances and lost the confidence of Van Horn, Kopps has finally built on the potential he showed as a redshirt freshman in 2017 and in his post-Tommy John season in 2019.
With the performance over the weekend, he is 4-0 with three saves and a 0.82 ERA in 22 innings across 13 appearances this season. He has 40 strikeouts to only seven walks and a 0.86 WHIP, plus opponents are hitting just .154 against him.
If he had enough innings to qualify for the national leaderboard (1 IP/team game, so 26 IP), Kopps would rank third in Division I with 16.4 strikeouts per nine innings, ahead of the likes of Mississippi State’s Christian MacLeod (15.4), Vanderbilt’s Jack Leiter (15.2) and Ole Miss’ Gunnar Hoglund (14.4).
As good as his season statistics are, they don’t even fully illustrate just how dominant he has been for most of the season. If you take out his appearance against Texas Tech in the season opener, when he gave up an earned run on two hits and a walk in one inning of work, Kopps’ numbers are even better.
Since then, he has a minuscule 0.43 ERA and .137 batting average against. Granted it’s in about half the sample size, but those numbers would be tied with Leiter and Vanderbilt’s Kumar Rocker, respectively.
What has led to Kopps being so effective this season is a nasty cutter that has made him a favorite of Rob Friedman, who is better known as the Pitching Ninja on Twitter.
HawgBeat analyzed the pitch-by-pitch data for each of Kopps’ 13 appearances and found that he’s thrown 232 of his 323 pitches (71.8 percent) for strikes this season. More incredibly, he’s generated a whopping 84 swings and misses. That accounts for 26.0 percent of his total pitches.
Kopps has been particularly filthy since the start of conference play a couple of weeks ago. He’s thrown 173 pitches in five SEC appearances and generated 53 swings and misses for an insane 30.6 percent rate.
Advanced analytics aren’t readily available in college baseball, but they are for Major League Baseball. For a comparison, only three starters – Gerrit Cole (16.8%), Max Scherzer (16.4%) and Justin Verlander (16.1%) – posted a swing-and-miss rate higher than 16 percent in 2019, according to FanGraphs. During the shortened 2020 season, Jacob deGrom led the majors at 21.6 percent.
Those rates are naturally a little higher for relievers, but Josh Hader’s MLB-leading swing-and-miss rate in 2019 was still just 22.9 percent. Last season, Devin Williams led the majors at 22.3 percent.
“I’ve been saying it all year that he’s the hardest pitcher to hit off of on our team,” teammate Christian Franklin said. “He’s been showing that this year. I knew when he got in the game (Saturday), they weren’t going to be able to do much against him.”
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