Carlos Rodon. Carson Fulmer. Matt Cooper?
The Chicago White Sox have some bigger name young pitchers on the horizon that many people have heard of, but Matt Cooper surely isn’t one of those household names. He isn’t on any top prospect lists, but he suddenly finds himself atop the Carolina League leaderboards. It’s time to take a look at the White Sox righty.
Cooper was drafted in the 16th round of the 2014 draft, a draft that saw the Sox reel off three pitchers in their first three picks in Rodon, Spencer Adams and Jace Fry all of whom were or still are Top 25 prospects on the White Sox pipeline. He became somewhat of a strikeout artist in his collegiate career at Hawaii, striking out a batter an inning. Already 22 on draft day, and not quite the projectable pitcher’s frame at 6-foot and 190, little was expected of Cooper as a starting pitcher professionally.
He came out with a decent 2014 campaign, but didn't make much noise considering he was already 22 at Rookie level ball. Last season, however, in a newfound role in the bullpen, Cooper was nearly untouchable. Over 38 appearances between Low and High-A, Cooper went 4-0 with a 1.55 ERA, converting 12 of 13 save opportunities, limiting opposing hitters to a .167 batting average. And then there were the strikeouts.
Cooper posted an 76-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 52.1 innings. That’s 13.2 strikeouts per nine to just 2.07 walks per nine. Those are pretty impressive numbers. Cooper, between striking batters out and the ability to induce ground balls, was seemingly becoming a promising pitcher.
Enter 2016. Cooper is now a Carolina League All Star, one of two representatives heading to the game from his Winston-Salem Dash. Cooper, back in the starting rotation as he was at Hawaii, has made his first 12 starts of his professional career and while his overall numbers don’t jump off the page, it is important to look at how he has settled into his role when breaking down his stats.
Cooper sits at 4-4 with a 3.22 ERA. Remember though, these were his first 12 starts of his professional career, there was expected to be some bumps along the way. That being said, after a four-inning, six run outing against Potomac on May 16th that saw his ERA jump from 3.29 to 4.20, Cooper has seemingly stepped into the starter’s role and appears to have found his comfort zone.
Cooper has hurled 27.2 innings over his past four starts heading into Sunday. He has allowed just five earned runs while striking out 37 and walking just two. Throw in that he has allowed only 16 hits (5.3 per nine), he has seen his WHIP drop from 1.24 to 1.02. Cooper had back-to-back games -- including his first career complete game -- that saw him strikeout 23 batters and walk none and he has become the leading K-man in all of Minor League Baseball, sitting at 92 on the season, with a small edge over Blake Snell (90) and Tyler Glasnow (86). Compared to just 18 walks (2.24 per nine), Cooper has become a solid pitcher.
He has done it behind a four-pitch arsenal. His curve may be his most important pitch, because when it is on, he admittedly can work his 92 to 94 mile per hour fastball more effectively. When his curve, one of the 12-5 variety that hits anywhere from the high-70s to the low-80s, is dipping, his fastball, which isn’t overpowering simply becomes more of a weapon, and Cooper racks up the strikeouts in the process. His curve is also important, because as Future Sox reports, his change and curve become more deceptive coming from the same release point and velocity. His fourth pitch is a little used slider.
Looking at Cooper physically, it is hard to envision him as a big league starter. That being said, he simply isn’t being used as a starter in transition, as he is going deep into ball games. Two of his past three starts have seen Cooper go eight innings, while he has seemingly shown little issues throwing 90 to 100 pitches an outing, topping out at 101 two outings ago.
Cooper is now 24-years old, pitching at a level where there are quite a few 21 year olds, but it is possible the the White Sox envision a future starter at the big league level in their righty. It is entirely more likely that Cooper becomes a middle reliever -- perhaps the traditional swingman -- in Chicago quite possibly as soon as next season.
For now, it’s time to see how Cooper advances, but more importantly, it will be exciting to see how many batters he strikes out on his next trip to the mound.