College baseball sportswriters from across the country have named University of Arkansas right-handed relief pitcher Kevin Kopps the National Player of the Year for 2021, taking home the Dick Howser Trophy. Kopps also won the Stopper of the Year Award, which goes to best top relief pitcher in college baseball. Kopps’ final numbers are staggering. Twelve wins against just one loss with eleven saves. An earned run average of .9 through 89 1/2 innings pitched. Kopps struck out 131 battlers with just 11 walks.
The story of his sixth and final season at Arkansas is as jaw dropping as his stats. Kopps appeared to have made a successful recovery from Tommy John surgery in 2019 with a team-high 30 appearances, all in relief, with a 3.89 ERA and a 6-3 record in 41.2 innings. He had conference wins against Auburn, Mississippi State, Tennessee, and LSU. He also recorded a win in the SEC Tournament against Ole Miss going 1.2 innings and allowing just one run on two hits and striking out two.
But the shortened 2020 season was a setback for Kopps. In seven total appearances he ended up with an 8.18 ERA and an 0-1 record in 11 innings of work.
When players were sent off campus to work on their own in various summer leagues because of COVID Kopps decided it was a good time for a make over.
“I didn’t feel like myself,” Kopps would later recall. “I didn’t feel like I had control. I always felt like I was pitching defensively maybe.”
“Some real reflection had to be for Kevin, am I gonna try to pitch to become somebody I think people want me to be or am I gonna try to pitch to be who I am?” Arkansas pitching coach Matt Hobbs said of Kopps’ situation.
Working on his own Kopps developed what some have called a “gyro pitch.”
“He transformed himself into a sinker baller with a really good cutter curveball change up,” Hobbs explained. “The credit goes to Kevin for making that adjustment.”
Hobbs knew he was seeing something different when Kopps returned in the fall of 2020 but he wanted to check the analytics. Using video and tracking data, he came to a startling conclusion: “I remember looking at the cutter vs. the 2020 cutter and it just blew my mind. I was like, this isn’t even close to the same pitch.”
Even though Hobbs was convinced that Arkansas’ senior leader and captain could have a special 2021 season in his sixth and final year as a Razorback, Kopps had been through enough ups and downs to be somewhat skeptical. When he lasted just one inning in a relief appearance in Arkansas’ opener against Texas Tech, giving up two hits and a run with a walk and a wild pitch, Kopps admitted to having flashbacks to the 2020 season.
“I almost felt like I was about to slide backwards,” he recalled.
At that point Hobbs stepped in and pointed out that it was just one inning. Hobbs told Kopps that he had done enough the previous fall to convince him, as the pitching coach, that what happened against the Red Raiders was “an outlier.”
Indeed it was. Two games later Kopps closed out Arkansas’ 3-0 appearance in the State Farm College Baseball Showdown by shutting down TCU in the 8th and 9th innings with five strikeouts in six batters faced.
Established as the team’s closer, Kopps began to build on the confidence he gained in the TCU game. His first long outing came in game two of a road sweep against Mississippi State, throwing 56 pitches in four shutout innings with seven strikeouts. Back home against Auburn it went up a notch. For the first time Kopps appeared in every game of a series, throwing a total of 75 pitches over four shutout innings in three one-run ball games.
“I’ve had guys that have gone three days in a row before in the past. I’ve just never had anyone be that dominant,” Hobbs noted.
But Kopps would do more, like throwing 125 pitches in two huge wins over Tennessee and incredibly, using 161 pitches to record a save and a win against Nebraska, taking his team into a super regional.
“The kid’s a warrior,” head coach Dave Van Horn would say afterward. “He wouldn’t let us take him out of the game. Yeah I know that we have the final call there but man, this is a team and they just, they want Kevin on the mound.”
When North Carolina State forced a deciding game three against Arkansas in the Fayetteville Super Regional, with a return to the College World Series on the line, Van Horn pushed his marathon reliever into new territory. Having already thrown 21 pitches in two scoreless game-two innings against the Wolfpack, Kopps would get his first start of the season in game three. He gave up just two runs through eight innings of work while tossing an incredible 110 plus pitches with Van Horn hoping Arkansas could take the lead late in a 2-2 ball game.
But Kopps was touched for a solo home run in the 9th and finally left the game to a standing ovation from over 11,000 Arkansas fans. Afterward some those fans expressed their feelings with comments like this:
“He was doing the job. He did the best he could. He was the best we had and we rode him as far as we could.”
“I mean Kopps pitched the whole game. That’s crazy.”
“Kopps is the man. He got a standing ovation. That’s how he wanted to go out.”
In his final appearance as a Razorback Kopps also earned the praise of the opposing head coach. “He’s absolutely everything that you’ve heard about,” Elliott Avent raved. “Sometimes you don’t get what they describe but he is everything and then some of what you’ve heard about.”
“He did everything he could for this team and I think you’re going to see some pretty good awards come his way in the next couple of weeks,” Van Horn predicted.
Indeed, the Dick Howser Award and an earlier national player of the year award from Collegiate Baseball is a solid start.