As Arkansas mercilessly thumped its in-state foe from Pine Bluff Wednesday afternoon en route to a 26-1 final, Hog reliever Kevin Kopps showed up on camera in the middle innings. He wasn’t slinging un-hittable off-speed magic; instead, merely donning a pair of shades on an overcast day and chattering in the dugout with his mates.
He earned the day off, and that touch of cool, too.
Arkansas is the consensus No. 1 team in college baseball now, and not entirely because of its prodigious lineup. While Kopps might not get the work or the plaudits that Vandy’s 1-2 punch of Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter earn, he’s perhaps the most vital pitcher in a conference laden with them.
And he’s a reliever, y’all.
A first-class one, at that.
Kevin Kopps: Not Your Average Prospect
The sixth-year senior from Texas is an anomaly in a sport dominated by underclassmen. Kevin Kopps turned 24 last month, and thanks to Tommy John surgery in 2017 and the pandemic that truncated 2020, he didn’t exactly scream “prospect.”
A series of dominant performances against the best hitters in the country can change that, though.
Kevin Kopps’ stat line through the Razorbacks’ first 33 games looks downright fraudulent. He leads the team in the Triple Crown categories (wins , ERA [.96] and strikeouts ), which is the kind of thing you’d expect a frontline starter to do.
He leads the team in saves and appearances, too.
Naturally, closers are going to have a hard time racking up significant accolades. But for all the fuss over Rocker and Leiter, Kopps stands as the most dominant pitcher in SEC play thus far.
In seven appearances through Arkansas’s 12 SEC games, he’s allowed a single earned run. The first such blemish happened on Sunday in the wild 18-14 win over Ole Miss.
That in itself was shocking. Kopps had basically won the Auburn series with scoreless efforts in all three games, the last two being wins after the Hogs rallied from late deficits.
Against the Rebels, Kopps wasn’t flawless. He yielded nine hits in six innings. And in that rubber match, the first three Ole Miss batters he faced reached base, plating the tying run in the seventh.
Arkansas had teetered all afternoon, letting an 11-0 third-inning lead vanish. With the score now 14-14 in the seventh, an obnoxiously thunderous crowd in Oxford sensed a series victory in the grasp.
Kopps wasn’t having it. Dialing the velocity down, the righty started dropping those sliders and cutters to stop the bleeding.
And the Arkansas hitters rewarded him. A three-run eighth restored order from chaos, and Kopps reverted to his stingiest ways with four strikeouts over the final two innings.
He moved his record to 5-0 Sunday despite technically blowing a save. That was the probably more fitting resulting stat.
Arkansas vs Ole Miss…18-14 game?— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 11, 2021
Better call the Kopps. 🚓🚨🚔
Kevin Kopps Filth to close it out.
Casey Opitz is an electric factory behind the plate too. ⚡️⚡️ I'm not CatchingNinja, but I love watching that dude. pic.twitter.com/z3KKhwLoeZ
The ungodly numbers don’t quite tell the full story, either.
Only once in SEC play has a Razorback starter lasted more than six innings. That distinction went to Zeb Vermillion, who has largely been great, in a masterful one-hitter over eight innings against Alabama in March.
Van Horn and pitching coach Matt Hobbs haven’t had the customary luxury of a Blaine Knight, D.J. Baxendale, Ryne Stanek, or the like. Even as Arkansas sits at 9-3 in conference play, leading a brutal West, the starting rotation is barely settled.
That’s led to extended relief outings and a lot of mileage on some of the young arms on the roster. Predictably, they’ve been inconsistent.
Kevin Kopps, therefore, isn’t just a closer. He’s been his own setup man, too: five of his seven appearances in SEC play have lasted three innings or more.
Against Ole Miss, Kopps threw a whopping 88 pitches in his two appearances. He didn’t pitch in the 13-6 loss Saturday night.
Yet there are no signs of fatigue. With an easy, mechanically stellar delivery that only changes subtly from heater to off-speed, Kopps is anything but an “over-thrower”,
Deception, command, and consistency are the hallmarks of a great reliever. Kevin Kopps is more than great in 2021, testing the notion that a closer couldn’t be a fashionably legitimate SEC Player of the Year candidate.
Before you scoff, consider that Arkansas’s 9-3 SEC record belies its rather ugly 5.67 ERA in those games. Take away Kopps’ mastery, and the team’s ERA over the first dozen games balloons more than a full run to 6.72.
Only Auburn and Missouri sport higher ERAs. Unsurprisingly, the two Tiger squads are 4-20 in league play combined.
…And the Personality
Kopps isn’t trotting out of the pen with typical closer bravado. He’s the antithesis of a John Rocker or the fictional Kenny Powers, understated and not reliant upon raw velocity.
Don’t mistake that for passivism. He has attacked hitters with his repertoire, working ahead and reaching a three-ball count only seven times in SEC play.
Kopps is, not coincidentally, a fixture on the conference’s All-Academic team, a testament to his craftiness on the bump. Maybe this is the season he adds All-SEC honors to his ledger.
If he maintains this feverish pace, that won’t be the only distinction coming his way.
Arkansas baseball pitchers