Call the Kopps: Beet juice and college baseball's most dominant pitcher
HawgBeat's coverage of the Diamond Hogs' Road to Omaha is brought to you by CJ's Butcher Boy Burgers, which has locations in Fayetteville and Russellville.
FAYETTEVILLE — Late in a tight game against Auburn last month, Matt Hobbs left his perch on the top step of the dugout and walked down Arkansas’ bench in search of Kevin Kopps.
The Razorbacks were batting and their pitching coach needed to talk his star pitcher before he went back out to the mound, but when he found him, he was taken aback by what he saw.
“He had just taken a big drink of beet juice and I went to start talking to him,” Hobbs said. “Beet juice is really, really dark red, obviously, so it looked like Kevin had blood in his mouth. I was talking to him and I was like, ‘What is going on?’”
Nothing about the encounter was strange to Kopps, who was just going through his normal routine in the midst of yet another scoreless outing.
Whether or not beet juice truly is the secret to his success this season, it is an example of the quirkiness baseball fans have come to expect from relief pitchers through the decades.
From Al Hrabosky and his Fu Manchu mustache earning “The Mad Hungarian” nickname because of his antics on the mound in the 1970s to UA single-season saves leader Matt Cronin getting slapped in the face before leaving the bullpen just a couple of years ago, relievers are their own breed.
A rare sixth-year player who already has a degree in biomedical engineering and constantly drinks beet juice to gain an edge, Kopps certainly fits that mold. His evolution into the best pitcher on the No. 1 team in the country and arguably the most dominant pitcher in all of college baseball, though, has caught everyone - even himself - by surprise.
"I think God has blessed me beyond what I could've imagined this season,” Kopps said. “I don't think I ever dreamed it would turn into something like this, but I'm very thankful for that."
In the pre-pandemic days when they could actually get out on the road to recruit, coaches frequented big travel ball tournaments that featured top players from across the country.
They typically flocked to the fields where big-time prospects - such as LSU’s Dylan Crews - were playing, but one particular day at an event in Texas, Tony Vitello decided to check out an unheralded pitcher who was playing for the South Texas Sliders.
Then an assistant coach and the recruiting coordinator at Arkansas, Vitello had received numerous emails from Kopps, but he wasn’t your average Division I recruit. Perfect Game didn’t rank him among the top 500 players in the Class of 2015.
In fact, the organization didn’t even include him among the next 712 players who received a generic “top 500” ranking. Instead, Kopps was tagged as a “top 1000” player - the equivalent of a two-star recruit in football.
Considering the lack of accolades, Vitello figured he’d be the only coach at his game. Sure enough, though, there was Texas A&M. And Houston. And about five others. The group of coaches couldn’t do anything but laugh at each other: He got you, too, didn’t he?
“He was diligent about emailing you when he was going to pitch, where he was going to be,” Vitello said. “A short, right-handed, mid-80s guy, not many people cared, but on that particular occasion, there was about every big school there watching because they didn’t have anything better to do.”
Kopps showed enough to garner interest from - and eventually sign with - Arkansas. Although he was named the top pitcher in District 23-5A and struck out nearly two-thirds of the batters he faced over his final two seasons at George Ranch High School in Sugar Land, Texas, he was still a developmental recruit for the Razorbacks.
Part of a signing class that featured six other pitchers who’d eventually have productive careers in Fayetteville and get selected in the top 20 rounds of the MLB Draft, Kopps actually redshirted in 2016.
When he returned to school for his second year, long-time Arkansas assistant Dave Jorn had resigned and been replaced by a new-age pitching coach who placed a huge emphasis on the weight room. Kopps took what Wes Johnson was preaching and ran with it.
“Some incredible body transformations took place; Kopps just took it to the next level,” said Harrison Heffley, who was a freshman at the time. “He’s got that internal drive that is just super rare. It became clear early on that Kopps was the type to push himself to the absolute limit.”
The result was a breakout redshirt freshman season in which he posted a 3.31 ERA in 49 innings across 22 appearances and started two of the most important games of the year - the SEC Tournament final and the first game of the Fayetteville Regional final, which Arkansas won after 3 a.m.
Kopps figured to be a key arm on the Razorbacks’ 2018 team, but a freak injury in the fall leading up to the season required Tommy John surgery. He had to be a spectator as Arkansas came agonizingly close to winning its first national title that year.
The following season, he returned to the mound and made a team-high 30 appearances - all out of the bullpen - to help the Razorbacks get back to Omaha, posting a 3.89 ERA in 41 1/3 innings.
After he went undrafted, there was once again hope that he’d take another step forward, especially being another year removed from Tommy John. Some speculated he might be a weekend starter.
What unfolded in 2020 instead was a disaster.
Had the season not been cut short by the pandemic, it’s unclear when Kopps would have pitched next. In a midweek start against Grand Canyon, he lasted just 1 2/3 innings and gave up three earned runs.
The performance was indicative of his season, as his ERA ballooned to 8.18 in 11 innings, and head coach Dave Van Horn was at a loss for words when asked why things were going so poorly.
Having already battled back from Tommy John surgery, Kopps needed another comeback in his sixth season with the Razorbacks.
Baseball - and the rest of the sports world - paused in mid-March last year when the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. and shut everything down.
During the layoff, Kopps searched for answers to what went wrong in 2020. He ultimately decided to switch back to his two-seam fastball, which is what he used to throw a lot before moving to a four-seam fastball in 2017.
“I went back to it because I used to only throw two-seams and cutters and then I guess a couple years ago I tried to adapt by switching to a four-seam,” Kopps told HawgBeat last summer. “I wanted to be someone I’m not, so I kind of went back to it.”
The early results in summer ball were mixed. Pitching against players mostly from lower levels in the Perfect Timing College League in Springdale last June, Kopps struck out nearly half - 21 of 47 - the batters he faced, but posted a 9.00 ERA and 1.67 WHIP in nine innings.
Then he headed east to play for the Martinsville Mustangs in the more established Coastal Plains Collegiate League. Although his ERA was still sitting at 5.24, Kopps lowered his WHIP to 1.34 and continued to rack up strikeouts - 38 in 22 1/3 innings.
Word slowly started making its way from Virginia to Fayetteville via some of Arkansas pitching coach Matt Hobbs’ former players at Wake Forest who were also playing in the league.
“You’d talk to them from time to time, just checking in to see how they were doing, and a couple of them were like, ‘Hey, your guy Kopps is really good,’” Hobbs said. “That got me thinking, ‘Okay, well maybe it’s just the league is not very good' or whatever, but it was different when he got back.”
Just how different Kopps’ stuff was when he returned to campus last fall took a few weeks for Hobbs, Van Horn and the rest of the staff to fully comprehend.
Hobbs immediately recognized that his cutter had more movement than in 2020 when Kopps threw his first bullpen session, but it wasn’t until he had thrown it 150-200 times during the fall and preseason that TrackMan - the UA’s pitch tracking technology - revealed its true nastiness.
By switching to a two-seam grip, his cutter added anywhere from 8-14 more inches of vertical movement, which paired nicely with his low-90s fastball that has a ton of horizontal movement and has touched 95 mph. Throw in his curveball and changeup, plus his ability to keep everything low in the zone after throwing everything belt high the previous season, and Kopps suddenly had a lethal arsenal.
“He went out in the fall and he performed, he was really good,” Hobbs said. “Then he started to gain some confidence and then all of a sudden, you’ve got movement metrics that are really positive and then you’ve also got the positive reinforcement with pitching well.
“He was just kind of pitching like a different guy at the end of the fall and when he came back in January, it was kind of the same thing.”
It wasn’t a big secret, either. Van Horn was very open about what he was seeing from Kopps. In October, he told reporters that he could “be a weapon” capable of starting or making 30-plus appearances out of the bullpen.
Even though his specific role was still in flux, that steady flow of praise continued after the Christmas break and as the Razorbacks geared up for preseason practices.
“Kevin is throwing better than he ever has since he's been here,” Van Horn said in January. “I sure like his experience and his mound presence, maybe to help get us out of jams or be a guy that can come in off a starter and get us to the eighth or ninth, but he could also close some games, he could also start some games. I think he could do a little bit of everything for us.”
Hobbs said he and the other coaches knew Kopps was in store for a big bounce-back year in 2021, but they had no idea he’d be this good.
Since a rough outing in his first appearance of the season, Kopps has been virtually unhittable.
Even including that performance against Texas Tech, opponents are hitting just .172 against him and he’s allowed only four runs, giving him an NCAA-best 0.72 ERA. He also has an impressive 0.87 WHIP, meaning he’s allowing less than one base runner per inning on average.
“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.”
The other numbers that jump off the page are his team-high 83 strikeouts with only 13 walks. Kopps is one of four qualified pitchers averaging at least 15 strikeouts per nine innings and his 6.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio is top 40 nationally and top 5 in the SEC. He’s also 7-0 with 7 saves, making him the only player in the country to have at least seven wins and seven saves.
Incredibly, Kopps has been even better against the Razorbacks’ grueling SEC slate. In conference play, he has a 0.45 ERA and 0.78 WHIP, plus he’s held opponents to a .167 batting average.
Over four SEC appearances last month, he actually retired 28 batters in a row - the equivalent of a perfect game plus an extra out - with 19 coming via strikeouts. That stretch included 11 straight strikeouts at one point.
“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.’”
Those traditional statistics do a pretty good job, but the more advanced analytics paint an even clearer picture of Kopps’ dominance.
He has generated 199 swings and misses this season, according to StatBroadcast data. That accounts for a whopping 27.2 percent of his total pitches. His swing-and-miss rate goes up to 29.4 percent in SEC play.
For comparison, two-time NL Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom leads all MLB starters with season with a swing-and-miss rate of 21.6 percent, while two-time NL Reliever of the Year Josh Hader leads all relief pitchers at 21.9 percent. The MLB average is 11.5 percent.
Kopps is also hitting the strike zone with all of his pitches, getting called strikes 17.9 percent of the time - which is above the MLB average of 16.8 percent.
“He’s just on a roll,” Van Horn said during the LSU series. “I’ve seen teams take pitches on him, I’ve seen them swing early trying to get him before he gets ahead and it hasn’t worked yet. Hopefully he’ll keep doing what he’s doing.”
Even when opponents have managed to make contact and put the ball in play, it’s mostly been weak ground balls. Kopps has an incredible fly ball rate of just 8 percent. Among pitchers who’ve thrown at least 30 innings this season, Missouri’s Seth Halvorsen is the closest to him at 12 percent.
“I'm waiting for the time that someone hits the ball out to me because no one has since he's been pitching this season,” said Franklin, who plays center field. “I’ll be surprised when somebody hits one off of him. It's been nice to know when he's coming in that he's going to get the job done in any situation.”
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the season Kopps is enjoying is just how much he’s been used by the Razorbacks.
He’s appeared in 22 of their 46 games - including 14 of 24 SEC contests - and thrown 49 2/3 total innings, all out of the bullpen. Unlike a traditional closer, Kopps routinely throws the final three-plus innings of games. Then he’ll turn around and pitch again the next day or two days later.
“He’s a closer but he’s also just a finisher,” Van Horn said. “I mean, he could start if we needed him to. He’s a little different than a lot of guys.”
Before the season, he told reporters he could be a utility guy and didn’t really have a preference for his role. However, he did admit to getting really excited when coming out of the bullpen “in a big situation with a lot of chaos.”
That's how the Razorbacks used him early on, typically in critical spots in middle innings, but an outing at Mississippi State opened Hobbs’ eyes to the full potential of what Kopps could do.
In that game, he struck out the side in the bottom of the sixth inning before rain caused a lengthy delay in the top of the seventh. Despite more than 90 minutes passing, the Razorbacks sent him back out in the seventh and he responded with three more scoreless innings to finish off the win.
The next day, Hobbs joked with the right-hander and asked if he’d be available again despite throwing 56 pitches in the previous game. To his surprise, Kopps answered, Yeah, I feel really good.
“You get to thinking, ‘Wow, that’s weird,’” Hobbs said. “Usually, guys are pretty sore after throwing those amount of pitches and throwing a lot breaking balls. But for whatever reason, it just doesn’t seem to bother him too much.”
Arkansas ended up not needing him, but since then, Kopps has pitched at least twice in all but one series. Most of his outings have been multiple innings, with several that have gone 3- and 4-plus.
Against Georgia last weekend, he threw 54 pitches in three scoreless innings to earn the save in the Razorbacks’ series-opening victory. Two days later, he pitched the final 4 1/3 innings against the Bulldogs on 57 pitches, once again not allowing a run and this time earning the win.
It isn’t unusual for a starting pitcher to throw 111 pitches, especially this late in the season, but for a reliever to do it across two outings with only one day in between begged the question: How?
“The fact that he’s in incredible shape, No. 1, (and) probably just his arm slot, arm action,” Van Horn said. “It’s pretty classic. It’s not a lot of strain on his elbow or shoulder. … I think it’s just in his mindset. He wants to. He’s not worried about it.”
Hobbs credited work he did in the weight room during the offseason - something instilled in him under Johnson, his former pitching coach, and reiterated in his recovery from Tommy John - and how he attacked his throwing program when it got ramped up Dec. 5.
Those two aspects helped him build up a “big throwing engine,” Hobbs said, but his willingness to have such a heavy workload is also a factor, as is his communication with the staff to ensure he’s not overused.
Kopps echoed his coaches, plus revealed his secret.
“I worked a lot on forearm strength and I think I pushed in the preseason lifting while I'm throwing more so I could lift a little bit less now,” Kopps said. “I think that and beet juice has pushed me over the edge.”
Ah yes, beet juice.
A Dietitian’s Dream
Considering he was a 4.0 student and member of the National Honor Society in high school and landed on the SEC Academic Honor Roll twice while working on his biomedical engineering degree, it should come as no surprise that Kopps has always been tedious about his diet.
From the beginning, he bought in to creating a solid “fueling foundation,” said UA sports dietitian Lauren Lyons, who works with the Razorbacks’ baseball and men’s and women’s tennis programs.
“Kevin Kopps is - for a dietitian - a star athlete when it comes to caring about what you’re putting into your body,” Lyons said. “He really cares about what he eats and recognizes how his body responds to various things.”
It wasn’t uncommon for Kopps to buy several different juices from Whole Foods and try them out, so Lyons wasn’t caught off guard when he asked her about beet root juice.
Thanks to some relatively new research, she let him know there were actually quite a few benefits to drinking the bitter, earthy juice. Rich in nitrates, it increases nitric oxide that helps increase blood flow, which has all sorts of positive effects on the body.
“When he’s out there pitching, it helps make sure there’s a lot of blood flow and nutrients to those muscles,” Lyons said. “It helps strengthen your muscle contraction of those those fast-twitch muscles that are used when you’re out there pitching, as well.”
Lyons added that it can also help with endurance and recovery, so Kopps starting drinking it daily - even between innings - and those have been arguably Kopps’ biggest strengths in 2021.
Van Horn, the Razorbacks’ veteran head coach, has been hesitant to put his star pitcher in a single category all season and lately has been running out of things to say about him.
The uniqueness of Kopps’ role has been hard to put into words, but he gave it a shot leading up the Georgia series.
“He doesn't have the label next to his name that says, 'Hey, he's their closer.' He's a reliever,” Van Horn said. “He'll come in down a run, tie game, up a run or he'll finish the game. He could go five, six innings if you needed him to if he kept his pitch count down.
“He's built up for that. He's strong enough for that and he has the experience and wants to do it. He's unique in many ways, but just the experience factor there is what I think throws him over the top.”
Because he’s been so dominant in that role, he's already earned several weekly and monthly awards and there is a legitimate case to be made for him to be named the SEC Pitcher of the Year.
Since it was created in 2003, only one non-starter - Georgia’s Joshua Fields in 2008 - has won the award. Starting pitchers typically have a built-in advantage because they throw so many more innings, which adds value, but Kopps has thrown enough to qualify for national leaderboards and people around the country are taking notice.
In D1Baseball’s Week 12 Chat, long-time college baseball writer Aaron Fitt made the case for Kopps over Vanderbilt’s dynamic duo.
“He is the most important player, in my opinion, on the best team in the country,” Fitt said. “As good as Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter have been, I think Kevin Kopps really does have a chance to win the SEC Pitcher of the Year award.”
Patrick Ebert, another long-time national writer, said in an interview on The Red Zone with JB that Kopps reminds him of how Huston Street carried Texas’ pitching staff in the early-2000s on his way to becoming a three-time All-American and MVP of the 2002 College World Series, when he saved all four of the Longhorns’ games in Omaha.
Both of those guys - separated by nearly two decades - have shown that it’s possible to be a staff ace without being the Friday night starter.
“This guy is a legitimate Golden Spikes candidate,” Ebert said. “You can find other players that are having big years, (but) I’m not so sure there’s a combination of a player having a big year with as much importance to his team as Kevin Kopps has to Arkansas right now.”
It’s been 10 years since a pitcher won the Golden Spikes Award - college baseball’s version of the Heisman Trophy - and a reliever has never won it since it was first awarded in 1978.
With two huge regular-season series remaining against a pair of top-10 teams in Tennessee and Florida and an SEC title on the line, Ebert said Kopps has an opportunity to build even more momentum for those accolades.
The level of success Kopps is experiencing this season has made him a peculiar MLB Draft prospect. Van Horn said there’s definite interest in him from the professional ranks because he receives calls from scouts who have a lot of questions. His response is always the same.
“They'll ask us questions and we just tell them to come watch him,” Van Horn said. “If you haven't watched him in person, come do what you do. Come see him with your own eyes.”
Apprehension from scouts about Kopps is understandable. In a sport that encourages its best players to leave after three years, a sixth-year player like him could be classified as ancient.
A perfect storm that included a developmental redshirt in 2016, a medical redshirt in 2018 and the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 has led to him still being in college many years after Vitello first saw him pitch as a persistent, unheralded recruit.
“He’s the type of guy, you give him enough time to figure it out - it could be anything - he’s gonna figure it out,” Vitello said. “Seeing it from an opponent’s eyes, even though I know Kevin and I’m happy for him, you don’t like him having too much time because he’ll evolve into what he has.”
He turned 24 back in March, but his age doesn’t really matter, in Van Horn’s opinion, because the team that picks him up wouldn’t have to stick him in rookie ball, but rather put him on the fast track.
“The age is the age, but if you can pitch you can pitch,” Van Horn said. “You take an older kid and stick him in High-A ball or Double-A pretty quick and see what he can do. If he can do it, he can do it. If not, move on to the next guy. He'll be fine.”
Until then, Kopps’ sole focus is helping the Razorbacks finish the 2021 season strong. They lead the SEC West and are tied for first overall in the conference with two weeks left. After last year’s even was canceled, they’re also trying to make it back to the College World Series for the third straight season.
Standing in their way is Vitello, who’s now the head coach at Tennessee and has the Volunteers atop the SEC East and tied with Arkansas for first place. To hand the Razorbacks their first series loss of the season, he likely needs to help his team figure out what no one else has this season - how to beat Kevin Kopps.
“(It’s) no surprise that he’s successful…but to this extent?” Vitello said. “There ain’t anyone who would have ever envisioned that. He’s kind of become an entity unto himself.”