Ex-College of Charleston pitcher Michael Kohn took unlikely route to MLB
For Michael Kohn, the bruise on his butt — courtesy of a line drive off the bat of Miguel Cabrera — is a badge of honor.
Career MLB stats for former College of Charleston pitcher Michael Kohn:
Year Team W-L ERA Saves IP
2010 Angels 2-0 2.11 1 21.1
2011 Angels 0-1 7.30 1 12.1
2013 Angels 1-0 2.35 0 30.2
Totals 3-1 3.29 2 63
Cabrera, the 2012 Triple Crown winner, smacked a shot off Kohn’s backside during a game last month. Kohn scrambled to retrieve the ball and threw Cabrera out at first base.
“I’d take 10 more just like it, if I could get him out every time,” said Kohn, who had given up a two-run home run and a walk the first two times he faced the Detroit Tigers’ star.
The next night, Kohn (pronounced “Kahn”) faced Cabrera with two on and two out in the eighth inning of a tie game. This time, he struck out Cabrera with a 94-mph fastball, and the Angels went on to win the game, 3-1, in extra innings.
“It felt a whole lot better than getting hit in the (rear end),” Kohn texted friends and family after the game.
Kohn’s quick learning curve against Cabrera mirrors his fast rise from a benched first baseman at College of Charleston to a fixture in the Los Angeles Angels’ bullpen. After throwing all of 13 innings as a college pitcher, Kohn is 1-0 with a 2.35 earned-run average in 33 appearances for the Angels this season, and was included on the players’ ballot for the American League All-Star roster.
“It was cool for me just to see my name on there, next to Cabrera and Mariano Rivera and guys like that,” Kohn said recently. “I voted for (Lowcountry products) Brett Gardner and Matt Wieters, so it was cool to be able to vote for two other Charleston guys.”
The 6-2, 200-pound right-hander has a unique backstory. He grew up in one of Camden’s foremost families — his grandfather was a three-star admiral in the Navy, and on his mom’s side he’s related to former state Rep. Bob Sheheen and state Rep. Vincent Sheheen, the Democratic candidate for S.C. governor in 2010.
Kohn played at USC Upstate before transferring to College of Charleston, where in 2007 he hit .312 with nine homers and 42 runs batted in. But after losing his starting job halfway through the season, he went to Scott Foxhall, then the Cougars’ pitching coach, with a wild idea.
“It was just a joke between me and Foxhall,” Kohn recalls. “I’d say, ‘Let me try to pitch,’ and he’d shoo me away. But I ended up getting on the mound and throwing eight to 10 pitches.”
When Kohn lit up the radar gun at 96 mph, the Cougars had a new pitcher.
“I didn’t know how hard I could throw,” Kohn said. “I knew I had a pretty good arm from throwing in the outfield. I was hoping I could at least throw 90. I do remember my high school coach saying, ‘Don’t be surprised if they try to convert you to a pitcher.’ ”
But all the weightlifting Kohn had done as a hitter worked against him as a pitcher. After a shoulder injury during his senior season, renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews told him he was too big in the upper body and had to lose weight.
“All that good beach muscle had to come off,” said Kohn, who was able to come back and pitch 13 innings as a senior, going 0-1 with a 2.08 ERA and four saves in 14 appearances.
That was enough for the Angels to make Kohn a 13th-round pick in the 2008 MLB draft. The club had gotten a heads-up on Kohn from College of Charleston softball player Christal Kotchman, daughter of former Angels scout Tim Kotchman and sister of Marlins first baseman Casey Kotchman.
By 2010, after just one full season in Class A, Kohn had made his MLB debut with the Angels, a meteoric rise for a pitcher with just 13 college innings behind him.
“Coming out of college, so many guys have so many innings under their belt,” he said. “I didn’t get abused at all in college, so I had a fresh arm coming up. That was a huge upside for me.”
Of course, Kohn also had a lot to learn about getting hitters out.
“Every pitcher out there was 10 or 12 years ahead of me in experience,” he said. “I had to learn very quickly. But I think being a hitter helped me. I knew what hitters liked in certain counts, and that helped me a lot early on.”
After he struggled in 2011, Kohn underwent Tommy John surgery in April 2012 and missed last season. This year, he’s earned a role as a late-inning reliever in the Angels’ bullpen, allowing opponents to hit just .150, with 33 strikeouts in 302/3 innings.
“There’s been noticeable improvement in his stuff, in particular his velocity,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia told reporters earlier this season. “He’s able to spin his slider now that he’s healthy. He’s done a great job in whatever situation we put him in.”
Kohn also struck out Tigers All-Star Torii Hunter that night in Detroit. Hunter had served as a mentor for Kohn with the Angels, and when Hunter was traded to the Tigers, he gave Kohn his locker.
“Torii was a big part of my career,” Kohn said. “I learned a lot from him, and you have to be willing to learn in this game. You have to be a sponge and soak up as much as you can.”
With the Angels, Kohn can pick the brains of hitters Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, and veteran pitchers Jered Weaver and Scott Downs.
“They are all awesome guys,” he said. “They are normal guys, they just happen to be in the spotlight more. Trout is one of my best friends on the team. We like the same things, like golf and the outdoors, hunting in the offseason. I can’t wait to get him down to Charleston for some deer hunting.”
Kohn said he grew up dreaming of playing shortstop and batting third for the Braves. He’s living a different kind of dream — pitching for the Angels, living in Newport Beach, Calif., during the season, in Charleston in the offseason and hanging with girlfriend Chelsea Meissner of “Survivor” fame. They met in a bar on Sullivan’s Island.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world,” he said. “Playing baseball was my goal since I was a little kid. It’s a little different scenario than I dreamed of, but it’s awesome. I love it.”