Gipson-Long taking nontraditional path through pro ball

August 8th, 2022

This story was excerpted from Jason Beck’s Tigers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Sawyer Gipson-Long had just completed a long bus trip with the Twins’ Double-A affiliate from Wichita, Kan., to San Antonio, Texas, when he got a call from Minnesota player development director Alex Hassan. Knowing that Tuesday was baseball’s Trade Deadline, the 24-year-old right-hander instantly knew what the call was for.

“The Twins are in the running for a World Series this year, and they need dudes to bolster their rotation and make a push,” Gipson-Long said. “I figured they were going to trade some guys away. Never figured it would be me.”

The Twins traded several prospects to upgrade their bullpen, including a few from Wichita. Gipson-Long was the return prospect for the Tigers in the Michael Fulmer trade. While Fulmer just had to change clubhouses at Target Field, Gipson-Long flew from San Antonio to Washington, then to Portland, Maine, where the Erie SeaWolves are in the middle of a two-week New England road trip.

It was a long, unique journey for Gipson-Long, who hasn’t taken a traditional route through pro ball. An academic all-conference player at Mercer University, he was a chemical commerce major who also took pre-med studies. He’d like to go back to school one day and put that to work in a post-playing career in the game, but for now he’s taking a cerebral approach to pitching and seeing where it takes him.

“That stuff interests me just as much as the analytics,” Gipson-Long said. “I think a big part [of success] is how athletic you are and how your body moves, how you eat, how you sleep, how you recover. I think what I want to do ... is to help the next generation achieve more.”

While the Tigers have stockpiled highly rated pitching prospects from programs big and small as part of their rebuild, Gipson-Long was an unranked prospect out of Mercer, where he gave up 100 hits over 83 innings in 2019 but struck out 99. He was the Twins’ sixth-round pick that summer.

Gipson-Long came back from the canceled 2020 Minor League season and did more of the same last year; he posted a 4.55 ERA in 19 starts and a relief appearance in Class A ball but struck out 134 batters over 97 innings.

The right-hander put things together to dominate High-A hitters at Cedar Rapids this season, posting a 5-2 record with a 1.99 ERA and just 33 hits over 49 2/3 innings. He received a rude introduction to Double-A hitting, but his last two starts show him figuring things out. After tossing seven innings of two-run ball with six strikeouts on July 28 in his final start in the Twins' system, Gipson-Long introduced himself to the Tigers and the Eastern League with five innings of one-run ball and seven strikeouts. His fastball was around 94-95 mph, setting up a split-changeup that had Portland hitters struggling.

That won’t always be his mix. Part of Gipson-Long’s approach, he said, is a constant desire to tinker with his pitches. He just developed his split-change this year, and he’s still working on his fastball command. So when he says he’s a fastball-changeup-slider guy, he conditions that with “at the moment.”

“I'm always working on stuff,” he said. “Sometimes it comes together and it clicks, and sometimes it doesn't.”

The pitch design trend in pro ball has helped him not only unlock some of that potential, but measure it. That makes him a prime student for Tigers pitching director Gabe Ribas.

“It's something I’ve always had a knack for,” Gipson-Long said. “Going through college, I wasn't exposed to the numbers and analytics that I am now. I wasn't exposed to that objective side, but subjectively I've always been experimenting. I think it helped a lot going into pro ball, and being exposed to a lot more information gave me a better idea what I was trying to aim for. Obviously at the end of the day you want to get hitters [out], and it's much easier to chase a number.”

Time will tell if Gipson-Long can chase that all the way to Detroit. But there’s enough intrigue to make him more than another Deadline-deal prospect thrown into the system. Much like Alex Lange in the Nick Castellanos trade, the Tigers hope they might have found another talented but undervalued arm, this one from a less traditional background.