When Tigers general manager Al Avila sent Justin Upton to the Angels, it was an underappreciated stroke of genius. Upton — the Tigers' most tradable commodity at the August deadline — had performed admirably throughout the season, silencing lingering doubts in the minds of Tigers fans regarding his ability to play. Upton was on a sinking ship, though, and his efforts were wasted on a club that was quickly becoming worst team in baseball.
In exchange for the outfielder, Detroit received a pitcher named Grayson Long. Drafted in the third round in 2015, Long is seen as a high-floor prospect, albeit one with a lower ceiling. After a less than stellar introduction to professional baseball, stymied by mediocre pitching and injury, the Angels pushed him hard in 2017, and he responded in kind. Pitching 121 2/3 innings with the Double-A Mobile BayBears, he recorded an ERA of 2.52 and a FIP of 3.07. His strikeout and walk levels settled in at decent rates, and a BABIP of .282 indicates that wasn’t all a mirage.
When we chatted with him, he attributed his success to a specific improvement as a player.
"The coaching staff I was with was awesome," Long said. "Definitely a lot of my success would be [because] I developed my slider this year. In college and the first couple years, I threw a slider, but it wasn't effective. This year they definitely developed that pitch for me and that's what helped me out on my season."
This incredible season is obviously the reason Avila targeted the tall righty in the trade. However, that all fell apart in his unimpressive debut in the Tigers organization with their Double-A club, the Erie SeaWolves. What caused his troubles in Erie?
"I really don't know. It was just kinda one of those days," Long said candidly. "It was bad timing for that to be my debut, it definitely wasn't ideal, but I think it was just a day. Just move on. You try to have more good outings than bad outings, and that was just a bad one."
Fulfilling the philosophy of getting more good outings than bad ones is something that his career will hinge on. Not a pitcher that will overwhelm evaluators with his raw stuff, Long is the type of player that has been pegged to play a lot of games. Standing 6'5" and weighing in at 230 pounds, he was described as a workhorse by Avila and is projected to be a starter who can be relied on to pitch a lot of innings. That is a valuable trait in any pitcher, especially one who aiming to be in the back end of the rotation long term.
Long embraces the image of a workhorse pitcher, saying, "I do my best to try to get as many innings as I can in a start. I'm not happy if I come out after five. I'm thinking I gotta go six, seven innings just to do my part. Over the course of a major league season going six or seven innings per start, you're gonna go 180 or 200 innings. As a big league starter, that's your goal."
In an era that is often dominated by high velocities and home runs, bullpens are playing a larger part in a winning strategy than ever before. Starters pitching six or seven innings in every start is becoming a rarity. Long’s goals for himself are lofty indeed. His strategy to achieve them is surprisingly simple.
"Just stay neutral," Long said. "There's a lot of ups and downs in baseball. It's a crazy game and it's a really humbling game. If you start being down on yourself all the time, you're not gonna be at your best. You've just gotta stay neutral, roll with the punches and stay on it. Don't let yourself get too high or too low."
This is an interesting point, one that isn't brought up too often. Pitching truly is the most humbling part of playing baseball. A pitcher can't always strike the batter out. There's no pitcher who never gave up a home run. Pedro Martinez lost games. Randy Johnson lost games. Sandy Koufax, Walter Johnson, and Cy Young all lost games. A lack of confidence can kill any career, and yet, the things that cause a lack of confidence are unavoidable.
On the other side of the coin, a player can't linger on the good games either, because they’re just as fleeting. Balancing the two mindsets is tough, but it's vital. A good grasp of this will be an asset for Long going forward.
The future looks good for the 23-year-old pitcher, and he is focused on creating the best possible outcome for himself.
"I'm excited to be in the Tigers organization,” he said. “I'm looking forward to spring training and getting to meet everybody. I'm sure I'm gonna learn a lot of stuff. [When] you learn from different people and different coaches, some things stick and some things don't, but they want to help you out. That's one thing that I've been looking forward to — getting with the coaches, seeing and hearing what they have to say, and learning from them."
Thank you to Grayson Long for agreeing to speak with us! We really appreciate it. Be sure to follow his Twitter account, @Grayson_Long.