Less than an hour before the trade deadline passed the Detroit Tigers traded Michael Fulmer to the Minnesota Twins for RHP Sawyer Gipson-Long. There were no long plane rides for Fulmer, all he had to do was walk across the field.
At the time of the trade, it seemed like an underwhelming return. The Tigers have done a pretty good job finding and developing undervalued pitching talent in the past few years, and so it made sense to withhold some judgement despite the fact that prior to the season Gipson-Long wasn’t ranked on the major Twins’ prospect lists. After digging into some video there’s a quite a bit more to like in Gipson-Long than was obvious in his 2022 numbers. Perhaps the Tigers could’ve done better with earlier offers for Fulmer rather than waiting until the final hour, but once again they identified some compelling ingredients to work with.
This may sound like a broken record for those that consistently read about Tigers prospects, but Gipson-Long is a high spin rate pitcher. That is something the organization has been looking to attain in their pitchers and they’ve been successful in recently developing those players. Clearly high spin rates are only a modest part of the equation with a pitcher, but in many cases they are a good marker of a pitcher who has more to offer than their minor league numbers might suggest.
The Twins selected Gipson-Long in the sixth round of the 2019 draft out of Mercer College. He’s a strike thrower who keeps his walk numbers down, but that can lead to hard contact, especially when his strikeout numbers are down like they are this year. This could be attributed to his promotion to Double-A, but his strikeout numbers in High-A were down a full strikeout per nine from his time in High-A last year.
It’s easy to look at his age versus level, starting in High-A this year at 24 years old. That’s the way the Twins operate. In general, they bring arms along slowly and they are usually older than the average age of the level they play at.
Gipson-Long works with three pitches: A fastball, slider, and changeup. His slider is the jewel of the three. There isn’t room to project much on his big frame, listed at 6’4”, 225 pounds. So the trick here will be to optimize what’s already there, whether that be pitch shape or usage. The Tigers have shown that ability with guys like Beau Brieske, Alex Lange, and Jason Foley.
This pitch is the one that Gipson-Long seems to struggle with the most. It’s 90-93 MPH on the stadium radar guns. I’ve been told he generally sits in the higher end of that velocity. He commands it to both corners, but it’s a hittable offering right now. It’s going to be the biggest point of development for the Tigers. It’s not an easy path to the majors with a fastball that doesn’t play well, particularly as a starter, but that’s not a death sentence. Through all the starts I watched, there was only a single whiff on this fastball. If the hitter swung, there was contact. Whether it be a foul ball, hard contact, or anything in between, Gipson-Long wasn’t missing many bats.
The question is if different sequencing could unlock more success. It’s possible, but he already changes speeds pretty well. He also moves it around the zone with decent command, it just gets hit. I think the key will be changing the shape. There are a few ways to do that, and the development team might go that route. In doing so they might be able to find a way to make the fastball play well to the top of the zone, based on his low arm slot.
Personally, I have another theory. Based on his arm slot and the natural feel to throw his slider, it’s reasonable to believe that Gipson-Long is a natural supinator. That means he gets on the side of the ball and cut it when he releases it. Because of that if the Tigers can lean into that and try to teach him a cutter, that might be the way to go. That doesn’t mean abandoning the fastball, but adding a weapon that could generate more whiffs or weak contact could take pressure off his fastball to perform.
Here’s Sawyer Gipson-Long’s fastball. It’s been 91-93 MPH on the stadium gun. Through this 7 inning start there was only one swing at the pitch that didn’t result in contact of some sort. Interested to see how it plays in other outings. pic.twitter.com/EmBrFxUd8y— Trevor Hooth (@HoothTrevor) August 3, 2022
Start number two. Early on SGL is living on the corners better and getting takes on the FB. Still guaranteed contact so far if the hitters swings at it. pic.twitter.com/IXbLqdJPKO— Trevor Hooth (@HoothTrevor) August 3, 2022
This pitch rocks. I believe that’s the most professional way to put it. The slider is a big league ready pitch at 80-83 MPH. It’s a tight breaker that has a ton of horizontal movement across the zone with tons of depth. He can leave it over the zone, but even then it’s usually weak contact. When he throws it well, he can double or even triple up on it to get swings and misses.
Pitchers with this kind of pitch leading the way can tend to lean on it extremely heavily and neutralize it’s effectiveness. That’s not the case with Gipson-Long. He tends to use it a lot early on once his fastball starts to get hit, but once he settles in he does a nice job using it just enough to get whiffs and keep hitters off balance.
Newest Tiger Sawyer Gipson-Long’s calling card is his slider, you can see why pic.twitter.com/7yg9zGAAw0— Trevor Hooth (@HoothTrevor) August 3, 2022
SGL slider whiff pic.twitter.com/wySo73u3Bt— Trevor Hooth (@HoothTrevor) August 3, 2022
Three pitches, three strikes, all sliders, see you later. pic.twitter.com/63R90JLHbp— Trevor Hooth (@HoothTrevor) August 3, 2022
His changeup sits in basically the same velocity range as the slider, 79-82 MPH. He gets armside fade to both sides of the plate. He gets very good velocity separation off the fastball. This is the one pitch I never saw him put over the middle of the plate. He worked it corner to corner extremely well across several outings. In terms of usage it’s his third pitch. But he sequences it well to get swing and miss.
To throw a changeup and get armside run requires pronation rather than supination. Put simply if the terms are new to you, pronation of the arm turns the thumb on the pitching hand down. Supination rotates it up. Hopefully that helps you visualize it. Natural supinators can run into issues finding a changeup. Gipson-Long seems to have done a nice job with that. While that might potentially poke a hole in my supinator theory, it doesn’t necessarily negate it.
The biggest issue with the changeup is his arm action. Ideally the speed is the same whether you’re throwing a fastball, slider, changeup, screwball, or anything else. Gipson-Long appears to slow his arm down significantly. This could be to steer it, or it could be him trying to release it a certain way, among some other reasons. Either way this will make the pitch less deceptive as the hitters get better. The trick is always to maintain that fastball arm speed while using grip and release to take velocity off in a way the hitter can’t easily pick up.
First look at Sawyer Gipson-Long’s changeup. He gets some armside on it. pic.twitter.com/eQKp4F1Kw7— Trevor Hooth (@HoothTrevor) August 3, 2022
Another changeup from Gipson-Long. One thing of note is he’s only thrown it to the armside corner and belt high in this outing. pic.twitter.com/XHQsctlubG— Trevor Hooth (@HoothTrevor) August 3, 2022
Gipson-Long’s CH if flashing well. This is still the first outing I’ve watched, but it keeps getting better as this start goes on. pic.twitter.com/EnqS8iNoKF— Trevor Hooth (@HoothTrevor) August 3, 2022
My initial reaction was to be skeptical of the return. I actually think this is a decent return on a reliever rental. He does have big spin numbers, which the Tigers like. And he has one major league ready pitch already. Even if the team tweaks the fastball just enough to be useful, he should be able to live on a slider heavy approach out of the bullpen, which is where I project him to land.
His command is his best non-slider asset. He can work all of his pitches to both sides of the plate and he shows great feel to sequence them. In short, he knows how to pitch. That’s a great asset to have. Even if his fastball never plays well, knowing how to pitch can make it play better. If it’s only ever a weak contact pitch, that can still be useful. In a relief role, he can comfortably lean into his best pitch, the slider, much more often, following in the steps of someone like Alex Lange.
It’s clear that the Tigers will need to get in the lab and work on that fastball, but Gipson-Long comes equipped with two secondary offerings that should be able to play in the majors. Getting a guy that knows how to pitch, has a plus offering, and another secondary that projects out as average or better is a pretty decent haul based on the cost.
Now the onus is on the pitching development to figure out how to make Gipson-Long more successful. The numbers are not great. But I think it’s fair to say he has a skillset that should be performing better than the numbers indicate. The Tigers knew that when they traded for him, which likely means they have an idea on how to help. At the end of the day, unless something really clicks, this was a trade of a reliever for a future reliever.