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Sawyer Gipson-Long commands attention after two fine starts

Another excellent outing over the weekend has fans wondering if the Tigers have a future rotation piece in the 25-year-old right-hander.

Chicago White Sox v Detroit Tigers Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Everywhere you look these days, the Detroit Tigers seem to be producing pitching talent. The latest breakout this season comes from 25-year-old right-hander Sawyer Gipson-Long.

Acquired from the Minnesota Twins at the 2022 trade deadline for reliever Michael Fulmer, Gipson-Long arrived looking like a sixth starter candidate with quality secondary pitches but a mediocre fastball. The deal was met with shrugs at the time, and for the better part of a year, Gipson-Long didn’t really change perceptions.

He was noticeably more in command this spring, but even in really good starts the long ball remained a consistent problem. The fastball was still too hittable, and over reliance on his slider and changeup led to a few too many hangers despite the good whiff counts on those pitches. His results revolved around whether he kept the walks in check and limited the damage when the big blow arrived. There were some positive signs too, however.

The Tigers had gotten him using a sinker again for the first time since college starting in spring camp. That pitch got more effective as he mixed it in more and developed the feel for it. He also showed improved command of the slider and made a grip adjustment to help improve his changeup. As a result, Gipson-Long continued to rack up the strikeouts at a very nice clip as he advanced. In May, the Tigers’ Director of Pitching, Gabe Ribas, told Gipson-Long that they wanted him to learn a cutter, and they skipped a start so he could work on it in bullpens. That pitch came along fairly quickly, and gave him another wrinkle to help combat left-handed hitters. He still wasn’t getting much notice, but the whole package started to come together in June and July.

Finally, the Tigers decided to promote him to Toledo on July 22.

Gipson-Long’s first three Triple-A starts were nothing to write home about. The walks spiked, but worse he also allowed five home runs across his first three Mud Hens outings. Then, on August 11th, he shut out the Columbus Clippers for five innings with eight strikeouts. The next start saw him punch out 12 over six scoreless innings, and suddenly the Tigers prospect networks were buzzing. One more solid start followed, and then the Tigers throttled him back with a pair of short outings where he was really fighting his command and got lit up.

The last of those outings was on September 5. Matt Manning then suffered another foot fracture on a comebacker, and the rest is history. The Tigers called up Gipson-Long to hold down Manning’s rotation spot, and while he now had everyone’s curiosity, he soon earned their complete attention. He’s done nothing but carve up hitters in his first two major league starts.

So what changed? Things were clearly trending up for him this summer, but no one foresaw him dominating at the major league level. We do have to remember that he’s faced two mediocre lineups in the White Sox and Angels so far, and not get carried away yet. But he’s clearly improved a lot over the past few months, and seems to have really taken a big step in putting it all together just in the last few weeks.

Let’s take a look at what the Tigers really have here, and try to moderate expectations to a degree going forward. Most of his improvements have been in the command department and in subtle tweaks to his pitches, rather than in some major mechanical change, or a big velocity jump. The stuff is clearly good enough. So we’ll just have to see if he can keep spotting his whole mix like this.

For a young starting pitcher, he’s really been in command of his full set of pitches and executed advanced sequences to hitters with pretty eye-opening consistency. If he can keep that up, he’s going to have plenty of success in the major leagues.

Scouting Report

A key trait to note in Sawyer Gipson-Long’s delivery, and this will inform everything else to come, is that he has better extension to the plate than just about any pitcher in baseball. He checks in at 7.4 feet of extension or better with all his pitches, with his changeup even an extra inch or two beyond the fastball, slider, and cutter extension.

Major league average extension is 6.4 feet. For comparison, Matt Manning is considered elite in this regard, and his fastball extension is 7.1 feet down to 6.8 with his breaking balls. Jacob deGrom, for another familiar example, checks is at 6.8 feet with his fourseamer. So Gipson-Long is a true outlier in this regard, and as a result his stuff plays up better than the velocity readings would suggest. A quick arm, and a somewhat lower than expected arm slot, also give him a little deception that helps him keep hitters honest.

It also gives him good induced vertical break on the high fourseamer when he goes upstairs, meaning that the low release point and the ride on the fastball combine to make the heater look like it’s rising, or more accurately not falling, more that it actually is when you just measure the movement. That bit of perceptual trickery against hitters has become better understood in recent years, and Manning is another example of a guy with big extension and a low release point who gets a similar effect with his fourseamer.

That becomes particularly relevant as Gipson-Long has seen a little uptick in his fastball velocity. He’s averaged 93.9 mph with the fourseamer so far, a tick or two above his prior cruising speed in years past. He’s not blazing high 90’s fastballs in there, but with that extension and a little more gas, the ball is getting on hitters pretty quickly with the added visual discomfort of being released unusually close to the plate.

The movement on the fourseamer is tricky, but it’s actually fairly straight while spinning like a fastball that is going to tail heavily in on right-handers. Instead, it stays true and sinks a bit. It’s shifty and pretty much a cut fastball when he throws it inside to left-handers, with a bit of ride but no horizontal break. Meanwhile, the sinker, which has a bit less velocity, has good tailing action and some depth. He’s tended to use them fairly equally in the minors, but so far he’s leaned on the sinker in his two major league starts. There’s enough separation between the two that it’s hard to cover both for a hitter.

As a pair they aren’t overpowering, but with good execution and the fact that his pitch mix is pretty well balanced between fastballs, sliders, and changeups, hitters have struggled with them so far. That will probably change to some degree as Gipson-Long faces better hitting teams than the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Angels, but he’s certainly improved in this regard, and shored up his main weakness as a result.

Spin-Based vs. Observed Movement

So, the main flaw in Gipson-Long’s game was some vulnerability with the fastballs. He’s managed that by mixing the two types and commanding them well. He’s also managed it by having a very good slider-changeup combination, and throwing a lot of both.

The slider and changeup were good enough to rack up plenty of whiffs in the minor leagues, but each has seen a little improvement this season to take things to the next level. Both pitches have more depth than average, and so far the slider has an outstanding 52.2 percent whiff rate, while the changeup holds an outrageous 60.9 percent whiff percentage. The slider is a quality pitch, but it isn’t likely to continue to look quite this effective, but the changeup is absolutely nasty. The extension, the depth, and his improved ability to spot it to both sides of the plate, have made the change a weapon against either-handed hitters.

What’s been really special to watch, and the reason I sat down to write this, is the wide variety of different approaches we’ve seen executed by such a young pitcher in his first two major league starts. He’s jammed right-handed hitters with sinkers and changeups down and in, and will then swing one back on the outer edge for a called strike. He’ll break off a slider down and away, and then throw a tighter one for a strike in counts where hitters expect a fastball. We’ve seen doubled up right-on-right changeups. We’ve seen first pitch backdoor sliders for strikes on the edge against lefties. We’ve seen the sinker-changeup game executed at the bottom of the zone. It’s been pretty impressive.

That is a whole lot for a major league lineup to deal with there, despite only one standout pitch in the changeup. If he can continue to command all this, Chris Fetter and the catching group are going to have an absolute blast sequencing him. Major league hitters, will not be having a blast of any sort.

Take a look at the way he’s using all his pitches to different parts of the zone in these clips.

Gipson-Long’s next test appears set for Thursday night against the Oakland Athletics to kick off the final series of this 10 game road trip. That’s another lineup that should be relatively easy prey for major league pitching, and if he can command multiple pitches this well again, even the quality of opponent isn’t going to be able to tamp down the buzz building here. Still, it’s worth remembering that he isn’t going to continue to strike out 40 percent of the hitters he faces, and when more contact arrives, it might be loud.

It’s too early to lock Sawyer Gipson-Long in as a member of the 2024 rotation. It’s possible he’s best suited to a swingman role facing hitters only once per outing, and perhaps picking up a spot start here or there. However, if his command really has leveled up this much, the Tigers are in business once again with a pitcher who looked like depth, and now has a chance to be a pretty good major league starting pitcher.