Every pitcher, whether they’re a starter or reliever, has processes or routines that get them through the week.
Some are a little more relaxed, while others are more strictly regimented. The challenge will always be for the hurler to identify a plan -- or lack of -- that puts him in the best position for success on the mound.
Right-handed Twins pitching prospect Sawyer Gipson-Long knew this challenge could be overcome with some self-assessment. He realized he needed to figure out how his body moves, how his pitches play in the zone, and finally, the makeup of his arsenal.
It didn’t require a bookish mind that could one day attend medical school to come up with this plan. But that’s exactly what Gipson-Long had to work with.
After gaining a firm grasp on those three things, the 23-year-old hit a new gear halfway through his first full season last week, earning Player of the Week honors as the top pitcher in the Low-A Southeast before earning a promotion to Cedar Rapids on Monday.
“It's been nice to figure some stuff out about myself,” Gipson-Long said, explaining he’s been working to throw his developing changeup and slider for strikes. “They have been getting better the entire year, and I think they culminated into the performance I had last week.”
Over his past three starts for Fort Myers, Gipson-Long amassed 26 strikeouts with four earned runs allowed over 17 innings. He’s struck out at least nine batters in five of his 14 appearances, topping out at 11 punchouts twice this season.
It has been a fortunate turn of events for the 2019 sixth-rounder out of Mercer. After surrendering seven runs and recording just one out in his first start of the season, Gipson-Long lowered his ERA to 4.54 this past week and has obviously shown some signs he’s figuring things out at the professional level.
His first turn in the Minors resulted in a six-start stint with Elizabethton after the Draft. He sported a 5.40 ERA, allowing 11 runs in 18⅓ innings, but had some unfinished business left in college. With just one semester remaining at Mercer, he returned to complete his degree in Chemical Commerce and remain on a med-school track.
“The Twins embraced me and they let me go back, and it was just such an important thing in my family to get that done,” Gipson-Long said. “Once I got that degree, I [was] good to go and all my eggs can be put in one basket in baseball.”
Chemical Commerce, Gipson-Long says, is a Mercer-specific major that blends biology and chemistry studies with business classes. It was a concentration that kept school a possibility while still being amenable to a busy baseball schedule.
Gipson-Long graduated in 2019 before the pandemic shut down the Minor League season the following year, and he said he’s been able to figure out a lot about himself over the first half of this season. He worked with the Twins’ pitching staff, pored over Rapsodo and TrackMan data and worked with Tom House’s group at the National Pitching Association to gain a better sense of his three-pitch mix.
“I rely pretty heavily on my fastball that has a lot of ride to it -- it looks like it kind of rises,” he said. “My slider and changeup both play well off of that fastball that stays up. And living on that four-seam fastball at the top of the zone and throwing my off-speed pitches at the bottom of the zone.”
According to Gipson-Long, the changeup has been a true catalyst for his recent success. He didn’t throw the pitch too often in college and in 2019, but he knew that, in order to get by as a starter against professional hitters, he’d need a better third offering. A change of grip has produced, in his opinion, better movement on a changeup he’s learned to consistently locate.
Beyond the changeup, the overall pitch mix and the even more vital execution of those pitches, the truly unique aspect of Gipson-Long’s season has been his in-depth routine from start to start. This six-day process was also the brainchild of his work with the Twins’ pitching coordinators, House and his personal impressions of the advanced data. But there is one truth that binds the entire process.
“I'm really big on, however many pitches you throw, and however many throws you make, you need to do 10 times as much as recovery,” Gipson-Long said. “I think that was another big thing this year for me was learning what my body is like and how much it takes for my body to recover start to start.”
That’s the underlying goal between starts, and it all goes from there. After an outing, he’ll get right into the weight room for plyo ball and body-weight exercises before a half-hour of light cardio -- biking or walking -- to flush the lactic acid. The next day will be a heavier lifting day and higher-intensity cardio before resting the body enough to get it back to where it was before his start, and then he’ll do some light throwing of about 90 feet and towel drills, or as he calls it, “dry mechanics.”
By Day 3, he throws a bullpen, the process of which was designed by the Twins. He’ll do two sets of anywhere between 12 and 16 pitches with a focus on something from the previous week that was flagged as a point of emphasis -- throwing a certain pitch to a certain spot, as an example.
“The first set will be 'over the rubber'-focused, which means like, I'll focus on something in my mechanics or in my pitch grips to make something move a certain way or to make my body get in a certain position,” Gipson-Long explained. “And then in the second set, it'll be like 'over the plate'-focused. So executing my pitches, so maybe I'll put a batter in the box and kind of simulate a batter.”
The bullpen session is treated like a start day in terms of the subsequent recovery steps, and the first two days are repeated as a lead-in to his start.
It seems like a lot, but to hear the right-hander explain it, it’s the least he can do to accomplish his goals. And whether it’s a lack of facilities or battling with the elements, Gipson-Long knows what needs to be done to make his body feel good enough for the next start, and he’ll do what he can to get there. On the occasion when sacrifices must be made, he never forgets the bottom line.
“If I had to give something up, it would be throwing that day if I had to and just do more recovery stuff,” he said.
While his major might have provided some unique perspective in this arena, Gipson-Long yields his opinion to the professionals. But there were plenty of lessons from his days as a student that are applied to his preparation and he likened each start to a college exam in which he worked to learn the material as best he can.
“Our tests in baseball are pitching every week, so we have a test every six days,” he explained. “And that test includes not only like the other team and knowing them, but also knowing your own body and the environment that day and everything else.”
Gipson-Long said he’s still intrigued by the life that his degree could one day offer and the book certainly isn’t closed on med school, but his focus is still very much on his blossoming professional baseball career.
“I love that profession, and I love learning about my body at least and what makes me tick,” Gipson-Long said. “So I feel like one day, possibly after my career is over, I can help someone else figure out what makes them good at baseball.”
Gerard Gilberto is a reporter for MiLB.com.