After a successful college career, Sawyer Gipson-Long has a new goal in mind.
Gipson-Long, the 2016 Cherokee County Pitcher of the Year when he was Etowah, was one of six players with Cherokee County ties who were selected this past June in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. The Minnesota Twins drafted the 6-foot-4, 225-pound right-hander in the sixth round with the 179th overall pick.
As a college junior, Gipson-Long pitched 83 innings over 23 appearances, posting an 8-4 record and 5.20 ERA. His strikeout-to-walk ratio of 5.50 was one of the best in the country, with 99 strikeouts to just 18 walks.
A number of former Cherokee County baseball players are on the same path as Gipson-Long, trudging their way through the minor leagues with the hopes of one day reaching the majors. Gipson-Long is early in that journey and training in Florida in preparation for his first spring training as a professional baseball player. He took the time to speak with the Cherokee Tribune about the transition from college to the pros.
Cherokee Tribune: What was it like being drafted? Did you expect it to be the Twins?
Gipson-Long: It was pretty hectic. I expected it because I was talking with teams, but it didn’t really click until they actually called my name. That’s when reality set in, and I saw all my hard work come to fruition. I had my family there with me, and I’m glad I was able to share that with them.
The Twins were the team I was talking to the most, and the scout that drafted me, I was talking with him the most, so I was pretty sure it would be them. They said they liked my body, my dedication to the game, and they also like to draft guys who do well in classes, too. Most of our draft class did pretty well in school.
CT: What was your decision process like? You still had eligibility, correct?
GL: I always put school first. My mom wanted me to get my degree, and that’s what I told the Twins. I was able to negotiate with them to go back to school this fall after rookie ball and graduate, and I was glad that the Twins were understanding of that. I didn’t want to have it in the back of my mind hanging out there. I only had a semester left to finish, and I can thank my mom for that because she started me dual-enrolling during my sophomore year of high school.
CT: What did you do after you were drafted? Are you being used as a starter or reliever?
GL: After they drafted me, I flew up to Minnesota and signed my contract. They gave me a tour of Target Field and I got to meet all the major league players. Some other guys from my draft class were there, too, and we all got to meet each other. It’s really a great organization to be a part of.
They think I can go deep into games as a starter, and they want me to be a starter moving up in the organization.
CT: How did rookie ball go?
GL: I started working out in Fort Myers (Florida) after I was drafted. They gave me about two weeks off after I signed and then they ramped me back up down there. Rookie ball started early July and I went to Elizabethton, Tennessee, where the (rookie-level) Elizabethton Twins are located. I went up there as a starter and played for about a month in the short season. The first couple times, I only threw two or three innings, but, by the end of the month, I ended up getting four or five innings.
CT: What are your coaches telling you at this point? What kind of things do you think will determine your success?
GL: The biggest thing right now is just learning how pro ball works and staying healthy because a lot of guys don’t make it because they can’t stay healthy. A lot of guys are smarter than me and stronger than me, so it’s learning how to adapt as quickly as possible.
CT: Are there any other differences you’ve noticed so far?
GL: A big thing is the TrackMan system, which is at every field now. It uses Doppler radar to measure your velocity, spin rate and, really, anything related to physics that can happen to a baseball. It’s a really cool tool because, as a pitcher, I can see stuff like where my curveball spin rate is and where my changeup depth is. You can use that to your advantage whereas, five years ago, it was just velocity. This is the first time I’ve consistently been exposed to this technology and been able to use to on an everyday basis. It’s helpful to see after each start what my pitches are doing.
CT: What are you pitches right now?
GL: I have a four-seam fastball, a two-seam fastball, a slider and changeup. I developed a better two-seam this last year in college, and I’ve been able to develop my changeup over this past year, too. I try to use all my pitches pretty equally, and I try not to get into patterns. You want pitch to your strengths, but you also have to pitch to the hitters weaknesses, too.
CT: What has surprised you most so far?
GL: I was definitely surprised by the talent, to be honest. Hitters are a lot more disciplined at this level because they have to be. There’s definitely a lot more weak contact with wood bats, but guys up here are also able to square it up. You try to pitch to those spots where you can get that weak contact.
CT: Now that you’ve graduated from Mercer, what are you doing with your time?
GL: I’m down in Florida training at the Florida Baseball Ranch in Plant City, right outside Tampa. I really wanted to come down here because there have been a lot of guys in the Twins organization who have come down here to help improve their chances of success. I wouldn’t have gotten this exposure to the technology and coaching if I had just stayed at home.
My grandma lives down here, too, so I’ve just been staying with her. I have to commute for about an hour or so every day, but that beats trying to do it on my own at home.
CT: Do you still keep up with any former teammates? What do you think of Drew Waters’ rapid climb in the Braves’ organization?
GL: I text Drew pretty regularly and I keep up with my former Mercer teammates Austin Cox and Robert Broom (in the Royals’ and Indians’ organizations). With Drew, you saw those glimpses of greatness in high school, and it’s cool to see the guys who I played with doing well.
Everybody is grinding and working, trying to make it to the show. I don’t take anything for granted. I always think someone is working harder than me, and so that motivates me.
CT: What are you looking forward to most this spring?
GL: I’m really excited to see where the work I’ve put in this offseason takes me. I’ll go to Fort Myers for spring training and, honestly, I don’t really know what to expect. I’ve been talking to guys who have done this before, but it’ll be a new experience.
I’m just excited to see how I do. I’m excited for the next couple years, and even this year, because you can move up as quick as you want to move up. It’ll be my first full season a professional, and I can’t wait to see it.