Will Sam Long Become the Pitching Yaz?

Because it sure would help!

Hello! It’s me, Mr. “Raising Expectations Through Irresponsible Hyperbole,” here to do my daily work. And today that work consists of wondering out loud whether a 25-year old twice cut loose by professional organizations before making it out of A ball might metamorphosize into a down-ballot MVP candidate. Because it sure would be swell if he did!

Long is the early buzz of Giants camp and his first appearance in a game Sunday night did little to dampen enthusiasm for the Sacramento lefty. Let’s check the tape!

Yup, that’s pretty exciting alright. But what may be more exciting than simply the crack of the curve or the zip and dip of the heater is the fact that Long could be more than one of a cast of thousands auditioning for a bit part in the 2021 bullpen. Long appears to be trying to land a much different — and much more significant — role.

Sneak preview, but if you listen to tomorrow’s There R Giants podcast with the Bay Area News Group’s Kerry Crowley, he discusses the fact that Giants manager Gabe Kapler has specifically said that the team is looking at Long as a starting pitcher. And “Sam Long: potential starting pitching prospect” is a VERRRRY different beast than “Sam Long: next Tuesday’s fourth lefty option out of the pen.”

By now, everyone has heard the background story about the Sacramento native — Alex Pavlovic told the tale brilliantly of Long’s journey in and out of baseball and back in again, leaving a promising EMT career in the lurch. Ever since Kapler’s early comment that Long was “kinda lighting it up” in his bullpen sessions he’s been the talk of the town. And why wouldn’t he be? He combines a Cinderella Story with a hometown kid angle, and adds just of dollop of “Hey, the Rays can screw up, too!” on top for kicks!

But what is particularly tantalizing for me about Sam Long is that he might just be the best candidate to fill the one big hole in this farm system. If you’ve been reading my stuff for the last year, you know that bemoaning the lack of quality pitching prospect depth in the system is my own little mini-genre. With plenty of high-impact bats on the way (eventually, anyway) the question of how the org is going to pair those hitters with a competitive pitching staff continues to be one of the most pressing and vexing issues for the future — especially now, as the club prepares to enter the season with five, count ‘em FIVE, starting pitchers on expiring contracts.

Wouldn’t it be great, Giants fans say to themselves like a nightly mantra, if the Giants could stumble across another Yaz (or heck, even a Dick or a Donnie Barrels), who made his living chucking pitches rather than swinging the lumber? In one respect, that guy might have been here all along, in the ever-mercurial Tyler Beede, and one of the biggest storylines of this year will be Beede’s comeback from Tommy John surgery. Beede wasn’t an unwanted waiver wire find from someone else’s farm system, but he was a guy that the Giants had spent five years trying to develop without getting a whole lot of return on that #14th overall pick pedigree — glacially slow movement for arm coming out of the best pitching factory in the NCAA. Farhan Zaidi and Scott Harris like to talk about their “pitching infrastructure” that can help turn pitchers into the best version of themselves and Beede will be the best test case we’ve seen so far of how well they can apply that infrastructure to their own young pitchers. My guess is, it’s going to go well — scouts have often talked about Beede needing to cut down on his pitch repertoire and focus on his best offerings, and that dovetails exactly with what the Giants are preaching these days.

But if Beede is the test case for a home grown Kevin Gausman, Sam Long offers the promise of the kind of “found gold” experience that we’ve seen over the last two years with Donovan Solano and Mike Yastrzemski — a player with an unimposing career record but a willingness to work hard, fitting perfectly with a new organization that is committed to giving players the support they need to thrive and succeed.

We know that Long’s comeback story began where so much of today’s baseball is happening, the combination of a local gym/pitching laboratory and social media:

It was there that he worked his way up from the soft-tossing upper-80s guy he’d been with the Rays. With conditioning work, a change in his arm angle back to his college arm slot, and focus on increasing his velocity, Long turned himself into a viral video sensation, throwing mid-90s fastballs one after another complete with nasty dips and dives. Watch that video in full. It’s fun! He’d always been a pitcher who had a strong command of his arsenal and three fully developed pitches. Elevating the whole package with a touch of “Nasty” put him back in the game.

His year with the Kannapolis Intimidators (the White Sox’ Sally League team) showed a very different pitcher than the one who had been released by Tampa. In just 97 innings, he struck out 112 batters while walking just 28. Even better, during the course of the year, he’d transitioned from a one-inning pitcher out of the pen to a member of the Intimidators’ rotation. His final 15 appearances of the year came as a starter, getting stronger and better as he went along. On July 20, in his ninth start of the year, he threw a masterpiece, allowing just one hit over 5.2 IP while striking out 10. In August, he allowed just 2 earned runs over 29.1 innings, striking out 30 and and walking just 5. As much as we talk about Seth Corry’s extraordinary run down the stretch, Sam Long was matching him nearly inning for inning.

Cast adrift with most of the rest of minor league baseball in 2020, it appears that Long continued his upward-progression-through-self-improvement work. He showed up to Giants camp with even more velo than he’d shown in 2019, up to a peak of 97. And to this unpracticed eye, it looks like he’s hitting that velocity a little smoother than he was in 2019, when there was still a bit of “max effort” look to his motion.

There’s still a very long way to go in the Long story. We don’t know how that 97 and snapping curve will look when stretched out to 5-6 inning stints and the months start to pile up the workload. Flowers that bloom in the spring tend to wither and die in the heat of the summer. Remember the spring that Travis Ishikawa led the Cactus League in HRs? I sure do and I also remember that it didn’t presage Travis becoming a legendary Giants slugger — hey! wait a second, how did this get in here?

Man, people shouldn’t just leave highlight clips lying around like that!

Anyway, the point to all of this silliness is that what’s exciting about the Giants’ future isn’t just Top 100 prospects (as exciting as those guys are). Development today isn’t just tanking so you can draft Jack Leiter or Kumar Rocker. It’s finding the Pitching Yaz. It’s being at the right place at the right time with the guy who is ready to receive the support you have to give — or, yes, infrastructure — and take it in and implement it in a way that allows them to reimagine themselves. It’s turning guys into the best versions of themselves, better than their best-case outcome sometimes. It’s doing what Cleveland did when they helped turn anonymous Triple A chucker Corey Kluber into the Clubot (or what Cleveland did again when they turned soft-tossing control artist Shane Bieber into the Biebot). It’s almost deconstructing the whole concept of development in radical new ways.

That’s the key outcome that we’re still waiting to see with this organization — the radical best-case outcome with a pitching castoff. And Sam Long, right now, is the best new hope that we could see it come to fruition. “Where’s the pitching coming from?” will continue to be a major question of this soft rebuild, and turning pennies from heaven into shiny new Eisenhower dollar coins will need to be an important part of the answer. That could be getting Tyler Beede to corral his dominant stuff with consistency, rather than frustrating flashes. It could be providing Sam Long with just the right support structure within which to flourish. Or it could be other guys advancing beyond their scouting cards — Joey Marciano’s still out there throwing 98 on his You Tube channel too, you know.

But one way or another, finding that young, impact pitching talent is the missing link connecting “where this organization is today” with “where they’re trying to go.” And Sam Long may well be the guy that connects that chain. Between Long, Beede, and perhaps Logan Webb, it looks like Sacramento’s rotation could well become one of the most important units in the system this spring and play an outsize role in the team’s chances of breaking through in 2022.

In the meantime, let’s drink down this feel-good Spring Training story for all the juice it’s got!

News and Notes

A couple of major stories broke yesterday. Last night, Jeff Passan delivered the big news about the AAA season that we’d been fearing:

As you recall from my post just last week, I suggested that this was an entirely likely possibility given the complexities of trying to meld a minor league schedule with MLB’s health and safety protocols. With good news about the vaccines roll out increasing (I’m getting my own first dose later today!), it makes sense to shift the AAA schedule back a month and put it in sync with the other leagues. Currently, that creates a 120 game schedule for AAA though it sounds like there’s a chance that the season might extend beyond its current Sept. 19 end-date. The delayed start could impact the ability of players like Heliot Ramos or Joey Bart to work their way into a big league callup as it will take them longer in the year to build up reps, but we’re still talking about five months of overlapped season.

Secondly, while it seems like just yesterday that we were covering the signings of the 2020 international class, we got some big news yesterday about the 2021 class (which almost certainly won’t be signed until January of 2022). It sounds like the Giants will once again be shopping in the designer aisles as Ben Badler’s first preview of the class connects them to what is likely to be the 8th highest bonus for switch-hitting shortstop Ryan Reckley out of the Bahamas. Badler anticipates that the Giants will sign Reckley to approximately a $2 million bonus (and Badler’s approximations tend to be highly accurate). So set your clocks to January 15, 2022 and get ready to be excited for more potentially-elite talent coming in through the international department. International Scouting Director Joe Salermo continues to be one of the most important (and least known) resources in the organization.