It was right there, all typed out in the file, “a lede” — to drop a bit of newspaper lingo on you — practically made to order: “The Detroit Tigers dropped Sawyer Gipson-Long into the deep end on Sunday afternoon at Comerica Park.”
Gipson-Long, y’see, was making his MLB debut, called up from Triple-A Toledo after just eight appearances with the Mud Hens. Even better, the right-hander (who’ll be three months shy of 26 on Tuesday) was a swimming star at Etowah High in Woodstock, Georgia.
There was just one problem … well, two, really.
One, calling the Chicago White Sox offense — which was averaging 4.1 runs a game entering Sunday — deep is kinda like calling the Detroit Lions a championship franchise: A little history is doing a lot of lifting.
The No. 179 overall pick in 2019 was dealing. He retired the first 10 batters he faced before allowing a triple in the fourth inning, then finished with five hits allowed, five strikeouts and no walks in five-plus innings of work — the first-ever Tiger with that stat line in a big-league debut.
(You can read more about the start, including the actual lede, here, in case you opted to enjoy the NFL’s opening Sunday instead.)
You might say, in fact, that the 6-foot-4 Gipson-Long made a big splash.
No? (OK, OK, it’s not a swimming newsletter, all right?)
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Bad puns aside, Gipson-Long finished with a game score — a metric created by sabermetrician Bill James in the ’80s to classify starts on a 0-100 scale — of 56. That’s the seventh-best MLB debut by any Tiger at Comerica Park, coming in well ahead of Drew Smyly’s April 2012 debut (51) and a little behind Jacob Turner’s 2011 debut (57).
So who’s had the best debut at the CoPa, you ask? Meet the Tigers with the five best Game 1 game scores:
Robbie Ray — May 6, 2014
Few youngsters have had bigger shoes to fill than Ray, who came from the Nationals in exchange for right-hander Doug Fister in a December 2013 trade. But the Tennessee native was ready for the majors at 22 years and 217 days; against the Astros (coming off their 100-loss era), Ray gave up hits to the first two batters he faced, then just three more over 5 1/3 innings, with one run, one walk and five strikeouts, for a game score of 58. “I’m almost speechless,” he told reporters. “It’s just an incredible feeling, especially considering that it didn’t look that good at the beginning.”
Ray’s ERA dropped to 0.75 before his fourth appearance, in which he was dinged for seven runs in just 3 1/3 innings; suddenly, he was almost unpitchable, finishing the season with an 8.16 ERA in 28 2/3 innings. The Tigers, and then-general manager Dave Dombrowski, didn’t wait to see if Ray had a bounce-back season, shipping him to Arizona in a December deal that brought Shane Greene to Detroit. It took a few more seasons, but Ray eventually developed into one of the NL’s top arms, albeit an occasionally frustrating one, mixing ERAs of 4.90 (2016) between years at 0.52 (2015) and 2.89 (2017); in 2021 with Toronto, his fourth organization, Ray posted an AL-best 2.84 ERA and won the AL Cy Young award.
Mike Maroth — June 8, 2002
Just over four years after he was a third-round pick out of UCF (and a couple months before he turned 25), Maroth was in the majors, scattering seven hits and two walks over seven shutout innings (with one strikeout) against the Phillies, for a game score of 62. The lefty remained in the Tigers’ rotation the rest of the year, posting a 4.48 ERA; over 128 2/3 innings, he showed control — just 36 walks — but thrived on pitching to contact, with just 58 strikeouts.
The next season — in which a rebuilding Tigers roster lost an AL-record 119 games — brought more of the same … albeit with a LOT more contact. Maroth, the Tigers' Opening Day starter, led the American League with 34 homers allowed and led the majors with 123 runs allowed and 21 losses — the first 20-game loser in MLB since 1980. Still, Maroth wasn’t brought down by the morose milestone: "Hopefully I'll be able to build on this,” he told reporters in Toronto after losing No. 20. “I have a few more starts this season and then I'll look forward to next year."
And build he did, becoming arguably the ace of the 2004 and 2005 Tigers — still bad teams, but growing into the squad that would win the AL pennant in 2006 (once they added Kenny Rogers, Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya, among others). Unfortunately, Maroth didn’t get to enjoy much of that season; an elbow injury sidelined him after just 13 appearances, and he lasted just 27 games in 2007 before injuries and ineffectiveness ended his time in the majors.
Garrett Hill — July 4, 2022
A 26th-round pick out of San Diego State in 2018, the righty was already 26 by the time he made the majors for the first game of a holiday doubleheader against Cleveland. The fireworks were all his, however, as he worked six innings vs. the Guardians while allowing one run on two hits with one walk and three strikeouts, posting a game score of 66.
The rest of Hill’s July brought some adjustments, with 16 runs allowed over 20 innings, but August, September and October saw him post a 2.62 ERA with 29 strikeouts and 18 walks over 34 1/3 innings (seven relief appearances, five starts). This season, Hill earned a bullpen spot during spring training, but he hasn’t shown the same control, with multiple walks in five of his nine 2023 big-league appearances, en route to a 9.19 ERA.
José Álvarez — June 9, 2013
The Venezuelan lefty was 34 days past his 24th birthday when he got a Sunday afternoon start — in front of more than 41,000 fans at Comerica Park — against Cleveland. Nervous? "Yeah," he told the Free Press. "I would lie to you if I said no." Still, his stuff was nasty, and he didn’t give up a hit (a homer to ex-Tiger Ryan Raburn) until there were two outs in the fifth inning, en route to six innings of one-run ball, with three hits, one walk and seven strikeouts on 93 pitches, for a game score of 68.
Álvarez made 13 more appearances that season for the Tigers, with five more starts. He never made it six innings again that season and was dealt to the Angels the following March for utilityman Andrew Romine. But Álvarez carved out a solid career in middle relief — a 3.47 ERA with 360 strikeouts and 137 walks over 420 2/3 innings — while bouncing from L.A. to the Phillies to San Francisco and, most recently, back to the Tigers organization on a minor-league deal in March 2023 after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Andy Van Hekken — Sept. 3, 2002
The Holland High alumnus, a third-round pick in 1998, was also 34 days past his birthday — his 23rd — when he threw 114 pitches and scattered eight hits and two walks in a shutout against Cleveland (for a game score of 70) for a Tigers squad 36 games under .500. Van Hekken made four more starts to wrap up the 2002 season, giving up 13 runs (10 earned) over 21 more innings for a 4.29 ERA.
But Van Hekken couldn’t crack the 2003 Tigers’ rotation — y’know, the one on a 119-loss team — and posted a 4.89 ERA in the minors that year, then a 4.96 ERA in 2004. which was spent entirely in Triple-A. After that, Van Hekken bounced around the minors until 2012, when he moved to the Korean Baseball Organization and found some success (including winning a Gold Glove for his fielding); the lefty pitched seven seasons in Korea, Japan and China before finally retiring after the 2018 season, at age 38.
"It's been crazy," he told the Free Press in 2018. "Looking back, it seems like my career has been almost two different careers. Coming up with the Tigers, I wasn't a huge prospect but I was kind of on the radar.
"It was a short couple months but it was amazing and I have so many memories. But it's almost like a different career that I had back then. …"
It’s obviously far too early to predict whether Gipson-Long’s career will feature as many turns as Van Hekken’s, last as long as Álvarez’s or feature as many Cy Young awards as Ray’s, but we do know this: He’s already the clubhouse leader in swim puns.
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3 to watch
Yes, despite the Lions opening their season, the Tigers continued to play, including:
Happy anniversary, 1968 Tigers!
The 2023 Tigers aren’t close to the playoffs this season — though they haven’t been eliminated yet, with a “tragic number” in the AL Central of 11 — but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate another title: The 1968 Tigers, who clinched the AL pennant 55 years ago this Sunday with a walkoff win over the Yankees at Tiger Stadium. Head here to remember the stars of the ’68 team or here to read more about that squad’s World Series ace, Mickey Lolich, who turns 83 on Wednesday.
Other Tigers birthdays this week: José Ureña (32 on Tuesday), Andrew Vasquez (30 on Thursday), Delmon Young (38 on Thursday), George Lombard (48 on Thursday), Matt Vierling (27 on Saturday), Robbie Grossman (34 on Saturday), Mickey Tettleton (63 on Saturday).
Mark your calendar
The Tigers leave the comfort of the AL Central — where they’re 30-16, with a .652 winning percentage that’s the franchise’s second best (behind 2011’s .694) since entering the Central in 1998 — for 12 games, beginning with a three-game set against the wild-card-contending Cincinnati Reds at Comerica Park on Tuesday. That’s followed by a 10-game California swing that opens on Friday against the L.A. Angels, continues with three games next week against the NL West-leading L.A. Dodgers and wraps up with four games vs. the Oakland Athletics, the second-worst team in baseball at 44-99. (The Royals somehow beat the A’s to 100 losses this season with their loss to the Blue Jays on Sunday.)
In case you were wondering, “Sawyer Gipson-Long,” at 17 characters (including the hyphen) is not the longest name in Tigers history. That honor belongs to catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia — who hit .166 with 12 homers over two seasons (2016, 2018) with the Tigers — at 20 characters. (Justyn-Henry Malloy, meanwhile, checks in at 18 characters. Just saying, Scott Harris, just saying.)
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Tigers Newsletter: The top club Sawyer Gipson-Long just missed