While coaching Tony Gonsolin in the Dodgers’ minor league system, Connor McGuiness had a drill specifically for the right-hander when he encountered some fights.
It had almost nothing to do with pitching mechanics. But it was emblematic of Gonsolin’s unique evolutionary process on the Hill.
“If he was down or a little off balance, [I would] give him the bat,” McGuiness said, swinging the pitcher like a hitter.
It may have been unusual – but little about Gonsolin’s development as a pitcher followed a routine script.
A native of Northern California was a two-way player in high school and college who once introduced himself as a hitter. He didn’t focus solely on pitching until the Dodgers drafted him in the ninth round in 2016. He was a helper in the minors before making the leap into rotation and quickly moving up into the big leagues.
This year, the 28-year-old was one of the biggest upsets for the Dodgers — and all of baseball.
After an injury-plagued and inefficient 2021 season, Gonsolin has started 6-0 with a 1.59 ERA. In his start Wednesday against the Chicago White Sox, he pitched for at least six innings in four straight starts, the last of which gave him briefly the National League ERA lead.
“The mechanics are pretty similar to previous years, it’s all about chasing and attacking guys,” Gonsolin said. “I just have more confidence that my stuff will work.”
He has helped stabilize a rotation waiting for Clayton Kershaw and Andrew Heaney to return from injury and for Walker Buehler and Julio Urías to find their top form again.
“It’s confidence, that’s what you see more than anything,” said manager Dave Roberts. “He expects to get deep into the game and expects to come out of stress when there’s stress.”
Gonsolin also made the biggest leap yet in his detour to the big leagues, putting together all the tools he learned as a late bloomer to now position himself for All-Star consideration and an increasingly important role with the Dodgers.
“We always knew Tony was incredibly talented,” said general manager Brandon Gomes. “He’s starting to keep up with the consistency piece of it.”
When Gomes first joined the Dodgers as a minor league pitching coordinator in the fall of 2016, Gonsolin was one of the first prospects he worked with.
“He was very curious from the start and dived into pitch characteristics,” Gomes said.
Gonsolin’s inexperience on the hill was quickly apparent. During the apprentice league that year, Gonsolin told Gomes he threw a two-seam countersink, one he modeled on Tim Hudson, hoping he could play bottom of the zone for ground balls.
Then Gomes watched him pitch.
“He didn’t,” laughed Gomes. “He had a four-sail horse on horseback… that will probably play better at the top of the zone.”
It was a blessing in disguise.
Soon, Gomes and the Dodgers began to envision possibilities for Gonsolin’s future. The team put him on a program to increase his arm strength and added weighted ball exercises to his routine to increase his speed. In his first full pro year in 2017, Gonsolin began throwing nearly 100 mph in high A as a reliever.
The club’s confidence in him grew steadily.
The next spring, after being promoted to director of player staff, Gomes decided to place Gonsolin in a starting role. That meant taking his speed back and adding a new pitch — a splitter taught to him by former Dodgers pitcher and team coach Joel Peralta during spring practice.
“He was playing around with it, and Joel was really helping him with the holds and different feelings and different exercises to get started with it,” Gomes said.
Gomes soon added, “It was the best split move in the organization.”
Gonsolin began the 2018 season on the rotation with High-A Rancho Cucamonga, where McGuiness, who is now the assistant pitching coach on the Dodgers’ big league team, was then the pitching coach.
McGuinness was always enthusiastic about Gonsolin’s athleticism and easy delivery, and didn’t want the right-hander to become “too mechanical” or get too caught up in constant adjustments and tweaks.
Whenever Gonsolin was in a lull, McGuiness would put a bat in his hand. There was a method to the madness.
Physically, the swings would resynchronize Gonsolin’s upper and lower body movements, resulting in a cleaner throwing performance.
“I’d swing it on the hill,” McGuiness said, laughing. “He loves to hit and it helps to sequence the body properly.”
There was also a mental benefit as each hack reminded Gonsolin to maintain the athleticism that helped him thrive in the first place.
“Most people in the league don’t have the guns that he has,” McGuiness said. “And once he found that rhythm and pace… he just took off.”
However, after impressive performances in his first two major league seasons in 2019 and 2020, Gonsolin declined last year.
He struggled with a shoulder injury that made his stuff inconsistent. He struggled with command, walking 34 batters in 55⅔ innings. Most frustratingly, he rarely worked deep into games and posted a 3.23 ERA, but averaged fewer than four innings per start.
“Last year, season up and down,” Gonsolin said in the spring. “I’m feeling so much better this year.”
Now in his fifth season as a full-time pitcher, Gonsolin is also approaching every game better – something a future Hall of Famer teammate hasn’t missed.
Like others in the organization, Clayton Kershaw always saw the potential in Gonsolin’s stuff, but also saw flaws in his attack plan, an all-too-common hesitation in chasing goons and instead munching around the zone.
This year, Gonsolin has dugout Kershaw’s brains during games, conversations that have led to lessons on how to be more efficient, steal strikes and get into advantageous counts, how to better manage your workload, and get through an opponent’s order multiple times .
“Some of it is teachable, learnable, and I think Tony does a good job reading it,” Kershaw said.
Gonsolin, for example, might ask why a batter doesn’t swing at a perfectly executed slider to lead an at-bat.
“Well,” Kerhsaw replied, “he took automatically, so you didn’t have to throw him. You could have thrown a fastball in the middle and then go to your slider and it’s 0 and 2, you’re not working from the back.
Gonsolin has also found other ways to attack thugs better, such as: B. Increased use of the curveball both as an early counting weapon for shots and as a tucked away pitch that can get a touch.
“Tony is honestly aware that one of his biggest hurdles is being more efficient, and he’s doing it, he’s doing it alone,” Kershaw said. “He can maybe steal a few places here and there and that’s going to give him an inning here and there that’s just going to add up.”
Where Gonsolin goes for the rest of the season could have important implications for the Dodgers.
So far, he has helped make up for injuries and poor performance. If he continues like this, he could become a more central figure in their plans as they push for the postseason.
This is not a guarantee. Gonsolin is already five innings from a new career high and has not played a game for an entire season since 2019.
While his underlying numbers are good, including an expected ERA of 2.60 according to Baseball Savant and an independent pitching statistic of 3.04 according to Baseball Reference, they still suggest he’s going back to mean over the course of the season could.
For a pitcher who once seemed to be on the fringes of rotation, who needed a long helper to piggyback on early in the season, and who has blazed a unique path to even making the majors, those first two were Months an affirmation of the talent he and the organization believed he had all along.
“He went through it,” McGuiness said. “And I think he came out on the other side in a really, really good place.”
So good, in fact, that McGuiness laughed when asked if Gonsolin still swung a bat every now and then.
“Not nearly as much,” he said.
Gonsolin hasn’t needed it lately.
https://www.latimes.com/sports/dodgers/story/2022-06-08/dodgers-tony-gonsolin-pitching-rotation-stats Tony Gonsolin finally hitting his stride in Dodgers rotation