How the Dodgers’ Tony Gonsolin became an MLB star

When Eric Valenzuela took over college baseball at St. Mary’s College of California in July 2014, the team had just 19 players to fill 35 roster spots. He was hired relatively late by college season standards, and some of the players had left St. Mary’s amid the coaching turnover, including much of the pitching staff.

So Valenzuela organized an informal tryout. He asked the remaining guys if any of them had throwing experience. A sophomore, Anthony Gonsolin, raised his hand. He pitched well in high school, though he allowed seven runs in just 6.1 innings off the mound as a rookie at St. Mary’s while making most of his starts as a position player.

“So I put him on the mound,” Valenzuela now recalls. “It looked like a position player trying to throw, but it was electric. He was a great arm, and he threw a few curve balls and I was like, wow. He just had a really good feeling.

And that’s how Tony Gonsolin became a pitcher. Not the best pitcher on a team that also included future Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes, but definitely the best two-way player. Not bad for a kid who half-expected an Oakland team that spent time talking to him to get him out of high school, but ultimately didn’t get drafted until college.

Eight years later, he would be an All-Star, leading all of baseball in wins — if you care about that sort of thing — while allowing the fewest hits, walks and home runs in every game in the middle of the season.

“Did I think he was going to be the best pitcher in baseball?” Valenzuela said. ” I’m a little bit surprised. Am I surprised by its success? No. I mean, he’s pretty special.

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Tony Gonsolin pitches in the first inning of a game against the St. Louis Cardinals on July 13, 2022, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

From anonymous to as

Prior to this season, Gonsolin had a 10-5 career record with a 2.85 ERA, more than 2 1/2 strikeouts for every walk, and a fourth-place finish as Rookie of the Year in three seasons while throwing for the eternal post-season Los Angeles. Angeles Dodgers. Awesome stuff. But if the casual fan had heard of him, it was probably because of his fondness for felines.

At first it was the cat shirts he wore during spring training in 2019, before his first stint in the majors. When he pitched in the playoffs the following year, Fox promoted it as “part man, part cat”. Last year – officially leaning forward – he donned cat studs with fur (they looked more like a toupee than a pet). And now, people always ask Gonsolin — and his teammates — about cats.

“He doesn’t talk about them a lot, but that’s definitely a thing,” confirms Clayton Kershaw. “He loves cats.”

But as odd as Gonsolin has always been, the appeal has always been potential, not novelty. Again undrafted after his freshman year of college—”rightfully so, I didn’t play well my freshman year”—Gonsolin played in a summer wooden bat league, where Dodgers scout Paul Cogan found out about him (playing in the field) and asked if he would sign as an undrafted free agent. Gonsolin refused.

“I don’t know,” he says now of why he passed up the chance to turn pro. “I think just because I signed up and all of our juniors were coming back. Just a good group of guys. I guess it was just a fun place back then.

The Dodgers still loved him after a successful senior year — he hit seven homers while allowing just one — and signed him with a sub-slot offer in the ninth round of the 2016 draft and took him. quickly sent to their instructional league with a directive to add an offspeed pitch. He came away with a splitter that was bad, then inconsistent, then good, and is now great – removing his grip from the seams added more slip, less rotation, which generates a more dramatic drop to the plate approach.

For the past three years, he’s split his time between the rotation and the bullpen, never pitching more than 56 innings in a season. Now a staple of the Dodgers’ starting rotation lacking a bit more depth than in recent campaigns, he surpassed that number in mid-June. And along the way, he quietly became one of the most dominant pitchers in the game.

His evolution into a full-fledged ace on a team of unrelenting aspirations in October has forced Gonsolin to become more efficient and the Dodgers to manage the amount of goodness they need every five days during the regular season.

The latter required ongoing dialogue with manager Dave Roberts.

“Him and I have a lot of conversations about how we use it, and it’s not an indictment against him,” Roberts said of Gonsolin’s unofficial inning limit on each start. “It’s just trying to understand that we have a long way to go and so there might be things he might disagree with, but understand that it’s for the greater good of him and for us.”

Gonsolin says he and Roberts “are on the same page very quickly” this season, and by gaining his skipper’s trust the innings have increased. Recently, he pitched the eighth for the first time in his career. To do that, he needed not only a longer leash, but the ability to get out quickly. This is where Kershaw comes in.

“I don’t think Tony would be Tony if Clayton hadn’t taken him under his wing,” Roberts says. And while the future Hall of Famer falters, Gonsolin credits Kershaw with encouraging him to be more aggressive, throw strikes early and let the defense help him get early strikeouts.

“He’s got it all since he’s been here, so it’s just a matter of him honestly figuring out how to pitch every five days,” Kershaw said. “I think the most important thing is that he figured out how to throw shots with his four throws. His four shots are really good. So it makes a very good launcher.

In the legend of “Cat Man”

These days, Gonsolin has two cats: Blu and Tigger.

“Tigger is quite sociable, likes meeting new people. Not really afraid of much. Very cool,” says Gonsolin. “Blu, on the other hand, is quite shy around new people. It takes him some time to warm up. But very talkative when it’s just me, always meowing about something.

Apologies for forcing the analogy, but if Gonsolin was a cat, he would be Blu.

“If you meet him, he might seem a little distant, but he’s not,” says Valenzuela. “He has a big heart and he means well, he’s just very quiet. He doesn’t say much until you really get to know him.

“You know, he has his own style, and I don’t know what style it is. It’s just always different,” Roberts says. “The conversations you have are never smooth. There are kind of awkward pauses.

Of all the pitchers in Roberts’ rotation, who collectively have the best starting ERA in baseball, “He’s probably the most eccentric of them all. But he certainly has that quiet confidence.

When Gonsolin says something, there is real intent behind it. And this offseason – as he trained during the stoppage to develop his strength and endurance, particularly in the shoulder which had troubled him throughout the last year – he said he would to be an All-Star.

To his coaches.

“The goal is to get healthy, the goal is to feel good when I play wrestling, trust my shoulder to hold on. And if I can do all of that…then I’ll be an All-Star.

To his agent.

“My goal is to be an All-Star. That’s the main priority. Like, obviously to help the team win and all that, but if I help the team win, I hope to be an All -Star with that.

And on Tuesday, at his home ballpark where he’s allowed just six runs in 48 innings this season, Gonsolin will be an All-Star.

“I kinda manifested it.”

But first, he’ll have to walk the red carpet. An occasion that calls for swapping its iconic cat t-shirts for something a little more sophisticated. Like a custom costume courtesy of a teammate making his ninth appearance at the Midsummer Classic.

Kershaw says when he was a young pitcher, Greg Maddux bought him a suit. It meant something to Kershaw, as the veteran said: Hey, you’re gonna be here a while. You are going to need this. Now the former statesman himself, Kershaw wanted to carry on the tradition.

“I hope what Tony feels is, ‘Hey, you’ve earned it. You’re gonna wear this for a while. You belong here,'” Kershaw says. suit. It will look good for All-Star.

Maybe he can pair it with a cat t-shirt.

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