Tony Gonsolin never planned on being a split-changeup specialist.
The pitch wasn’t in the right-hander’s repertoire at St. Mary’s College, where he was a two-way player who often spent spare time in the batting cage. It wasn’t in his arsenal after the Dodgers drafted him in 2016 either, when the ninth-round pick instead initially tried adding a traditional changeup at the start of his professional career.
Not until the spring of 2017 did Gonsolin embrace the split-finger offering, taking a suggestion from former Dodger reliever Joel Peralta.
“There wasn’t really much of a driving force behind it,” Gonsolin said. “It was more of like, ‘Hey, why don’t you give this a shot since you’re still searching?’”
Three years later, the pitch has turned Gonsolin into one of the Dodgers’ strongest performers on the mound, a developmental success story suddenly vying for a crucial role in the team’s postseason plans.
If the Dodgers stay quiet ahead of Monday’s 1 p.m. trade deadline, especially with regard to a pitching staff that already leads MLB in earned-run-average, Gonsolin’s development would be a reason.
Not only is he a key reason for their loaded organizational depth, but he’s also an example of how patience can pay off.
Even after lasting only three innings and allowing his first run of the season against the Texas Rangers on Sunday, Gonsolin boasts some of the best stats on the team, highlighted by a 0.51 ERA that is still a full run lower than any other Dodgers starter.
Manager Dave Roberts said postgame that Gonsolin will make his next start and isn’t likely to be sent back to the team’s alternate training site, where the 26-year-old has spent much of this season, any time soon.
Instead, Roberts praised the way Gonsolin battled through Sunday’s 39-pitch third inning, impressed particularly with his 11-pitch strikeout of Todd Frazier to retire the side with the bases loaded.
“That was one of the best pitcher, hitter battles I’ve seen all year,” Roberts said. “For our guy not to give and ultimately punch him [out] was big for his confidence and growth going forward.”
Gonsolin’s chances of making the postseason rotation — where spots beyond Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler are still seemingly up for grabs — remain unclear. But with the Dodgers reportedly considering starting pitching options available on the market, Gonsolin is a reminder of the surplus depth already in-house.
“It’s got to be something for our club that’s going to move the needle,” Roberts said of any potential deadline moves. “We’ve got talent all around the roster, so … that one-month, two-month rental just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
That has been an almost annual approach for the Dodgers, who under president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman have earned a reputation as calculated customers on the open market.
For all the potential deadline moves the club didn’t make in seasons past, they now claim a talent-rich pipeline funneling more and more young stars into big league roles.
Pitcher Dustin May was once the center of trade speculation, but this season he’s steadied a rotation beset with injuries and opt-outs. The club last season refused to move infielder Gavin Lux, who is finally getting more big league opportunities after opening the season at the alternate site.
And then there is Gonsolin, who was afforded ample time to develop into a legitimate MLB weapon. In an era where fewer pitchers are taught to throw splitters, Gonsolin has made it his signature strength, inducing a swing-and-miss with the pitch about a third of the time this season.
“In ‘17, it was not very good,” Gonsolin said of his splitter, which he is using almost as often as his four-seam fastball. “In ‘18, it was a little better, getting results with it. ‘19, I took a little step backwards. And then this year, I really put a lot of work in during spring training and during the quarantine time to really hone in on how I want it to move and the grip and what the emphasis was behind it.”
Had Gonsolin been packaged in a trade before this year, the Dodgers wouldn’t be reaping those rewards now. And no matter what they do before the deadline, their roster already looks almost complete thanks to homegrown talents like him.
“That’s a good position to be in, where you don’t feel there’s a need,” Roberts said. “Some guys are starting to trend up, some guys have been performing all year … The depth is there.”