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The Tony Gonsolin Scatman Express has derailed

Or “The train has gotten pretty empty in 2023 as the train has gone off the track.”

Houston Astros v Los Angeles Dodgers
Train is looking pretty empty these days...
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

One year ago, almost to the day, we had a fun little piece about how everyone was jumping on board the Tony “Catman” Gonsolin Express bandwagon. As last year’s article showed, I had been on the Gonsolin train for a while for his jovial nature and a fun interaction we had back in Pittsburgh in 2021. But the figurative train was filling up as the Dodgers started 2022 with an 11-0 record and cruised to his first All-Star game selection.

If one had been lost on a desert island after that point, one would be forgiven if they thought that Gonsolin cruised to his first Cy Young award. But life has a funny way of turning.

What came after the Gonsolin train left the station in 2022

In case anyone forgot, Gonsolin did not win his first Cy Young award last year. Ironically, enough, the All-Star Game is where he got his first loss of the year. As an exhibition game, obviously, that loss did not count.

As Eric stated in Gonsolin’s 2022 Year in Review essay, Gonsolin’s performance dipped from its peak after the All-Star Game before rebounding prior to the injury bug returning, missing most of September. Gonsolin had a single simulated start before being thrust into Game 3 of the National League Division Series. As has been discussed in detail, the One-Win Team did not win past Game 1, and Gonsolin had the rust that one would expect in that start.

The Dodgers signed Gonsolin to a two-year contract, avoiding arbitration. The hopes were that Gonsolin would eclipse his career-high in innings pitched while being integral to the 2023 Dodgers’ rotation.

It did not happen, but things were deceptively good at first.

The train is moving down the track

The hope of Gonsolin being a rotation stalwart was quickly dashed when Gonsolin opened the year on the injured list with a left ankle strain, only being activated on April 26. While it would be demonstratively unfair to have expected Gonsolin to return to peak-2022 form once back in action, Gonsolin walked a knife’s edge of effectiveness.

From April 26 to June 13, Gonsolin made nine starts averaging 5.18 innings per start with a 1.93 ERA and a 4-1 record. Gonsolin had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2 to 1. Looking at his stat line from this angle, one would be forgiven for wondering why I am about to say “but.”

But, yes, Gonsolin’s stat line was deceptively good.

While opposing batters against Gonsolin had a slash line of .155/.253/.250 (which is quite good), and his batting average on balls put into play (BABIP) was .172. On its own, that statistic would indicate Gonsolin is having a heck of a year until you realize that average BABIP is typically around .300, as a score of less than that would indicate the pitcher was generating weak contact.

In contrast, Clayton Kershaw over the same period this year (in 11 starts) has a BABIP of .276 with opposing batters having a slash line of .222/.276/.366. No one would contest that Kershaw has reclaimed the ace’s mantle for the Dodgers in 2023. But there is one more statistic that indicated that Gonsolin’s good start was really fool’s gold: his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) statistic.

FIP measures a pitcher’s effectiveness at preventing home runs, walks, and hit batters while causing strikeouts. In essence, a ball hit into play is irrelevant to this metric because a pitcher, theoretically, has less control over the outcome. Per FanGraphs, a FIP of 3.50 is great, with excellence occurring below that mark, whereas a FIP of 4.20 is average. A FIP of over 4.80 is bad.

For the above-defined period, Gonsolin’s FIP was 4.27 whereas Kershaw’s FIP was 3.43. Taking Gonsolin’s FIP and BABIP statistics for his first nine starts lead to one of two conclusions:

  1. Gonsolin was on the cusp of having a Cy Young caliber year and his BABIP and FIP were somehow outliers.
  2. Gonsolin was actually having a rather pedestrian year and his base ERA and opposing batter slash lines were outliers.

Based on what happened after those starts, we now have a pretty clear view of which conclusion was correct.

Gonsolin’s derailment

To say that Gonsolin has been bad in his last three starts would be a comedic understatement. He has gone 0-2 with a ERA of 9.42 in 14⅓ innings. Opposing batters during this stretch are now hitting .304/.394/.500/.894. Oddly enough, the strikeout-to-walk ratio has remained nearly constant. But the statistics actually get worse.

Gonsolin’s BABIP is now .357 during this stretch and his FIP is an awful 5.17. Essentially, in the first nine starts of the year, on average, every batter was slightly better than 2023-Austin Barnes (.104/.194/.125). During these last three starts, on average, every batter was now slightly better than 2023-Mookie Betts (.271/.373/.557).

If anything the figurative eye test shows that Gonsolin has reverted to old habits and has started nibbling like a classic Reese’s peanut butter cup commercial. But you do not have to take my word for it, as Gonsolin admitted to the Los Angeles Times on June 25th that there is a problem:

“I feel like I just catch myself trying to nibble too much and stop attacking guys and fall behind the counts and then kind of give them a good pitch to hit...My stuff didn’t look very great today. It didn’t look very sharp. But I wanted to keep going and stay in.”

I do not care who you are, and no disrespect is meant to anyone involved, but that gap from Barnes to Betts is a chasm as wide as the Grand Canyon. As to how this problem happened, Dave Roberts provided an excellent summary of what has been ailing Gonsolin after the 9-1 shellacking the Royals provided the Dodgers on July 2.

Baseball Savant backs up Roberts’ assessment of Gonsolin. Last year, Gonsolin had overall negative run values of -16 and -10 for his splitter and slider, respectively, as he was truly a three-pitch pitcher. This year, so far, Gonsolin's run values for his splitter and slider are respectively, 0 and 3 runs respectively, which are 16 and 13 runs worse than last year.

In essence, right now, Gonsolin can mainly get people out only with his fastball as his two main weapons to change eye level have regressed from excellent to average at best. I do not care who you are from Clayton Kershaw to Cy Young, if you only have one effective pitch, you are likely having a bad time...or you better be Mariano Rivera.

Sadly, Gonsolin is not Mariano Rivera. My personal affection for Gonsolin remains unchanged, as my one anecdote concerning him is a doozy. I am not a pitching coach, I do not know how to fix Tony Gonsolin.

Right now, the Dodgers’ rotation is the currently-injured Clayton Kershaw, two rookies, and prayer mixed with bullpen games as Dustin May is hurt for the year (again), Julio Urias just came back, Ryan Pepiot has not been seen this year, and the less said about Noah Syndergaard the better. The state of the Dodgers’ rotation, which has led to the overuse of a shakier bullpen, is a huge step back if you expected this team to win over a hundred games.

As of right now, the Dodgers are on pace to win 91 games.

Therefore, based on the facts above, the Tony Gonsolin train has gotten a lot emptier as of late. Right now, the Dodgers are trapped in a playoff scrum. An effective Gonsolin would go a long way to rising above the pack that will be scrambling for the next 75 games, beginning with his start on Friday against the Angels.

Whether he will figure things out is an open question.

To close out with another musical reference, I shall quote the lyrics from last year’s essay in the hope that Gonsolin can turn things around:

Everybody stutters one way or the other / So check out my message to you / As a matter of fact, a-don’t let nothin’ hold you back / If the Scatman can do it, so can you.