A Unique Problem: The Role of Tony Gonsolin

Tony Gonsolin's predicament of being on the Dodgers.

Coming off the 2020 World Series, the Dodgers still appear to be the best team in baseball. Even with the flurry of trades from AJ Preller, the Dodgers remain a complete team. One reason for that is the depth of the starting rotation.

While everyone has accepted that Clayton Kershaw is no longer the ace of the staff, he didn’t lose the role because he isn’t good anymore. Walker Buehler came in and earned that role and has pitched great. Julio Urias has established himself as a potential number 3 option in the rotation as well as being capable of playing the swingman role.

Behind him, the Dodgers have a plethora of options which is what makes them so good. The team will most likely go with David Price behind him. Though he missed all of 2020 after opting out of the season, he will pitch in 2021.

Then the team will have to decide between Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin for the 5th spot in the rotation. Neither were used as true starters in the postseason despite both making a few opener appearances. Whoever they choose for the role, it will limit their value and make it a gamble on where you draft them. Tony Gonsolin should get the role and you should still feel comfortable drafting him in mid rounds if you aren’t sure what role he will play. 

 

 

Whiffs and Walks, A Gonsolin Specialty

 

If you’ve read my work before, you understand that there are things that make me like a starting pitcher. Two of the biggest characteristics are whiffs and limiting walks. Tony Gonsolin can do both in spades. Gonsolin threw 705 pitches in 2020 and got 107 swings and misses. That’s a swinging strike% of 15.2. That was a better mark than Aaron Nola, Trevor Bauer, and Clayton Kershaw. Here’s the four ranked together (minimum 500 pitches).

 

Swinging Strike Ranking Table

 

There were 166 qualified pitchers and Gonsolin was in the 85th percentile of swinging-strike rate. He also had 3 different pitches that registered a whiff rate of over 40%. His splitter, slider, and curveball combined for a whiff rate of roughly 44%.

His fastball doesn’t generate swings and misses as his other pitches do but it is effective nonetheless. It was his best pitch results-wise getting an RV of -8 during the year. What Gonsolin can do so well is tunnel his pitches. Here’s a look at Gonsolin’s release point chart with Gerrit Cole’s release point chart.

 

 

We can see in Cole’s release point that there’s a little bit more spread in his release points on his pitches when he gets swings and misses. Whereas Gonsolin is tight together. Gerrit Cole is much better than Gonsolin but the point is that Gonsolin isn’t giving hitters any hints as to what’s coming from his arm action and release.

His pitches also mirror each other well. Gonsolin’s fastball and curveball are directly opposite of one another based on spin direction. This could help Gonsolin’s curveball in the future. He also gets great lift on his fastball, with his 98% spin efficiency and above-average vertical and horizontal movement. Gonsolin has a great arsenal for strikeouts and he saw a 4% increase in his K% from 22% to 26%.

The real improvement was cutting his walk rate in half. Gonsolin had the 8th best walk rate in baseball amongst pitchers with at least 40 innings. After walking over 9% of the hitters he faced in 2019, he walked just 4% of hitters in 2020. There appear to be two big reasons for this; an increase in first-pitch strikes and an increase in pitches in the strike zone.

 

Zone Rating Table

 

He was being more aggressive in 2020 compared to 2019. It led to much better results for him as well so he should continue to do it. Gonsolin had a CSW% over 25 on all 4 of his pitches. He gets swings in the zone and still misses enough bats to make his pitches that were out of the strike zone that much better.

The key for him moving forward is to continue to get ahead of hitters. He relies heavily on his fastball and throws it nearly 50% of the time. He threw a first-pitch fastball to 60% of the hitters he faced. His game plan was simple; attack with the fastball and get them out with off-speed. That’s not a revolutionary concept but he has the fastball to do it with a near 2500 RPM fastball at 98% spin efficiency, Gonsolin should attack with the fastball. That will lead to better results.

 

 

Front Line Results, Back of Rotation Placement

 

Gonsolin does two of the things I like pitchers to do well, so how are his results? Let’s take a look at his rankings for ERA, FIP, and K-BB% in 2020 among starters with at least 40 innings.

 

2020 Results Table

 

Only Corbin Burnes had a lower FIP amongst pitchers with at least 40 innings than Gonsolin in 2020. He was that dominant during the regular season. The Dodgers didn’t get consistent health from their main starters until the end of the year in addition to Price sitting out the season. The team relied on Tony Gonsolin and he delivered for them. Gonsolin’s estimators weren’t as strong but still good to keep him looking good for future projections. Taking a look at his SIERA, pCRA, and xFIP rankings amongst pitchers with at least 40 innings. 

 

2020 Predictor Table

Now at first glance, I can confidently tell you that Gonsolin will not keep a sub 2 ERA going in 2021. (Though that’d be awesome if he could.) However, I do think Gonsolin can keep his ERA and FIP below his other estimators. The biggest reason is that he doesn’t give up many home runs.

I know that doesn’t make sense after he just gave up 4 home runs in 9 innings in the postseason, but that was double the amount he gave up in the regular season. In his career in the regular season, he has an HR/FB% of 6.2. It’ll take a bigger sample size to see if he can maintain that rate, but I have a belief that like Jacob DeGrom, he can limit the home run ball. This helps explain the very large difference in Gonsolin’s FIP versus his xFIP. (I know Alex Fast is reading this and shouting into the void that this is why xFIP is bad and I agree with you, Mr. Fast.) 

Gonsolin had a 42% ground ball rate in 2019, but it fell to 35% in 2020. This would help explain why his SIERA might have been so much higher than his FIP and ERA. Since he already posted a 42% ground ball rate, he could produce that kind of ground ball rate again. However, Gonsolin had a lower SIERA in 2020 than he did in 2019. A large part of that is because of the decrease in walks as already mentioned and the increase in strikeouts. He could get even more strikeouts moving forward too if he continues to refine his pitch mix and stays aggressive in the strike zone. I don’t think he must try and get more ground balls if he continues to get more strikeouts. 

Gonsolin is also middle of the road in his quality of contact. He was 60th percentile in hard-hit rate but 77th percentile in barrel rate. He can give up some hard contact, but it doesn’t seem to come back to bite him too often. Initially, this made me think that perhaps he had an unusually high LOB%, but he was sitting around 73% which is about average. This isn’t to say that Gonsolin won’t regress from his sub 2 ERA and FIP; more that Gonsolin has the potential to have around a 3 ERA or lower. That should make him one of the higher picks in fantasy drafts, but he plays for the Dodgers. 

The Dodgers have a plethora of pitching available. With the San Diego Padres making moves to acquire starting pitching it has made some sense to ask how good the rotation is, but when people forecast the rotation, there seems to be a certain person missing from those forecasts:

 

 

 

Now, I know Dustin May gets a lot of attention for his sinker that moves a lot, but Tony Gonsolin is a better option for the Dodgers rotation in 2021 and beyond. He had a lower ERA, FIP, xFIP, SIERA, and pCRA. There isn’t an argument for starting May over him. However, I know the Dodgers don’t always have a traditional five-man rotation. They also have David Price returning for 2021 and that throws a wrinkle into the plans as well.

Right now, Gonsolin slides into the five spot in the rotation and potentially plays a swing role for the team as well. That will hurt his value. He won’t make 30 starts or pitch 200 innings. He also won’t be used as a reliever that is getting holds, as he’d likely be the long man after an opener. His inconsistency in his role will make him a potential risky high draft choice even though he could be a good buy high. 

Ultimately, the Dodgers have a good problem to face as a team with at least six capable starting pitchers, in an era where the more pitching a team has, the more formidable the team is. For fantasy owners, Gonsolin presents the problem of opportunity despite talent. The solution is simple; let him start every fifth day and produce at a high level to give the team the best chance at winning, and fantasy owners the best chance at getting as much value out of him as they possibly can.

 

Photos by Brian Rothmuller & Adam Davis/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter & IG)

Max Greenfield

Former Intern for the Washington Nationals, now a Going Deep Writer analyzing the next possible breakout pitcher.

  • Avatar Ben, Resident Kershaw Stan says:

    As a Dodger fan, I hope that May can prove to be a successful starter, but Gonsolin is definitely the better option by virtue of lacking a clear platoon split vs. LHB.

    May is nails against righties but needs to develop his arsenal to fare better against LHB, as RHB slashed .198/.220/.302, compared to lefties registering .242/.333/.444. Some of that seems to stem from May utilizing fastballs and cutters over 80 percent of the time in 2020.

    By contrast, Gonsolin was essentially the same pitcher regardless of batter-handedness, with a .542 OPS vs. righties and a .552 mark against lefties. What seems to separate Gonsolin from May is that at this stage in their careers, Gonsolin is more well-equipped to call upon a more diverse pitch selection, as he used his four-seam fastball around 10 percent less often than May, turning to sliders, curves, and splitters about half of the time.

    Some of this difference is approach-oriented, as May has thus far primarily pitched to contact, compared to Gonsolin, who is far more of a strikeout pitcher. If May can further develop his change-up to give him a consistent weapon vs. opposite-hand hitters, I could see him overtaking Gonsolin in the short term. Either way, though, I have enough questions about Kershaw and Price’s ability to stay healthy over a full season that I think there’s room in the rotation for both Gonsolin and May to log significant innings.

    As a fan, I still think May’s upside is immense, given the quality of his stuff, but you’re definitely right that Gonsolin projects to be the clearly superior option in the foreseeable future. May could make that quantum leap to being a high-end strikeout arm; Gonsolin is already there. As a final shot, my biased opinion is that the Dodgers rotation is still better than SD’s, because the fact that we can pick and choose between Gonsolin and May speaks volumes about their depth and talent. SD should be respected as an ascendant team but there’s a reason they went crazy celebrating a Wild Card win and the Dodgers celebrated a championship.

  • Avatar A2K says:

    Great write up. I’m currently chewing over an offer of Gonsolin for Nelson Cruz in a 20 team dynasty league.

    I own May already and Franmil would slot in at UT if I dealt Cruz.

    I’m light on pitching and it’d be nice to squeeze some value from Cruz before he’s done.

    I also have to believe Nelson is going to hang em up in a couple of years with Gonsolin being the longer term asset.

    Any opinions would be welcome

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