When Eric Valenzuela took over college baseball at St. Mary’s College of California in July 2014, the team had only 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 held an informal tryout. He asked the remaining guys if any of them had pitching experience. A sophomore, Anthony Gonsolin, raised his hand. He had pitched well in high school, although he had given up seven runs in a scant 6.1 innings off the mound as a freshman at St. Mary’s while making most of his starts as a position player.
“So I put him on the mound,” Valenzuela recalls now. “It looked like a position player trying to pitch, but it was electric. It was a great arm, and he threw a couple curveballs and I was like, wow. He just had a really good feel.”
And so Tony Gonsolin became a pitcher. Not the best pitcher on a staff that also featured future Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes, but certainly the best two-way player. Not bad for a kid who had half expected an Oakland team that had spent some time talking to him to take him out of high school, but ultimately went undrafted before college.
Eight years later, he would be an All-Star, leading all of baseball in wins — if you care about that kind of thing — while allowing the fewest hits, walks and home runs each game at the midpoint of the season.
“Did I think he was gonna be the best pitcher in baseball?” Valenzuela says. “I’m a little bit surprised. Am I surprised by his success? No. I mean, he's pretty special.”
From anonymous to ace
Before 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 Rookie of the Year finish across three seasons while pitching for the perennial postseason-bound Los Angeles Dodgers. Impressive stuff. But if the casual fan had heard of him at all it was probably because of his fondness for felines.
At first it was the cat shirts he wore around spring training in 2019, before his first stint in the majors. When he pitched in the postseason the following year, Fox promoted him as “Part Man, Part Cat.” Last year — officially leaning in — he donned cat cleats complete with fur (they looked more like a toupee than a house pet). And by now, people are always asking Gonsolin — and his teammates — about the whole cat thing.
“He doesn’t talk about them a ton, but that’s definitely a thing,” Clayton Kershaw confirms. “He loves cats.”
But as unapologetically weird as Gonsolin has always been, the appeal has always been the potential, not the novelty. Undrafted again after his junior year of college — “rightfully so, I did not play well my junior year” — Gonsolin played in a wooden bat summer league, where Dodgers scout Paul Cogan discovered him (playing outfield) and asked if he would sign as an undrafted free agent. Gonsolin declined.
“I don't know,” he says now about why he passed up the chance to go pro. “I think just because I committed and all of our juniors were coming back. Just a good group of guys. I suppose it was just a fun spot to be at the time.”
The Dodgers still liked him after a successful senior year — he homered seven times while allowing just one — and signed him with an underslot offer in the ninth round of the 2016 draft and quickly sent him 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 — moving his grip off the seams has added more slip, less spin, which generates more dramatic dropoff as it approaches the plate.
Over the past three years, he’s split time between the rotation and the bullpen, never throwing more than 56 innings in a season. Now a staple of a Dodgers’ starting rotation lacking a little more depth than in recent campaigns, he surpassed that number by mid-June. And along the way, has quietly become one of the most dominant pitchers in the game.
His evolution into a full-blown ace on a team with unmitigated October aspirations has required Gonsolin to become more efficient and the Dodgers to manage how much of a good thing they need every five days during the regular season.
The latter has required a continuous dialogue with manager Dave Roberts.
“He and I have a lot of conversations about how we use him, and it's not an indictment on him,” Roberts says about Gonsolin’s unofficial innings limit each start. “It's just trying to understand that we have a long way to go and so there might be things that he might disagree with, but understand that it's for the greater good for him and for us.”
Gonsolin says he and Roberts “got on the same page really quickly” this season, and in earning his skipper’s trust, the innings have inched up. Recently, he pitched into the eighth for the first time in his career. To get there, he needed not just a longer leash, but the ability to get outs quickly. Which is where Kershaw comes in.
“I don't think that Tony would be Tony if Clayton wouldn't have taken him under his wing,” Roberts says. And while the future Hall of Famer demurs, Gonsolin credits Kershaw with encouraging him to be more aggressive, to throw strikes early and let the defense help him to get early outs.
“He’s had the stuff since he’s been up here, so it’s just a matter of him honestly figuring out how to pitch every fifth day,” Kershaw says. “I think the biggest thing is he figured out how to pitch strikes with all four of his pitches. All four of his pitches are really good. So it makes for a really good pitcher.”
Inside the legend of 'Cat Man'
These days, Gonsolin has two cats: Blu and Tigger.
“Tigger is pretty outgoing, loves meeting new people. Not really scared of much. Very chill,” Gonsolin says. “Blu, on the other hand, is pretty timid around new people. Takes a little bit for him 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’d be Blu.
“If you just meet him, he can kind of come off a little standoffish, but he's not,” Valenzuela says. “He has a great heart and he means well, he's just really quiet. He just doesn't say much until you really kind of 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 free flowing. 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 quirkiest of them all. But he's certainly got that quiet confidence.”
When Gonsolin says something, then, there’s real intention behind it. And this offseason — as he worked out during the shutdown to build strength and stamina, especially in the shoulder that had troubled him throughout last year — he said he was going to be an All-Star.
To his trainers.
“The goal is to get healthy, the goal is to feel good when I play catch, trust my shoulder to hold up. And if I can do all that stuff … then I'm going to 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 stuff, but if I'm helping the team win, I’m gonna hopefully be an All-Star along with that.”
And on Tuesday, in his home ballpark where he has given up only six runs in 48 innings this season, Gonsolin will be an All-Star.
“I kinda manifested it.”
First though, he’ll have to walk the red carpet. An occasion that calls for swapping out his iconic cat T-shirts for something a little more sophisticated. Like a custom suit courtesy of a teammate making his ninth appearance at the Midsummer Classic.
Kershaw says that when he was a young pitcher, Greg Maddux bought him a suit. It meant something to Kershaw, like the veteran was saying: Hey, you're gonna be here a while. You're gonna need this. Now the elder statesman himself, Kershaw wanted to carry on the tradition.
“I hope what it feels like to Tony is like, ‘Hey, you've earned this. You're gonna be wearing this for a while. You belong here,’” Kershaw says. “Either that or it’s just a nice suit. He’ll be looking good for All-Star.”
Maybe he can pair it with a cat tee.