Can Tony Gonsolin and Tyler Anderson Lead the Dodgers to the Promised Land?
Injuries and ineffectiveness have hurt L.A.'s top five pitchers. Can numbers 6 and 7 carry the team through the summer?
There’s a reason why Dodger fans look at the standings and see their team in first place (like usual) but feel a pit of anxiety in their stomachs. This Dodger team was supposed to run away with the division, and, frankly, challenge the 1927 Yankees offense for all-time supremacy. Neither has happened.
The Padres are in a statistical tie for first with the Dodgers and trail only by a few paltry percentage points. This is largely because the middle of L.A.’s vaunted lineup can’t hit water if it fell off the Queen Mary. Max Muncy is hitting .156. Justin Turner is sitting at .211. Cody Bellinger’s at .206. I don’t usually cite batting average when on-base percentage and slugging are just as—if not more—important, but those numbers aren’t any good for those hitters, either.
Let me repeat: Max Muncy, recent All-Star and former cleanup hitter, is only getting hits in 15% of his at-bats. Now, Muncy tore his UCL in late September, and that elbow injury may not be fully healed. He did not have the surgery to fix the tear like Corey Seager did a few years back. If Muncy is still truly injured and the ligament is hanging by a piece of scotch tape and a prayer, he needs to go under the knife and fix this situation, because his play isn’t helping the team or himself. I am sympathetic to injury. I rolled my ankle in November and it’s still useless. Pain sucks. Playing through pain almost never works. Muncy took a week off to try to get right, and maybe he will, but, yikes, it’s June and he’s hitting .156. Somebody call 911.
Cody Bellinger has been this version of Cody Bellinger since the second half of the 2019 season. I don’t think it’s going to change. But Bellinger is one of the finest defensive center fielders I’ve ever seen and he has admirably not let his decline at the plate impact his defense. The dude catches everything hit within a mile of centerfield. He must stay in the lineup no matter what. His play as the captain of the outfield wins games, even if he can’t stop swinging at fastballs above his eyes if his life depended on it.
Justin Turner? I don’t know. He’s basically my age, and Father Time is undefeated. Even if he can’t raise his average, he still has value: He’s amazing at hitting with runners in scoring position because he whacks singles the other way with ease.
Eric Stephen of True Blue LA pointed out that Turner just played his 1,000th game as a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers, a milestone only 19 men have ever accomplished. Even more impressive, Turner has the second highest OPS+ of any of those guys at 132, and trails only Pedro Guerrero (149). By that measure, he’s been better than Steve Garvey, Eric Karros, Maury Wills, Steve Yeager and Dusty Baker. Turner is a Dodger legend, and he deserves his own post (it’s coming!). This could very well be his last year as a Dodger, as the team could buy him out of his contract next season for $2 million, which will be the Dodgers’ most fascinating decision of the offseason besides whatever they end up doing with Clayton Kershaw.
But we’re not here to talk about the Dodgers’ inconsistent offense today, because I don’t feel like ripping my hair out. No, we are here because Tyler Anderson fell two outs short of throwing a no-hitter on Wednesday night, which followed up another dominant performance from Tony Gonsolin the night before (6.1 IP, no R). Gonsolin and Anderson came into this season battling for spots at the back end of the Dodgers rotation. At one point, it seemed like the plan was for them to share 5th-starter duties and piggyback off each other, with Anderson coming out of the bullpen.
Things have not worked out that way! Imagine traveling back in time and telling your Opening Day self that not only would Gonsolin and Anderson each solidify spots in the Dodger rotation, but that they’d be the team’s co-aces on June 16. The pitcher win is kind of a garbage stat, except for when it backs up the underlying information about a guy’s performance. Anderson and Gonsolin lead all of MLB with eight wins apiece—and no losses. (The only other pitchers to have recorded that many W’s are Justin Verlander and Alek Manoah.) Gonsolin is leading all of MLB with a 1.42 ERA. Anderson’s ERA sits at a tidy 2.82.
Justin Verlander has won a billion Cy Youngs. Gonsolin and Anderson were not even guaranteed rotation spots. If the All-Star game happened today, Tony Gonsolin would be starting it. At Dodger Stadium. My brain just exploded. What the hell is going on here?
First, Gonsolin and Anderson needed an opportunity. They unfortunately got their slots in the rotation when Clayton Kershaw went down with a pelvic injury that cost him a month and Andrew Heaney’s bum shoulder sidelined him for eight weeks (and counting). But covering for the #3 and #4 rotation spots hasn’t been good enough for the Dodgers, who just lost ace Walker Buehler indefinitely due to an elbow problem. L.A.’s #2 starter, Julío Urías, may boast a 2.80 ERA— but the peripherals suggest he hasn’t been that good. He’s already given up 12 home runs in 64 innings this year (he gave up 19 in 185.2 last year). His FIP is 4.57 which suggest he’s been lucky. After leading the majors in wins last year at 20-3, he now sits at 3-6 on the season.
If you’ve been reading me for a decade you’re probably wondering why on earth I’m citing pitching wins and batting average. It’s a question I ask myself as well. Honestly? I think I got too far into the weeds with advanced metrics, and disregarded the basic numbers that have been there since Babe Ruth was around. I bring up pitcher wins here because it’s astonishing that Gonsolin and Anderson are 16-0 with the numbers to back that up, but you probably won’t see me use wins much to quantify how good a pitcher is.
But batting average? That’s something us nerds need to re-think as a very important stat because nobody can get a base hit anymore and it turns out they are important, not only for winning but for fan entertainment (i.e., making sure this sport still exists in 40 years). The Dodgers’ team batting average is .247. In 2009 it was .270. This team is much better than the 2009 squad. It’s just gotten so much harder to whack a base hit because of defensive positioning and hitting philosophy shifting away from line drives to arching baseballs over the fence. When MLB does ban the shift it should lead to more offense, and that can’t come soon enough.
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OK, so Gonsolin and Anderson have been great, Molly, but are they for real? Let’s take a look! The Dodgers took Gonsolin in the ninth round of the 2016 draft, which might make him the steal of said draft. The 28-year-old has thrown 205.2 innings across four big-league seasons (that total would be higher if not for COVID-19 wrecking 2020). In those 205.2 innings he has struck out 208 batters and posted a 2.41 ERA. Remember how I wrote Urías has already given up 12 home runs this year? Gonsolin has allowed only four. Earlier in his career he rarely made it past the fifth inning because of pitch-count issues, which is something that plagues a lot of young guys who are either trying to be too fine with their pitches or waste too many bullets trying to rack up strikeouts. Gonsolin is doing a much better job attacking hitters and getting quick outs this year, and manager Dave Roberts rewarded him by allowing him to pitch into the 7th inning on Tuesday for the first time this season, to my delight:
Molly Knight @molly_knightI hope I live long enough to see the Dodgers let Tony Gonsolin pitch into the seventh.
Anderson’s success is tougher to diagnose. A former first-round pick by Colorado, he spent six middling seasons bouncing around between the Rockies, the Giants and the Mariners, none of whom could tap into his blue-chip potential. Nick Groke of The Athletic had a fantastic story on Wednesday about how the Dodgers fixed Colorado castoff Yency Almonte, and it looks as if they’ve done the same thing with Anderson. It must be incredibly frustrating for fans of teams like the Rockies to watch a juggernaut like the Dodgers pick up their scraps and turn them into gold, but that’s what happens when your player development, scouting, analytics department and coaching staff are as good as the Dodgers’. It’s simply not fair. Anderson changed up his changeup grip, and the results have, well, changed the trajectory of his career:
The pitch is coming in almost two miles per hour slower, which has helped Anderson increase the velocity differential between his fastball and changeup to an elite 11 miles per hour. He’s also slightly changed the spin axis of the pitch at release and increased the amount of spin deviation once it crosses the plate.
Anderson’s near no-hit bid on Wednesday night was not a fluke. This is a guy who threw 26 consecutive scoreless innings earlier this year. If he stays healthy, he’ll make the All-Star team, along with Gonsolin, for sure.
But can the Dodgers achieve their ultimate goal of winning the World Series with these two leading the way? I’m not so sure, though I don’t think they’ll have to. Buehler’s prolonged absence means that Andrew Friedman will almost certainly trade for another frontline pitcher at the deadline this year. Kershaw is back, and the Dodgers will baby him if they have to so that he pitches into October. Andrew Heaney has been brilliant in his three rehab outings, allowing just one run in 11 innings.
Reinforcements are coming, but the MVPs of the Dodgers season so far have been Gonsolin and Anderson, and that’s something none of us could have predicted back on Opening Day. Baseball is a weird sport, but guys like these two coming out of nowhere and leading the World Series favorites to the best record in the division despite all the adversity is why it’s also the best sport in the world.