If I were to quiz you for a list of the most valuable Los Angeles Dodgers players, I’m sure you would quickly rattle off several names from their treasure chest of superstars. Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman, Trea Turner. Will Smith, of course. Clayton Kershaw, for sure.
How many names would you list before you got to 24-year-old second baseman (sometimes left fielder) Gavin Lux?
It’s well known that Lux was a consensus top-five shortstop prospect prior to the 2020 season. But, as often turns out to be the case, prospect development is not steady or linear. It certainly has not been for Lux. He debuted strongly in late 2019 but then contributed only minimally in the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign. Last season brought more ups and downs, including a failed audition at the everyday shortstop role, being pushed to a utility/bench role with the Dodgers’ trade deadline acquisition of Turner, and a late-season demotion back to AAA.
Coming into this season, despite his celebrated prospect pedigree, he did not have an everyday role locked down. That’s partly because the Dodgers are perenially stacked to the hilt with talent, but also because Lux had delivered only a .233 / .314 / .368 (86 wRC+) batting line in 144 career games. When Los Angeles traded outfielder A.J. Pollock for reliever Craig Kimbrel a week before Opening Day, they not only picked up their closer replacement for Kenley Jansen, but they also finally cleared the way for Lux to get regular at-bats.
Now that he’s consistently seeing his name in manager Dave Roberts’ lineup, Lux is quietly putting together a breakout campaign. Over 107 games (already a single-season career-high) through August 18th, Lux has posted a .295 / .373 / .439 line (131 wRC+) and positive baserunning and defensive marks.
Flying Under the Radar
Together, those contributions add up to the lefty-hitting Lux ranking fifth on the Dodgers in FanGraphs’ version of wins above replacement (3.2) this season, and he’s rapidly approaching producing three times as much value this season as he’d produced in his career before this season. Across MLB, Lux ranks among the fifty most valuable players by fWAR (hitters and pitchers), in the same neighborhood as other, more celebrated young stars like Juan Soto, Pete Alonso, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Kyle Tucker, and Julio Rodríguez. Among qualified hitters, Lux is tied for 18th in batting average and 16th in on-base percentage thanks to well above average contact rates (21.0 Whiff%, 69th percentile) and plate discipline (21.3 Chase%, 88th percentile) stats.
As sometimes happens with top prospects who don’t immediately succeed, Lux’s strong campaign has flown a bit under the radar. That he’s on a stacked Dodgers club and has a bit of a throwback production profile that’s driven more by solid all-around contribution instead of elite power affects that, too.
In addition, there are some obvious signs suggesting he has benefitted from some good fortune. He’s sporting a .354 BABIP (vs. a career .317 mark and the .290 league average), and his Statcast expected marks derived from his contact quality measures are substantially lower than his actual results across the board:
Those significant gaps can be explained by the data that shows Lux’s contact quality has not changed noticeably from the past. Lux has hit only six home runs and just 30 of his 101 hits (29.7%) have gone for extra bases. His average batted ball exit velocity is 87.7 MPH (25th percentile) and comes on a lower than ideal 7.4-degrees average launch angle. Both of those stats are significantly lower than last season’s 89.8-mph and 11.3-degrees and his career averages of 88.4-mph and 9.8-degrees. Moreover, Lux’s 40.5% hard-hit rate is essentially flat from last season’s 40.2%.
While the top line numbers look strong and much improved from the past, these kinds of underlying measures beg the question if this is real. Is this really a young player breaking out when finally given a consistent opportunity? Or is this just an extended run of good batted ball fortune?
Growth in Approach
Part of the story for believing in a Lux breakout has to do with how he’s grown as a player and person from the challenges he experienced in previous seasons. Early this season, Lux was candid in speaking to Fabian Ardaya of The Athletic about the mental hurdles and self-doubt he experienced and overcame last season and how he was bringing a changed outlook to the 2022 season. “The inner thoughts and how you’re talking to yourself is a lot,” Lux said. “I didn’t realize for a couple years there how negative I was on myself. Baseball is hard enough.”
Those around the Dodgers raved about the new and improved Lux in Spring Training and the early part of the season, with Roberts going so far as to say, “It’s a different person.”
But the results weren’t immediately and obviously different. Through the end of May, Lux had taken 156 plate appearances and hit a respectable, but unimpressive .263 /.346 /.336 (99 wRC+) with just seven extra-base hits (19.4%) and only one home run. His average batted ball exit velocity was just 85.6-mph. Within that meek start, though, Lux continued making progress in chopping his strikeout rate (down to 17.9% from 21.8% last season, 27.5% in 2020, and 29.3% in 2019) while also increasing his walk rate to 11.5% (from 10.8%, 8.7%, and 8.5% the previous three seasons).
That .336 slugging number and lack of extra bases were the most obvious weaknesses, especially for a player that hit 28 homers across three levels in 2019 and who was graded as having 65-70 power as a prospect. But Lux stayed confident and patient. At the end of April, he said to Jack Harris of the Los Angeles Times, “Last year, I would have been pressing so hard, like, ‘I’m not getting results. Right now, I think it’s just more about the process. … I’m taking that mindset of just having great at-bats and the rest will take care of itself.”
A Tale of Two Seasons
Now, a few months later, Lux looks prescient. Since June 1st, he has taken 233 plate appearances and hit a much more robust .317 /.391 / .507 (153 wRC+) with 23 extra-base hits (35.3%) and five home runs. Over that span, Lux has hit the ball with more authority and averaged 89.1-mph on contact. At the same time, he’s maintained the plate discipline gains he made early on as shown by his 18.5% strikeout and 11.2% walk rates over that span. Only Freddie Freeman (164 wRC+) has been a better offensive player among Dodgers and only fifteen players in all of baseball (including just one primary second baseman — Cleveland’s Andrés Giménez) have been more productive than Lux since the calendar flipped to June.
The Wisconsin kid. pic.twitter.com/gPWHTnxt4H
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) August 16, 2022
The extra production and power are credited to Lux continuing to build on his comfort and mature his approach. “I’m taking some shots,” Lux told Ardaya in early July. “I guess it’s just like old-school stuff,” Lux said, “like when you get into a 2-0 or 3-0 early in the count, picking on a pitch to drive and try to get your A-swing off. When you’re down or are 1-1, 2-2, two strikes, then it’s like shortening up and then trying to fight and grind it out and just get on base. That’s just kind of old-school stuff that I feel like I’ve been reminded of a little bit and that’s important, too.”
The numbers bear out Lux’s more opportunistically aggressive approach. Out of the fourteen different months he’s played in during his career, the past three months are within the top four most productive months of his career in situations when Lux is ahead in the ball-strike count:
Work Yet to Do
If you only looked at the seasonal stats or Lux’s Statcast summary, you might easily overlook his breakout of the past few months. The early season numbers still serve to bring down his totals enough that they don’t quite jump off the page, particularly in the power departments. And, you can rightfully question how much of the increased production of the past few months is real and how much is good batted ball fortune. Even with the improved contact quality marks since June, Lux still has some notable gaps between his actual and expected results across the board. The contact quality leaves something to be desired, especially in terms of lifting the ball in the air.
Sure, you can use those facts to brush aside what he’s become. But, you’d be missing out on a post-hype prospect that’s figuring it out. It’s clear that he’s made significant strides in very desirable ways. Increased confidence. A maturing mental approach. Fewer strikeouts, more walks. Seeking to do damage in favorable counts. A focus on contributing to the team’s success. Those are all things on the textbook checklist for young player development. He’s found an approach that is creating opportunities and he’s taking advantage.
Gavin Lux has been one of the best players in the game this season. And, he’s not a completely finished product.
Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)