Updated: May 12, 2020
I don’t know what it is with the Los Angeles Dodgers, but it feels like every time I turn around, they seem to dig up some random kid from their seemingly bottomless farm system. Not only is it impressive to watch a new call-up don the blue and white for the first time and become productive almost immediately, it’s also a bit infuriating because I get more and more jealous every time it happens.
Over the past 5 years, the incredible coaches down in the lower leagues have helped rearm the Dodgers with some of the league’s most exciting young players. You can thank these people for keeping the Dodgers in the World Series picture. Some of these players have included the young hurler Walker Buehler, the criminally underrated shortstop Corey Seager, and the single best left-handed hitter in the game, Cody Bellinger. Sure they’ve had some duds as all other teams have had, but when they hit, they hit diamonds.
Last September, the Dodgers called up a guy who many baseball nerds were excited to finally see, middle infielder Gavin Lux. The then 21-year-old had been drafted from Indian Trail High School in Kenosha, Wisconsin back in 2016 by the Dodgers and had been slowly working his way up the leagues since then. While he wasn’t as well-known as other young prospects at the beginning of the 2019 season, like Vladimir Guerrero Jr and Fernando Tatis Jr, he was a guy many people were excited to see once September came around.
Up until that point, Gavin Lux had been enjoying an impressive 2019 season for both the Tulsa Drillers in AA and the Oklahoma City Dodgers in AAA. He started the year on fire in AA, slashing an excellent .313/.375/.521. For those who don’t know, the first number was his batting average, the second was his on-base percentage, and the third was his slugging percentage. He also clobbered 13 home runs over only 259 at bats and drove in 37 runs. His AA OPS ended up at .896, which would have been good enough for a potential All Star selection had he done it in the majors.
Thanks to his early success, Lux moved up to AAA in late June. Many were understandably intrigued to see how he would do up there. The conventional wisdom has long been that any player making that transition will most likely generate weaker results, but the exact opposite happened in Lux's case. Over a 49-game stretch that featured only 199 at bats, he crushed another 13 homers, drove in 39 runs, and showed off a phenomenal .392/.478/.719 slash line. Had his 1.197 OPS been reached in enough at bats, he would not only lead the Pacific Coast League, but all of Triple A. His final stat line for 2019 featured 26 homers, 76 RBIs, 8 triples, 10 stolen bases, and a .347/.421/.607 slash line. His final minor league OPS for the season was an astonishing 1.028, which if done in the majors would’ve made him an MVP candidate.
Lux would end up winning Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year Award, joining guys like Frank Thomas (1990), Derek Jeter (1994), Joe Mauer (2003), Mike Trout (2011), and Ronald Acuña Jr. (2017). Depending on which primary position you give Lux, he was either the second second baseman to win after Yoan Moncada or the third shortstop after 2-time winner Gregg Jeffries and the aforementioned Jeter. He was also the third player from within the Dodgers’ farm system to receive the honor after inaugural winner Mike Marshall and Paul Konerko, who I didn’t know actually played 2 seasons in Los Angeles back in the day.
But before he would receive that honor, he was given another. He was called up to the Dodgers themselves as one of the club’s September call-ups. The only question remaining was which position Lux was going to play during his first month playing in The Show. While he was primarily a shortstop while making this way up the minor leagues, he was going to find it difficult to find any time over there because the club already had Corey Seager, one of the majors' best. Luckily for him, the Dodgers were in desperate need to find a guy to sure up second base.
Before Lux was called up, Dave Roberts had mostly platooned second base out to a handful of players, as he had for a few other positions. By September 2nd, Kiké Hernandez had played 580.1 innings, Max Muncy had been there for 502.1, and Chris Taylor had been there for 117. This was in contrast to the aforementioned Corey Seager, who suited up at shortstop for 1082.2 innings during that same time span. Once Lux debuted, Hernandez, Muncy, and Young would combine for 29.0 innings, while the kid played 178.0.
Now it must be said that Lux’s first month in the big leagues didn’t exactly go as planned, but he did show his potential greatness at times. His first game in “The Bigs” was easily one of his best after he finished hitting 2 for 5 add ran out a double. Not only that, but he also struck a single into center field on the first pitch he ever swung at. He would really catch fire after the Dodgers made their final eastward road trip of the regular season. Over a 6-game span against both the Baltimore Orioles and New York Mets, Lux hit .400, ran out 2 doubles, and slugged his first 2 career big league home runs, one at Camden Yards and the other at Citi Field. His homer against the Mets was off Noah Syndergaard that went to straight away centerfield.
For the rest of the season, Lux went back down to earth. From September 17th to the 29th, he would only hit .200 and slap 2 extra base hits, neither being a home run. He finished his first span in the majors with a .240/.305/.400 slash line, 2 home runs, 9 RBIs, and a 0.6 WAR, meaning that he was just a little bit better than the average hitter. His 85 OPS+ was probably his lone "bad" stat, as it meant he was 15 percent worse than the average hitter playing in the average ballpark.
Probably his proudest moment of the season, beyond his debut, actually came later in the NLDS against the Washington Nationals. On October 3rd, Lux came in to pinch hit in the 8th inning. Facing off against Hunter Strickland in his first career postseason at bat, Lux clobbered a home run to extend the Dodgers’ lead to 4-0. The Dodgers would win 6-0 that night but later lose the series. Nevertheless, Lux (21 years, 314 days) became the youngest Dodger to ever homer in a postseason game.
I want to end this by quickly going into where he stands going into 2020. Lux’s prospects staying with the Dodgers for the foreseeable future were drastically improved earlier this year when the club traded away prospect Jeter Downs to the Red Sox in the Mookie Betts trade. Downs was also a highly rated shortstop prospect, as he was ranked eighth best by MLB prospect expert Jim Callis in January at his position. He was probably the only other guy who could've challenged Lux for time on the field moving forward beyond the starters already engrained in Los Angeles. This move indicates to me that there is little doubt that the club wants to continue on with the reigning Minor League Player of the Year.
Another thing that helps his case is that he's already proven to be a player who competes over replacement level in the Major Leagues. His 0.6 bWAR may not be great if done throughout an entire season, but for a debut month that's actually pretty good. If he was to continue playing the same way, maybe adding a few points to each of his slash line scores, he may have ended the year with a bWAR around 4-5, which would make him an easy every day starter. To me at least, his best moments were that of a pretty solid young ball player.
The one statistic that I'll personally examine over the course of the next few years will be his On-Base Percentage. To me, OBP is the best stat to look at when trying to figure out if a young player is progressing well enough in the league. That's because it tells us how well they are able to reach base and help their club. If you head over to Fangraphs, you'll find that the projections have him finishing this season with an OBP somewhere around .325 and .335. That would make him a pretty average hitter by that metric. However, if he was to finish right in the middle of that projection at .330, he would have the tenth highest among all starting second baseman, higher than guys like Ryan McMahon, Jason Kipnis, and Rougned Odor. If you add that to his projected 16-21 home runs, you're looking at a solid and dependable power bat from a position not known for hitting dingers.
But baseball isn't played on paper or on computers, so we'll definitely have to see how it goes once players run onto the field for the first time. The 2020 season will be really intriguing viewing for multiple reasons, but I think one of them will be to see how this current crop of rookies will fare. Gavin Lux is one of a group of 5-10 first-year players who could all end up as household names over this next decade, and while there are some question marks to Lux's game based on his current positioning, I think that he's in for a long and fruitful career in Southern California.