How Dodgers prospect Gavin Lux developed into the hottest hitter in baseball

Gavin Lux led all affiliated batters in seven different offensive categories during his first 15 games at Triple-A. (Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Gavin Lux led all affiliated batters in seven different offensive categories during his first 15 games at Triple-A. (Getty Images)

Augie Schmidt, a baseball lifer, sat alone in his home in Kenosha, Wisconsin last Thursday watching a Triple-A baseball game.

He was nearly brought to tears by what he saw.

The moment struck when Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop prospect Gavin Lux, Schmidt’s nephew and star pupil, parked a homer in the right field seats at Principal Park in Des Moines, Iowa.

Schmidt, a former minor leaguer and the head baseball coach at Division III Carthage College since 1987, knew he was witnessing the culmination of the work started more than a decade ago.

Work that produced the best hitter on the planet for a 15-game stretch.

When Lux departed that afternoon for a near-550 mile, air-conditioner-less bus ride through America’s heartland back to Oklahoma City, he was the leader among all affiliated hitters in seven different offensive categories since being promoted to the Pacific Coast League 15 games prior.

He was league-best with a .531 batting average, 34 hits, 18 extra-base hits, 68 total bases, 25 runs, a 1.063 slugging percentage and a 1.640 OPS. At that point he had seven homers, two triples, nine doubles and 22 RBIs.

“People who played the game know how hard it is to do what he's done in the last couple weeks,” Schmidt said. “You go 3-for-6 and your average is going to go down. That's wrong, man.”

The middle infield prospect was promoted to Oklahoma City on June 26 after batting .313/.375/.521 with 24 extra-base hits and 37 RBIs in 64 games with Double-A Tulsa.

He did his version of cooling off in the four games since returning home, going 7-for-21 (including two triples and a homer) to bring his Triple-A average to .482.

“You go on those stretches in baseball where the ball looks like a sunflower seed. And then sometimes, it looks like a beach ball,” Lux told Yahoo Sports. “When you feel like that, you feel almost invincible. It doesn't matter where the pitch is, or what pitch it is, it's like it's getting barreled no matter what.”

Oklahoma City manager Travis Barbary picked up where Schmidt — who claims he’s worked more in the shadows since Lux got to high school — left off after the MLB draft, working as a coordinator in the team’s player development staff. The organization liked what they saw when they drafted him 20th overall in 2016.

But even they’re a bit shocked by this particular offensive surge.

“Watching him right now, it's hard to explain,” Barbary said. “We are in awe of what he's doing.”

Gavin Lux the latest in a wave of Wisconsin players

Considering Lux’s roots in Wisconsin, even as he grew up under Schmidt’s tutelage while taking advantage of the indoor facilities at Carthage, the odds were stacked against a player from that part of the country even getting this far up the organizational ladder.

Those odds only served to fuel the fire.

“I think everyone from Wisconsin kind of plays with a chip on their shoulder,” Lux said. “It's cool to see how far it's come from even when I was younger.”

There have been as many Wisconsin high schoolers drafted within the first five rounds since 2016 as there were in 23 years prior.

The first was Lux (Kenosha), then Ben Rortvedt (Verona) went to the Minnesota Twins 36 picks later. The New York Mets made Waukesha-native Jarred Kelenic, who has since been traded to the Seattle Mariners, the highest-drafted Wisconsin high schooler with the No. 6 overall pick in 2018.

(The highest drafted Wisconsinite of all time? A shortstop from the University of New Orleans named Augie Schmidt. He went No. 2 overall in 1982, a pick behind Shawn Dunston and three ahead of Dwight Gooden.)

Not only did the trio draw its roots to the Badger State, but they also played travel ball under RJ Fergus at Hitters Baseball. Hitters has produced 70 MLB draft picks from the Milwaukee and Chicago area, including 20 alums currently playing affiliated ball.

In his first full professional season in 2017, Lux batted .244 with seven homers and 39 RBIs in 111 games with Class A Great Lakes.

Less than a week after that season ended, he returned home to Wisconsin and linked up with Matt Gifford, who had been Kelenic’s trainer all throughout high school, at NX Level training facility in Mequon.

NX Level is famous for training the Watt brothers of the NFL at their original location in Waukesha. When Lux first got to the facility, Gifford recalled a gifted athlete a bit on the small side physically.

“Right off the bat, I can tell had really fast feet,” Gifford said. “Amazing level change, which obviously really helps playing his position.”

That offseason, Lux and Rortvedt lived together in Kenosha and would make the morning trek about an hour north to Mequon four times a week. They’d work out at NX Level for around two hours, then head back south to the Hitters facility in Caledonia.

Rortvedt, a backstop currently playing with Double-A Pensacola, did catcher drills with Marcus Hanel, a bullpen catcher for the Milwaukee Brewers, then Hanel would throw batting practice. Often times, the boys would go to Carthage for further work on their return to Kenosha.

“It was always, 'Uncle Augie, let's hit. Uncle Augie hit ground balls to me,'” Schmidt recalled of Lux as a child. “He pretty much wore me out, man. And he's still wearing me out to be honest.”

‘He would do fairly well if he was at the NFL combine’

At NX Level, Lux trained alongside UFC fighters Anthony and Sergio Pettis and Jared Gordon as well as a number of college football players.

“I think it's crazy that a UFC fighter, they just go in there and beat the crap out of each other,” Lux said. “And they're like, 'Hey, man. You're crazy for going in the batter's box with a guy throwing 100.'”

CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 07:  Gavin Lux #10 of the National League Futures Team throws to first for the out during the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game at Progressive Field on Sunday, July 7, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Gavin Lux went 0-for-2 with a strikeout in the Futures Game in Cleveland. (Getty Images)

According to Gifford, the baseball player’s workouts were more careful on the shoulder but otherwise very similar to the other athletes. The exercises put an emphasis on clean movement, fundamentals of hitching and squatting, absorbing and producing force, acceleration and change of direction.

Gifford and Lux estimate that the 21-year-old put on more than 20 pounds of muscle since the workouts began, which also developed from the natural maturation of no longer being a teenager.

“He did obviously put some more armor on his system,” Gifford said of Lux, who can apparently deadlift close to 600 pounds, get up to a 35-inch vertical and run in the 4.4-second range of the 40-yard dash. “He would do fairly well if he was at the NFL combine.”

Gifford attributed the sudden Wisconsin baseball boom to indoor facilities such as Hitters Baseball or the GRB and STiKS academies in Milwaukee. Obviously, getting away from the cold is important, but Gifford also mentioned that these programs cost “a pretty penny.”

“Our kids fall in love with that hardhat and lunch pail mentality. They want to work year round,” said Gifford, who mentioned that these types of expensive facilities can put Wisconsin baseball on par with Minnesota hockey or Texas football. “Kids are starting out in programs like ours as young as sixth or seventh grade.”

Buying in on the ‘Dodger Way’

In addition to the workouts at Mequon, Lux also traveled once a month in the offseason to Dodger Stadium to put more time in with the team’s director of athletic development and performance science, Brandon McDaniel.

His better developed power was noticeable to Rortvedt, particularly after the Dodgers’ installation of hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc in the offseason.

“I know he's taken the ‘Dodger Way’ and kind of went off with it and he's been launching balls,” said Rortvedt, who, every night, checked in on the box scores while Lux was on a five-game homer streak earlier this month. “Last offseason, I saw his swing totally changed. And the ball was really jumping off his bat. It was a really different look.”

Some credit Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner for starting the fly ball revolution. MVP candidate Cody Bellinger and outfielders Alex Verdugo and Joc Pederson have undeniable power and a swing path to match.

But Lux explains that the “Dodger Way” is no cookie-cutter program. But rather the goal is to provide hitters with more leeway to adjust to the barrel by getting on the right plane with the ball.

“It's not necessarily everyone's just do-or-die, let's hit home runs and let's get the ball in the air,” he said.

Even so, Lux was frustrated with his 52.7 percent groundball rate in 2017, and since improved that figure to 47.5 percent with Oklahoma City.

“There was like a completely swing overhaul, but I think it needed to be done,” he said.

According to a scout familiar with the Dodgers system, the team is not likely to part with Lux at next week’s deadline, or at all.

Last season, Los Angeles had to jettison five prospects for Manny Machado after Corey Seager underwent Tommy John surgery that ended his season in April. Apparently in that deal, the Baltimore Orioles were denied prospects, like Tony Gonsolin, whom the scout feels provide far less value than Lux.

There aren’t many gaps in the Dodgers’ major league roster, particularly none that would necessitate a trade involving a player of Lux’s caliber. In addition to Lux, highly regarded pitching prospect Dustin May and power-hitting outfielder DJ Peters also made the jump to Triple-A. Last week, top catching prospect Keibert Ruiz joined the organization’s other heralded catcher prospect, Will Smith, in Oklahoma City.

There’s plenty behind the glass in case of emergency at any position on the field. And what Lux showed in his first two weeks at Triple-A might get him involved in the playoff race.

“The way he's playing right now, I think anything is possible,” Barbary said. “He's put himself in a position for us to be an asset for our major league team.”

As he watched his nephew’s success unfold on the professional circuit, Schmidt recalled the 9-year-old kid, hounding his uncle for hitting and fielding practice grounders.

But he’s certainly taken notice of what’s become a grown man. One that would tower over the scrawny and undersized young high-schooler he remembered from Kenosha.

“Now, he's a doggone animal.”

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