The Dodgers won more games in 2019 than in any other season in the 136-year history of the franchise, and did so while handing the keys to two different positions to rookies late in the year.
But catcher Will Smith and Gavin Lux are just part of the LA youth movement, part of a pipeline that has fueled the franchise’s best extended run since the Boys of Summer days in Brooklyn.
Rookie position players started 217 games for the Dodgers this season, combining to hit .271/.333/.491 (a 115 OPS+) with 45 home runs, 60 doubles, and 82 walks, driving in 155 runs and scoring 139.
Lux and Smith were both drafted by the Dodgers in the first round in 2016, and both entered the season among the top 100 prospects in baseball by both Baseball America. The other four rookie hitters were drafted in 2014 (Alex Verdugo) or 2015 (Matt Beaty, Edwin Rios, Kyle Garlick).
Beaty, a lefty-hitting corner outfielder and infielder, made the Dodgers’ postseason roster as a reserve after a strong rookie debut, including two game-winning home runs in the club’s final at-bat. Verdugo, the club’s second-round pick in 2014, made the most impact over the course of the season, starting 82 games while hitting .294/.342/.475 with 12 home runs and providing exceptional outfield defense. Verdugo led the Dodgers rookies in WAR (2.2) but has been out since early August with a back injury. The earliest he would be ready, if at all, is the NLCS.
But it was Smith and Lux who seized starting spots after the All-Star break and held onto them into October. Smith took over behind the plate for good in the last weekend of July, and his 12 home runs since the All-Star break rank third in the majors among catchers behind only the Twins’ Mitch Garver (18) and J.T. Realmuto of the Phillies (15).
“We’ve got a catcher we called up in the middle of the year who had, let’s call it an apprenticeship last September,” manager Dave Roberts says. “He’s gonna catch a postseason game, which doesn’t happen very often. It’s the trust that we have in Will.”
That apprenticeship for Smith was a call up of sorts in September 2018, though without getting added to the Dodgers’ roster. He joined a big league team fighting for their playoff lives — the Dodgers needed a Game 163 to win the NL West last year — and took part in batting practice, fielding drills, and all the relevant meetings with pitchers, catchers and staff.
The Dodgers planned a similar role at a minimum this season for Lux, who began the year in Double-A but simply hit too well to be ignored. The shortstop hit .347/.421/.607 with 26 home runs, four more than his first three minor league campaigns combined. Lux was called up on Labor Day to play second base and was quickly entrenched in the lineup, starting 19 of 23 games in his debut stint in the big leagues. Expect him to start against every right-handed pitcher the Dodgers face this October.
“He’s earned it,” Roberts says. “I like his head, and his athleticism.”
Lux, the club’s top prospect, forcing his way onto not only the Dodgers roster but their lineup in September for a contending team is reminiscent of shortstop Corey Seager, who did the same in 2015. Seager, like Lux a top prospect and first-round pick, won Rookie of the Year the next year. Lux figures to contend for the same in 2020.
Seven times in September, during Clayton Kershaw or Walker Buehler starts, the Dodgers started four former first-round draft picks in the same lineup, the first time they’ve done that since 1987.
The club’s best player in 2019 is NL MVP contender and another former Rookie of the Year winner Cody Bellinger, who turned just 24 in July. This is only his third season.
“[Bellinger’s] come a long way in a short period of time. Corey had that same ascension as Cody. You see young players that are so talented, and for us to lean so heavily on these guys there’s a certain maturity that has to happen very quickly,” Roberts said. “They continue to get better and grow. I don’t know where we’d be without their maturity and their skill sets.”
LA’s current youth infusion — which also includes rookie pitchers Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin, two starters used both in the rotation and in relief to combine for a 3.25 ERA in 75 innings down the stretch — is fostered by a clubhouse where the 30-somethings welcome the young help.
“To make a guy feel comfortable so that he can go out there and be himself, there’s a lot of power in that,” Roberts says. “It’s a great group, not just talent-wise, but when you have guys like David Freese, Justin [Turner], and Clayton [Kershaw] embrace these young players. We’re going to need them to win baseball games, and our players realize that.”
“They definitely take the young guys under their wings, and lead them on the right path, try to make them feel as comfortable as possible,” Gonsolin says.
Seven straight times the Dodgers have won the National League West, the third-longest streak of reaching the postseason in MLB history. They’ve averaged 96 wins in that time, the best in baseball. The .591 winning percentage compares favorably to the club’s Brooklyn heyday, winning at a .613 clip from 1947-56 with six NL pennants in 10 years. They were foiled time and time again in the World Series but finally broke through in 1955 for the franchise’s first championship.
After back to back World Series trips, this current Dodgers’ iteration has yet to experience a title. But if they keep producing talent to bolster an already incredible roster, they are bound to break through one of these years. Maybe even this one.