For a while, all Gavin Lux would do was question himself. Rather than deftly navigate what he now calls “slippery slopes,” he would quietly slide down into his own personal abyss.
The onset of the coronavirus pandemic got the Dodgers’ former top prospect acclimated to the quiet isolation of home. Living on his own for the first time, he dropped several of the hobbies that had occupied his time off the field.
During his audition as the Dodgers’ everyday second baseman and later at shortstop last summer, he would retreat to his Los Angeles apartment unable to take the sting out of seeing his numbers on Dodger Stadium’s dual center-field scoreboards. He battled anxiety, the numbers and weight of his own expectations of him, and it left him sleepless.
“I’d wake up in the middle of the night and how you were playing would be the first thing I thought about,” Lux said recently. “I was just bottled up in my apartment, thinking about how bad I was playing the entire day. That would roll into the next day. I’d wake up in the morning and it just, I wasn’t feeling good. It was a big snowball effect.”
Rather than express his doubts and struggles, he has hardened. It had been years since he’d struggled at the plate — he dipped some after a swing change early in 2018, then “absolutely basically just went off for all of ’18 and all of ’19,” general manager Brandon Gomes said. In almost 50 games at Triple A in 2019, I have torched the Pacific Coast League, flirting with .400 over a two-month stretch while hitting for more pop than ever.
But as his batting line sagged in the years that followed, Lux turned inward. “I just wasn’t really me,” he said. He has stopped talking to his family about him, or anyone, about baseball. He repeated to himself the common baseball tropes: stay even-keeled, stay off the mental roller coaster. Instead, that ride only took him down.
“That almost made it fucking way worse,” Lux said.
Gomes, who oversaw the Dodgers’ player development system during much of Lux’s rise to the big leagues, still called optioning him last fall “a difficult decision.” Lux’s production had floundered even before a hamstring injury landed him on the injured list shortly after the All-Star break. The club’s midseason trade for Trea Turner reduced him to a bench role when he came back, another false start on what had appeared to be an unstoppable trajectory at the end of 2019. And the Dodgers, in the midst of a contested division chase with the Giants, needed a roster spot with few other ways to access one.
So the Dodgers sent Lux down, back to Triple A. The self-doubts traveled along with him.
Lux pondered what would’ve been different had he been on a different team, in a different market. He likely would’ve been an everyday player sooner. The pressure of immediate performance to stick in the big leagues had been a strain. He’d remark to his father that players he’d toppled and outperformed in the minors were getting to play through failure, an opportunity he wasn’t afforded. It just made things worse, as he did his return to the place he’d dominated just a couple of years earlier.
“Fuck,” he told himself, “I don’t want to be here. I shouldn’t be here. I hit .400 here three years ago, I have no business being here.”
But Lux didn’t fall further. Instead, he found a better version of himself.
At age 24, Lux is now playing every day in the big leagues. While not hitting for much power, Dodgers officials have remarked on the quality and consistency of his at-bats from him. Unlike last year, he’s no longer getting over-aggressive and losing the offensive attributes that made him great. He’s handled second base and even some outfield work well. Moreover, they’re seeing the Gavin Lux, the person, they’d grown accustomed to seeing — the goofball, energetic second baseman with the discerning batting eye who they hoped would be part of their future infield and very well still might be at the heart of it.
“It’s a different person,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts remarked recently.
Ultimately, it’s who Lux was all along.
Lux’s stay during his reluctant return to Oklahoma City was short. It took just 15 days for the Dodgers to bring Lux back to the big leagues, and they needed him to try on an outfielder’s glove for the first time to get him at-bats.
The opportunity he wanted was once again there. The rush was so jarring, and Lux has had a propensity for losing his gloves, so he began using a glove belonging to former Dodgers minor leaguer and current Rangers outfielder Zach Reks. He still uses it, even after a replacement arrived this year.
It’s a reminder that by then, Lux had recentered himself. His return from him to Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark had served as a reminder of the process-oriented thinking that had been hammered into him since he was a teenager in the Dodgers’ system. The anxiety had been triggered there as well, with a bout of the yips impacting his ability to accurately throw the baseball at points while he was a prospect. It was then that he learned an art he’d seemingly forgotten in the bigs: how to let go.
In reality, it’s turned out to be simpler than Lux thought. Throughout his time in the minors, he’d had roommates and they often spent their nights playing video games and reviewing their days at the plate before optimistically moving forward to the next day. The 0-for-4 didn’t matter, they’d say, because they’d crush their opponents the next day. Often, they would. Lux, living by himself, found his game console getting dusty and the sessions playing “Call of Duty” less commonplace as his big-league profile grew. But to get back to himself, he sought out anything to take his mind off baseball when he wasn’t playing.
“He was on a mission,” Gomes said.
Lux picked up a controller. He picked up the phone, to call his family and friends from him and put breath behind his feelings from him rather than bottle them up. He also picked up books as a means of easing his mind from him and finding himself in a different space than one obsessed with his production from him. This spring, Justin Turner brought a book from his agency’s founder and entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk called “Twelve and a Half: Leveraging the Emotional Ingredients Necessary for Business Success.” It was a gift for each of his teammates, something to give them “a mentality, outlook piece that can kind of maybe change your perspective on things a little bit and how you go about stuff,” Turner said.
Lux devoured it, just as he’s devoured almost every little measure he can find that puts him into a proper headspace.
He’s turned self-doubt into self-affirmation, whispering positive thoughts and reminders to himself as he arrives at the ballpark and settles into his day. It’s become a part of his routine, something that has become as consistent as the quality of his at-bats this season. After leaning on manager Travis Barbary in Triple A, he’s become a regular presence alongside Brandon McDaniel, the Dodgers’ vice president of player performance, and Brent Walker, the Dodgers’ major league mental skills coach.
“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. So when you’re in your own way, it’s like it’s fucking impossible.”
Lux has also drawn himself close to Cody Bellinger, who like Lux entered the big leagues with the supreme hype of being a top prospect. Unlike Lux, Bellinger thrived immediately, running away with Rookie of the Year honors in 2017 and winning the MVP award two years later. Then the game humbled him, too.
“That’s probably the hardest part of the game and that’s all about playing the game and experience,” Bellinger said. “The more you play, the more you realize it’s all about how you feel rather than the results.”
Lux hasn’t taken off into stardom this year, but the Dodgers haven’t needed him to.
“He looks over baseball as well as anybody in our lineup,” Gomes said. “Things have slowed down for him and he just understands his role. And he’ll continue to grow that role.”
Their lineup is filled with stars, enough to seemingly squeeze Lux out once again this spring with the acquisition of Freddie Freeman in March. But that door reopened when the Dodgers traded AJ Pollock to the White Sox shortly before Opening Day, and Lux has played nearly every day since. He’s sought out the skills that set him apart — notably, being a pest in the batter’s box rather than seeking out power.
“It’s to his credit because two years ago,” Roberts said. “he wouldn’t have.”
He’s sought out advice from those around him, following Freeman around and taking to some of the particular drills Freeman employs to embody his all-fields approach, with Roberts stating that Lux is Freeman’s “No. 1 pupil” this season.
“I mean, that’s what I did as a young guy,” Freeman said. “It’s those little things. He’s working hard. He’s just soaking it all in. He’s just trying to be the best player he can be and it’s pretty fun to watch.”
It’s worked. Lux is striking out less and walking more. He’s chasing less and making more contact, hitting balls more true up the middle rather than selling out for power. With it, he’s been a consistent table-setter from the No. 9 spot for a top-of-the-lineup of Mookie Betts, Freeman and Trea Turner.
“That’s what we saw: a guy who could really control the strike zone,” said Clayton McCullough, the Dodgers’ first-base coach who served as the club’s minor-league field coordinator while Lux was in the minors “Tremendous bat-to- ball skills, the ability to control the zone (and) impact.”
More than anything, Lux is comfortable and confident. Be it playing more, be it changing his mindset to deal with the anxiety that had tanked him in the past or finding a version of himself that works, it’s made him a cog that the Dodgers had been hoping he could be. It’s become his fuel from him.
His stardom can still arrive. But more than ever in the big leagues, he’s comfortable being Gavin Lux.
(Photo by Gavin Lux: Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images)