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Dodgers down the stretch: Gavin Lux rising, bullpen limbo, schedule tightening

90 games down, 72 to do

Chicago Cubs v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

The Dodgers have completed five innings of their nine-inning regular season, coming out of the All-Star break with twice as many wins as losses, and a double-digit lead in the National League West.

A lot of the season remains, and here are some things to watch down the stretch for Los Angeles.

The bet on Gavin Lux is paying off

The Dodgers’ trade with the White Sox just seven days before opening day was multi-pronged. The Dodgers needed a closer, and got Craig Kimbrel. A one-for-one trade for AJ Pollock made the salaries close enough from a competitive balance tax perspective, though the suspension of Trevor Bauer that came three weeks later took the Dodgers out of the highest, most-punitive tier.

But a large aspect of the Pollock-for-Kimbrel trade was clearing a path – a runway, as a certain manager likes to say – for Gavin Lux to play every day.

So far, so good.

With Chris Taylor coming off elbow surgery last November, he is limited to playing only the outfield this season as a way to protect his arm. That leaves Lux as the only true infield/outfield player on the Dodgers, which has been an essential part of their roster construction for the last half-decade plus.

Lux has started 54 games at second base and 22 in left field.

Lux has gotten on base pretty much all year, for the most part. But the power has been coming of late, too. Through the end of May, Lux had a .336 slugging percentage and .073 isolated power, the latter ranking 160th among 171 major league hitters with at least 150 plate appearances.

But since the start of June, Lux is hitting .325/.396/.504 with 13 extra-base hits in 39 games, compared to seven extra-base hits through his first 42 games. His isolated power since June 1 is .179.

On the season, Lux is hitting .292/.369/.415, his 126 wRC+ giving the Dodgers one of five regulars with a 120 wRC+ or higher.

Lux has also hit .266/.338/.313 with a 92 wRC+ against left-handed pitchers, reasonably holding his own. The power hasn’t quite come yet against lefties, but they showed patience with him before. Lux has been pinch-hit for seven times this season (five by Hanser Alberto and twice by Chris Taylor), tied for third-most on the team, and Lux has started only 19 of the Dodgers’ 30 games against left-handed starters. He’s earned some more rope against southpaws.

Schedule strength

The National League West is at least nominally a three-team race, though the Padres trail the Dodgers by 10 games and the Giants are 12½ back. That’s LA’s main focus, but in a broader sense the NL has eight teams with a winning record, fighting for six playoff spots.

If there is a path for San Diego or San Francisco to claw back in the division, it’s their relatively easier schedules down the stretch.

The Dodgers have 39 games left against the other winning NL teams, compared to only 27 for the Padres and 31 for the Giants. Twenty-three of those Dodgers games are on the road. The bulk of the difference among NL West schedules is that the Dodgers have yet to play the Brewers, but will check that box off in a 10-day span in August, with four games in Milwaukee followed by three at Dodger Stadium.

Los Angeles has four series each against San Diego and San Francisco, with 36 percent of their remaining games against the two other divisional contenders. All three teams have a chance to play their way into the postseason, and/or improved seeding.

In the race for the No. 1 seed in the National League, the Dodgers have a 3½-game lead over the Mets, though a five-game advantage in the loss column. New York has had their way with the other winning NL teams, going 27-16 (.628), with only 28 games left against them. The Dodgers are 18-14 (.563) against the currently-over-.500 NL teams.

The Dodgers and Mets play three games at Citi Field in New York from August 30 to September 1.

Left field timeshare

First came a broken rib for Mookie Betts, who landed on the injured list but has since returned. Almost with tag-team timing, Taylor suffered a fracture in his left foot once Betts came back. The Dodgers scrambled to find outfield depth, and landed on veterans Trayce Thompson and Jake Lamb to share the load after both excelled in Triple-A this season.

The combo thus far has worked like a charm, hitting a combined .250/.337/.476, roughly a 124 OPS+ with four home runs, five doubles, and a triple in 95 plate appearances. It’s not a strict platoon, with the superior outfield defender Thompson playing a little more often than Lamb, including entering late in games defensively.

One of Thompson and Lamb have started in each of the past 22 games, 18 of those in the outfield plus four Lamb starts at designated hitter. Thompson arrived a few days before Lamb, and since both have been active they have each started nine times. All starts for the left-handed Lamb have come against right-handed pitchers, and he’s only batted one time against a left-handed pitcher (he struck out against Aaron Loup last Saturday). The right-handed Thompson has started all eight games against southpaws, plus five more against right-handed pitchers.

Now the question is how long can they, or will be asked to, keep this up? Both have strikeout rates over 30 percent, and over the last six games are a combined 4-for-27 (.148) with no extra-base hits. Taylor likely won’t be back for a few more weeks, and Edwin Ríos is not even eligible to come back until August 2 at the earliest. Will the Dodgers continue to ride the Thompson/Lamb wave, or augment the depth by adding a bat before the August 2 trade deadline?

Finding relief

The Dodgers currently have three opening day relievers, the top three on the depth chart after Kimbrel, on the injured list, with Brusdar Graterol and Blake Treinen nebulously due back soon, perhaps in August, and Daniel Hudson out for the year with a torn ACL.

Even with those losses and several others, LA’s bullpen has persevered. They haven’t missed a beat even after active rosters were reduced from a 14-pitcher limit to a 13 pitchers on June 20.

Dodgers bullpen with different pitcher limits

Dates IP/game ERA FIP BB rate K rate
Dates IP/game ERA FIP BB rate K rate
April 7-June 19 3.62 3.41 (8th) 3.27 (4th) 7.7% (5th) 26.3% (5th)
June 20-July 17 3.20 2.81 (7th) 3.53 (8th) 5.7% (1st) 25.4% (9th)
Roster limits reduced from 14 to 13 pitchers on June 20 Source: FanGraphs

Over the past four weeks, the Dodgers bullpen has performed just as well as before, in some cases better, and among the best relief corps in the majors. It certainly hasn’t hurt that the rotation helped pick up the slack along the way, averaging 5.76 innings per start over the last four weeks, second in the majors, compared to 5.28 innings per start before that.

If bullpen help is on the way, it could come from a variety of sources. Like the returns of Graterol and Treinen, or perhaps Tommy Kahnle or Victor González, who are also on the injured list. Or maybe Danny Duffy, who is coming up on the anniversary of becoming a Dodger without yet having thrown a pitch for them.

There’s also the trio of veterans on minor league contracts, depending on how Hansel Robles, Dellin Betances, and Pedro Báez progress. And, of course, the August 2 trade deadline looms, perhaps with some relief as well.

Thirteen days remain until the trade deadline, which factors into just about everything, how the Dodgers bolster their roster as well as how other contenders add pieces. For now, though, the Dodgers are in a pretty good spot heading into the back stretch of the season.