Drafting Gavin Lux: Q&A With Dodgers Scouting Director Billy Gasparino

Image credit: Gavin Lux (Photo by Victor Decolongon)

When the Dodgers drafted Wisconsin high school shortstop Gavin Lux with the 20th overall pick in the 2016 draft, it seemed like a bit of a reach at the time. 

The history of Wisconsin high school position players going on to major league success was very limited, and industry consensus held Lux as more of a second-round talent than a first-rounder.

Dodgers scouting director Billy Gasparino, however, was convinced by what he had seen and the reports from Upper Midwest area scout Trey Magnuson and crosschecker Jon Adkins. 

Now, Lux is the 2019 Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year and the Dodgers starting second baseman as they enter the final stretch of the regular season.

I sat down with Gasparino in mid-August in his office at Dodger Stadium to talk about Lux, what the Dodgers saw in him and how he came to be their pick on draft day.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Kyle Glaser: When and where did you first see Gavin play?

Billy Gasparino: We saw him, like most amateurs or high school kids that age, that summer before his senior year. At Area Codes and then the fall in Jupiter were kind of like the first two events that he just kind of stood out to us. We started digging in on him at that point, not necessarily knowing what round or how high, but just as a player we had extreme interest in.

KG: What were some things that jumped out to you at those events?

BG: Back then he was nowhere near as physical as he is now. But he was explosive for his size, he had really good hand-eye coordination, even to the point of just like contact skills, putting the ball in play, (it) kind of stood out for us. Ability to move his body quickly at short with enough arm strength. He was kind of like an all-around player with good hand-eye, a good swing that we thought he could get stronger and be better quickly, but (we were) not sure at that point in the summer how fast it would come.

KG: The history of Wisconsin high school hitters leading up to Gavin’s year having success in the majors was pretty poor. How much did that weigh into your thought process, and at what point did you think he might be good enough to be the exception?

BG: I think the initial anchor position we took was with some of that in mind. Like good player, but how good? How high? How much experience does he really have? Then as we dug in over the winter, early spring, close to the draft, I think we felt really comfortable with the competition he faced, having his uncle around who has the extreme baseball background and the college program, and just the overall character assessment. We didn’t think he was like an ordinary, play it by the odds demographic of Wisconsin. We really thought no matter where he was from, he was s a really good player that had both ceiling and floor.

(Lux’s uncle is Augie Schmidt, the 1982 Golden Spikes Award winner and No. 2 overall pick. Schmidt is now in his 33rd season as the head coach at NCAA Division III Carthage (Wis.) College.)

KG: You mention you hadn’t dug in on what round early on, you just knew you really liked the player. When did he become a legitimate first-round candidate for you?

BG: That’s a good question. I would say probably about halfway through the spring. He was an early target to spend a lot of time with. Our scout Trey Magnuson and our regional guy Jon Adkins saw him a lot early, but I don’t think until about halfway when we were able to get some national looks and you start kind of gauging in real terms where kind of the rest of the country is, it just started making more and more sense that he should at least be talked about in that area.

KG: How often did you get up to Wisconsin to see him yourself? What was that process like leading up to the draft?

BG: I went twice. Once I think about midway through, like early April time frame, and then I went again the week of the conference tournaments late again just to, as it got really serious and we probably thought he was going to be a real option, just to make sure and maybe even have some more conviction in my own mind that we were really going to attempt this.

KG: What did he show you to give you the conviction you were looking for?

BG: His usual steadiness. I think that day he faced a high schooler throwing 90 (mph) and so it was just like his quality of bat, the ability to handle velocity without seeing it very often. He made a couple of good plays at shortstop. Just the overall was like one more set of data points or looks that make you feel like ‘OK, everything our scouts are seeing, everything I saw in the past, everything just feels like it’s checking out.’

KG: You get to draft day, when did you decide Gavin was going to be your pick?

BG: It was right before the pick. We had him placed really well on the board. It was between him and another college pitcher and it was a really close call at the time. I think as the day unfolded it became more clear it would probably be him. The Chicago White Sox liked him quite a bit being up there and familiar with him. They had two picks that year, so I know we were hearing one scenario were he would go to them as high as No. 10, so there was some “He might go ahead of us, there’s a team or two who might do it.” I think right before the draft started, it felt like he was going to be the guy without really knowing how the scenarios play out.

(Lux’s signing scout Trey Magnuson also relayed a story that Lux had gone to a Rays workout right before the draft and performed well enough to be in consideration for Tampa Bay. According to Magnuson, the Rays were interested in Lux and Georgia high school outfielder Josh Lowe with the 13th overall pick. On draft day, they selected Lowe.)

KG: You mentioned it was between him and a college pitcher. What was the final determination that he would be the pick?

BG: I think the group just felt a little more comfortable trying to get a bat at that spot. His overall talent level and character assessments were so high, we just felt like, a little bit of liking him just a little bit more than the college pitcher and some of just draft strategy of taking the bat there and getting pitching later. But a lot of it was we just liked Gavin a little bit better.

KG: He goes through his first fall as a pro and then the Midwest League opens up the next year and the performance wasn’t great. I know there were some under the radar things to point to, but overall the scout feedback was very mixed on both the bat and the glove. Was there at any point any concern?

BG: I think from the guys who really believed in Gavin, we never really had a concern about his ability or talent level or where he was. It was more of a concern of just how he was handling this initial bump in the road or this initial failure. I think the Midwest League early on for any hitter is brutal. And then you put someone who has that Wisconsin background playing in front of friends and family it’s not quite the start (he wanted). There was some contact and the quality of contact that was actually better than the surface numbers, but as a young kid just trying to survive, he doesn’t know that. So from the guys who really believed in him, I don’t think there was concern he wasn’t what we thought he was at any point. It was just ‘How is he handling this bump? How are we going to get him through it?’ Just to make sure he wasn’t letting those initial struggles impact him.

KG: What were some of the things you guys did with him to help him get over those initial struggles?

BG: To give both Robert Van Scoyoc and Tim Hyers (credit) at the time, they did a really good job of really some messaging of lower half moves and pitch selection and giving him some initial stuff to grasp onto that first summer. Some of it was just reminding him ‘Hey, you’re doing pretty well even though it might not look like it,’ and then part of it he did on his own. If you look at his second half Midwest League numbers, he started to do better and actually put up a pretty good season. I think he started this trend himself. Most of this credit goes to Gavin. He’s an incredible kid. The grit. He’s resilient. He’s smart. He was able to figure out with our help a lot of things he needed to every step of the way. Internally and externally, there always seemed to be a little bit of doubt when you talked to people about it. We never felt it, but I know it existed.

KG: I actually spoke to a couple of people with the Dodgers at the time who told me even they didn’t believe. Even within the organization, it seems like there were two camps.

BG: Yeah, there was a little bit of that. That’s where I give the credit to Gavin and keep his head down and plow through it and understand his strengths and what he needed to work on, and he attacked it that offseason and took it to another level. It seems like every challenge we give him, he answers.

KG: He goes through that offseason, comes back the next year visibly stronger and tears up the California League in the first half. Was there a sigh of relief when that happened?

BG: I think there always is. Not even related to Gavin, but just overall. With any prospect there seems to be, like, a tipping point of success where you breathe a little easier and you know he’s on track. As hard as Gavin worked in the offseason and as good as his swing looked and the progress he made strength-wise, he showed up to spring training and you’re like ‘Wow, I think this is going to be a pretty good year for him,’ and then he goes out and does it, it was definitely a sigh of relief, because it doesn’t count unless you do it in the real stuff.

KG: And then he goes up to Double-A that year and it continues.

BG: Yeah, he just didn’t even hit a bump. And then you could kind of see his confidence growing. As hard as he worked in the offseason on his swing, his strength was such he just stood out now physically. He’s always been kind of a twitchy good mover, but now you add 20 pounds of real strength to it, and it was like you go watch him in the field like ‘Wow. Now that really is what it looks like at the major league level from a body, athlete, twitch standpoint.’

KG: When I talked to Gavin he mentioned he started hitting opposite field home runs really for the first time and he noticed he hit it a lot farther than he expected it to just because he never had the strength to do that before.

BG: I think he surprised himself. I love it. He’s super confident. His decision making with hand-eye has always been there. Now  (that) it’s in place with a good swing and added strength, it’s been wow power moments at times that even surprised his biggest believers. Some of that was the normal development a lot of these high schoolers go through, but still, we’re probably impatient as an industry in general and that’s all of us included. You never know until they hit that turning point if you can kind of breathe.

KG: You guys obviously thought high enough of him to make him your first-round pick and give him a multi-million dollar signing bonus. Is it safe to say he’s even exceeded the expectations you had based on what’s he doing.

BG: I think so. There’s still another step to take at the major league level. But it’s super impressive, especially offensively and even throw in the power component, even (for) his biggest believers, exceeded those expectations. It’s always hard to see all that happening on the front end of things, but I do think with Gavin’s makeup and ability, if there was a guy in hindsight who was going to do it, it would have been him.

KG: What kind of player did you think he’d be when you drafted him?

BG: I think at the time we try to be realistic in our grades. We had some plus hit grades future on him, but a lot of 55s. We were a mixed group on the power output, let’s just call it average or slightly below. Even the run tool, to sum it up it was more like 55s, and it’s turned out to be way more 6s than thought. We thought he could stay at short, we thought he’d be a well-rounded player who hits for some average, lot of doubles, steals a few bags, maybe not a standout area but really good across the board. And now he’s running plus and now it’s definitely plus power and now the plus hit is a lot more sure than it was at that time, so he’s definitely exceeded expectations in some of those areas.

KG: On just a personal level, how exciting is that for you?

BG: Knowing the person and his background, there’s always been a little soft spot with Gavin for me. Probably a little more external or internal doubts, just like doubts that we’ve had, just makes it a little more satisfactory. But more for just his own sake, you kind of love the kid and just how hard he’s worked and how genuine of a person he is. It’s made it extremely satisfying to see this happen to him.

KG: A lot of teams pay lip service to makeup. With him it seems like a very real thing that actually did help.

BG: I think so. It’s a real strength. The maturity, how grounded he is, how he cares about others, how he can self-evaluate and make adjustments, how he relates to others. He unites his teammates from other cultures. There was part of that right away I thought was special, but there’s still a lot of talent there. Sometimes people think ‘Oh he’s all makeup.’ No. There’s a good amount of talent and his makeup allowed him to overcome maybe a few more struggles than most. We thought it was really good and it was probably great. I think it’s helped him tremendously and it is in a special category.

KG: When you look back at everything, the process of scouting and drafting him to what he’s become now, what would you say is your overall assessment of the big picture?

BG: It’s been really rewarding because we pride ourselves here on being a united scouting and development group. And I think this is truly a case where both departments were able to sync up and draft the correct guy and then develop him correctly. There’s a lot of guys like Clayton McCullough and Shaun Larkin, guys who really were like ground level, Robert Van Scoyoc, who were really instrumental in his development. And so it’s been a really, like, lead example of what we want to be for every player and every outcome. It can’t always happen like that. But he’s example No. 1 of two departments coming together, and with Gavin’s ability, Gavin did it, but it really helped create this really good outcome.

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