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System Sundays: A Closer Look at Luke Dykstra, New Cardinal Farmhand

Digging into one of the Cards’ trade acquisitions.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Miami Marlins
Yes, there is a reason you’re looking at a picture of Peter Bourjos’s hitting setup.
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals made their first big trade of the offseason a few days ago, sending Jaime Garcia and Jaime Garcia’s Pontiac Fiero of an arm off to Atlanta in exchange for three very middling sorts of prospects.

I’m not going to go into great depth about the two pitchers here; I believe the lovely and talented Josey Curtis is planning a deep dive of her own, so I’ll stay in my own lane. Short version: I like John Gant, more than a lot of evaluators do, and I don’t think a whole lot of Chris Ellis.

I do, however, find the third member of the Jaime triumvirate (as they shall be known for now and all eternity), interesting. Not because I think he’s a great player, by any means; in fact, if you want to know my base assessment of Luke Dykstra, he looks like a High-A washout sort of player that is kind of hard to look at and see much reason the Cardinals would really want him.

But that’s sort of the thing, isn’t it? I look at a player the Cards just traded for, and I don’t see much reason to pursue him. The Redbirds, however, wanted him included over any number of other marginal prospects the Braves probably would have been perfectly willing to substitute, so they must see something. And since I respect the organisation’s player evaluation procedures to a very high degree, I feel like there must be something there.

First off, we’ll get the obvious thing out of the way: Luke Dykstra is, yes, the son of Lenny Dykstra, former Met and former Philly, and also former least favourite player of ten year old Aaron Schafer. (Actually, that’s not quite true; I hated Darren Daulton more on that 1990 Phillies squad, and maybe John Kruk as well. Still.) Which means he’s also the younger brother of both Allan and Cutter Dykstra, both of whom have had long minor league careers, with Allan getting a cup of coffee in the majors in 2015 with the Rays. (It was a small, the kind they give away with five or more gallons of gas at some filling stations, but he got there all the same.)

Funny thing about the Dyksta boys: both had, in spite of being very different types of players overall (Allan was a hulking first base prospect, while Cutter was physically closer to his father and younger brother and played second base), one thing in common. Both had absolutely remarkable approaches at the plate, at least in terms of patience. Allan was one of the most patient hitters I’ve ever seen, posting walk rates above 19% at seven separate stops during his minor league career. (He also posted a wRC+ of 140 or better five times, which really makes me wonder if he shouldn’t have gotten a shot in the big leagues when he was 25, instead of 28, and why the Mets didn’t trade him to an AL team capable of potentially using him as a DH somewhere along the way.)

Cutter wasn’t (or isn’t, I suppose I should say, since he’s still playing in the Nationals’ system), quite the walk hound his older brother was, but for a second base type with no power to speak of, he’s a remarkably patient hitter. For instance, in 2015 Cutter made it to Triple A for the first time in his career. He collected 190 plate appearances at the level, put up an .025 isolated slugging percentage, and struck out 26.3% of the time. Looks like a guy who was overmatched, right? Well, he very well may have been, but he somehow also managed a 15.8% walk rate. That number simply does not compute in the context of those other two numbers. At all.

One would probably expect any sons of Lenny Dykstra to excel in the area of plate approach, though, considering who they likely learned the game from. As much as I disliked Dykstra as a child — and as much as he seems like a real problem child off the field, including once his playing days were long in the past — I have to admit, the man had an eye at the plate Matt Carpenter only wishes he could replicate. Beginning in 1989, Dykstra walked more than he struck out every season for the rest of his career, until he retired in 1996. His career walk rate was 12.1%; his career K rate just 9.5%.

With that in mind, it isn’t surprising the sons of Lenny Dykstra have been patient hitters. Sure, they may not have had dear old Dad’s contact ability, nor played in the late 80s, when strikeouts were nowhere near where they are today. But they were willing to grind away at an at-bat just like their father.

Luke nothing like his father in that way. Or his brothers. In fact, Luke Dykstra is one of the least patient hitters you’re going to find. To wit, in 342 Low-A plate appearances this past season, Dykstra walked exactly six times. That is a 1.8% walk rate, if you prefer things in percentage form. So, no Dykstra Family plate approach whatsoever for Luke.

There’s also the sad fact he has basically zero power as well, much like his brother Cutter. That 1.8% walk rate in Rome this year was accompanied by a .059 ISO, so it isn’t as if he was forgoing walks because he was simply killing the ball. (Oh, and in case you’re wondering, while he looks the part of a speedster, Dykstra has only stolen seventeen bases in 183 minor league games. So not exactly Billy Hamilton on the bases.)

So what exactly is there to like about Luke Dykstra? Well, there’s really only one thing, but it’s a pretty good thing. Luke Dykstra makes a lot of contact.

He’s never struck out in 10% of his plate appearances; the 9.1% he whiffed at Low-A this year was his career high by a fair margin. Of course, considering it was his first crack at full-season ball, that’s maybe not such good news; he could just be getting exposed by even moderate competition. But still, if you’re looking for positives, not only has Luke Dykstra not struck out a ton so far in pro ball, according to the responses I’ve gotten in some fairly brief asking around, he doesn’t swing and miss much in general.

However, there is one thing about Dykstra that basically trumps all other considerations, at least for me: his swing.

The swing, ladies and gentlemen, is just...bad. Really bad.

It’s like Peter Bourjos bad. And for all the things about Peter Bourjos I loved, and felt like the Cardinals missed out on by not leveraging him in the best way they could have, the fact is Peter Bourjos swings a baseball bat like a player who is really in to seeing ‘defensive specialist’ before his name every time it’s written.

Here, let’s take a look. via The Prospect Pipeline, from his draft year:

And just so you can see the swing hasn’t really improved or changed all that much, here’s video from this season, via Astro Parton:

This is how a person swings a bat when they’ve been told they should be hitting the ball on the ground more, because they should be legging out infield singles.

The thing I want you to pay attention to is how Dykstra begins his swing by raising his hands up, rather than loading them back or down, trying to create the torso coil that helps generate power. Not only does he start his swing with his hands going up, he also cocks his wrists in such a way that the bat moves toward vertical before he starts into the swing proper. The problem with that? Just as in the case of Peter Bourjos (and Colby Rasmus, actually, come to think of it), when the first move of the swing is to bring the bat up vertically, you’re virtually guaranteeing the swing path is going to come down into the hitting zone, very steeply, high to low. That’s basically the opposite of what you want to see. Think of a world-class tennis player hitting a drop shot, that little downward strike on the backhand that creates tons of backspin and takes all the velocity off the ball. That’s what a swing traveling high to low is going to give you. Problem is, baseball doesn’t work the same as tennis, and unless you have Rod Carew’s hands, you’re probably not going to succeed trying to hit drop shots in the big leagues.

Looking at the way Dykstra swings, it’s easy to see why there’s no pop here. He’s out on his front foot, swinging down into the ball. This is a player who is going to be a groundball machine, in all likelihood, so long as he swings this way. And the reason? Well, because he’s basically trying to be a groundball machine.

Now, on the other hand, I will say this: Dykstra looks to have above-average hand-eye coordination. Watch how he adjusts to get his hands in far enough to get to that inside pitch in the at-bat above. I’ve seen other clips of him hitting, and he generally gets the barrel of the bat to the ball. He’s just doing it in a very suboptimal way. However, considering how steep his swing is, the fact he’s made so much contact so far, as opposed to someone like Bourjos, who has combined limited pop with more strikeouts than you would like to see from a player whose best tool was his speed, I have to say the bat control is pretty impressive.

I have to say, I’m not really any more optimistic about Luke Dykstra’s future after watching a bunch of video on him; I worry that the way he swings is going to severely limit his ability to tap into whatever physical tools he may bring to the table. (And make no mistake, Dykstra isn’t a big guy, but he’s strong enough he should be able to make authoritative contact.) I think if a team truly believed in his hands enough that they thought there was some real ceiling for Dykstra offensively, they would almost have to rebuild the swing, nearly from the ground up. Change his address position, change the hand load, change the swing path. I’m not saying you try to change him into a guy swinging with the big uppercut to try and put the ball in the air as often as possible; just get him to stop sabotaging himself with this hitting down on the ball nonsense I’m sure he picked up somewhere along the way from someone very well meaning who Willie Mayes Hayes’d him.

As it stands now, I think anything lower than about chest high is going to give Dykstra problems, as he’s swinging down into the zone, rather than getting the bat started on a path that will help him both make contact and contact the ball at a good angle. Maybe he succeeds anyway; we’ve certainly seen players able to overcome mechanical issues due to really special abilities. Personally, though, I don’t think Luke Dykstra has those kinds of abilities. I do think he has decent bat speed, and good enough hands that he can adjust midswing and make contact at a high rate. But if he’s going to succeed in the long term in a way that will make us all marvel at what a steal the Cardinals got in the Jaime Garcia deal a few years from now, I think that success will have to start with a fairly sizable revamp of the swing.