The Son of Nails: Luke Dykstra continues to hit for the Braves

ROME, GALuke Dykstra can flat out hit a baseball. Since the day he was drafted by the Atlanta Braves, that’s what Dykstra has done, and he has done it extremely well. In an Atlanta Braves system that is flowered with some of the finest middle infield prospects in the game like Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Kevin Maitan, and now Travis Demeritte, Dykstra is making people take notice another fine season in Rome.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Dykstra can play ball. It is in his blood line, as he was surrounded by baseball his entire life. He is the son of Lenny Dykstra — more affectionately known as Nails — the starting center fielder from the 1986 World Champion New York Mets who would later become a three-time All-Star with the Philadelphia Phillies.

“I was growing up in a baseball house,” Dykstra said. “It’s what I’ve wanted to do since I was five or six years old. I started playing at a young age and kept up with it. I was lucky enough to be drafted by the Atlanta Braves and it’s been great so far.”

His father earned his nickname by being an all-out, hard-nosed, full-of-energy player who was literally tough as nails. When talking to the Braves people around State Mutual Stadium, they use the same words to describe Luke: relentless, scrappy, he plays the game hard every day, fun to watch, passionate. Luke definitely appears to have developed the Baseball DNA and has put it to good use.

He also has the advantage of having an older brother who has been up and down the minor league ladder. Cutter — a 2008 second-round draft pick of the Milwaukee Brewers — was most recently with the Washington Nationals in Double-A. Having been at every level of the minor leagues, he knows that there is more to the game than hitting and he shares that side with his younger brother.

“We talk a lot,” Dykstra said of his relationship with Cutter. “More about the mental side of baseball, like how to deal with the everyday schedule. Baseball is an emotional game, it’s a grind out here. You got to come out here every night and preform your best, even on those nights you don’t get the results you want. You just got to keep going.”

Dykstra was drafted six years after his big brother, selected in the seventh round out of high school in Westlake, California. He made his 2014 debut for the Braves in the Gulf Coast League at the age of 18 and immediately showed what he was made of. He was a guy that wasn’t going to strike out and make contact seemingly every time he is at the plate. He won’t rock the ball over the wall, but he does have some nice gap power and above-average speed to make many of his singles turn into doubles.

He had a huge 2015 split between two levels, ending in Rome. He slashed .318/.353/.422 while smacking 19 doubles over both levels. He struck out a mere 16 times in 223 combines at bats, but he also walked just eight times all season. This is from his aggressive approach at the plate. If he sees his pitch, he’s going after it, and most of the time, he puts it in play.

Friday night in Rome against Joe Shaw of the Columbia Fireflies, Dykstra’s ability to hit was on display. He has had great success against the Fireflies throughout his career, hitting .377 against them in 53 total at bats, and continued that streak right from the start. Dykstra simply doesn’t swing and miss too often, and he neither does he often wait very long for his pitch. In his first two at bats, he smacked the second pitch of the at bat into play, the first one a single into center and the second a fly ball into the left field gap that was chased down for the out.

“I just try to get my timing down and put a good barrel on the ball,” Dykstra said of his approach. “I try to hit the ball hard, hit a line drive. I stay in control, and keep with that approach every day.”

He has good mechanics at the plate. He stands deep in the batters box, with his legs wide at the plate. The righty bounces the bat over his right shoulder as he awaits the pitch and then has a slight toe tap and step at the ball as he rips through the strike zone. It leads to a lot of line drives, but not many home runs.

Power is not something that has been easy for Dykstra at any stop of his brief career. While he has improved his ability to go to the gaps, with 17 doubles already this season, just two off his career-high, he simply doesn’t have that over-the-wall power. At 20 years old, and standing at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, he could still one day find some.

“It’s there,” Dykstra said. “I know the power numbers aren’t that great this year, but we’ll see what happens in the future. Hopefully I can bounce up and develop that power. We’ll see as I develop through my career.”

Dykstra really comes alive when there are runners on base. When there is a runner on first this season, he is batting .380. When there is a runner on third, he is batting an unbelievable .455. He is at .278 with runners in scoring position, driving in 38 of his 41 runs in those situations, not bad RBI numbers from a light-hitting two-hole hitter.

“With runners on, that’s when you have to buckle down and hit the ball the other way,” Dykstra said of his mentality. “It’s all about the team when there are runners on, just do whatever you can to get that run in. I choke up, get lower and just try to drive the ball and get that runner home.”

Dykstra is enjoying another big season, propelling him into MLB Pipeline’s Midseason Top-30 Braves prospects. He is amongst the tops in the minor leagues in his strikeout rate — striking out just 31 times in 322 at bats — but still needs to show some patience and draw some walks, registering just just six free passes over the same span.

He had a scorching-hot June, hitting .337, and was then sidelined much of July with a nagging injury. He is right back at it in August, currently amid a six-game hitting streak to add to his hit streaks of 10 and 11 games already posted this season. Dykstra was lifted in the seventh inning for a defensive replacement Friday night, perhaps showing that the Braves won’t be risking their gritty second baseman’s health.

“It’s alright, it’s still there a little bit,” Dykstra said of playing through the pain. “We’ll see what happens in the month of August and how they want to handle me.”

As already mentioned, there is a log jam of middle infielders in the Braves minor league system, so there is no reason to expect the Braves to rush their 20-year old infielder. Learning some patience at the plate and getting some walks to use with that speed could make him a legitimate leadoff hitter one day. Until then, the son of Nails will keep on grinding his way up the ladder, hitting everything that comes his way.

(this piece originall ran on Today’s Knuckleball).

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