Where did Drew Lugbauer come from?

Thursday, August 19, 2021

-Clint Manry

Part of a Braves 2017 MLB Draft that featured a top-three of Kyle Wright, Drew Waters and Freddy Tarnok, it’s easy to forget that Drew Lugbauer was also included in that year’s loaded class. Although, even as an 11th-round selection (320th overall), Lugbauer instantly became a ranked prospect in Atlanta’s system following that year’s draft. And to go with his ability to play catcher and both corner-infield positions, the former power-hitter at the University of Michigan appeared to be on the right path.

During his draft year, Lugbauer played 60 games between rookie ball and Single-A, hitting a solid .261 with 13 home runs and 46 RBI. His numbers were strong, and at just 20-years-old he was headed towards a quick ascent. However, Year 2 came with some adversity as he spent another season hitting in the Sally League. With the R-Braves in 2018, Lugbauer struck out in 33% of his PA, and though he tallied 12 homers in 114 games with the R-Braves, his AVG dipped down to just .232. Even so, in 2019 the Braves promoted the first baseman to High-A Florida to try and get things going in the tough-to-hit Florida State League. The power continued… but so did the swing-and-miss, and by season’s end Lugbauer had posted a .194 AVG to go with a 34.2% K rate in a career-high 127 games.

The cancelled minor league season last year didn’t help. Many of us who follow Braves prospects could only see Lugbauer’s most-recent performance and the whiffs that came with it. His power was evident – there was no doubt about that; but a combined 91 wRC+ over his last 954 PA (2018-19) in the lower minors just didn’t seem to illustrate the profile of rising prospect.

But fast-forward to the 2021 season. Lugbauer, now nearly 25-years-old, has become a key contributor for the Braves’ incredibly-talented Double-A club, the Mississippi Braves. The left-handed slugger has been raking literally all year… and there’s no signs of him slowing down.

This break-out season started right from the get-go in May, when Lugbauer posted a .308 AVG in 16 games that month. The swing-and-miss was still there of course, but so was an improved streak of patience (30.6 K% / 16.1 BB%). During that final week of the season’s first month (May 23-30), Lugbauer put up a 1.044 OPS; and of those seven games, four featured multi-hit finishes.

June and July were even more impressive in terms of production. Though Lugbauer’s newfound patience wavered a bit (36.7 K% / 12 BB%), his power improved as he blasted 10 more home runs and tallied 25 RBI in that 42-game span; and even better, Lugbauer entered the month of August with a .271 AVG on the year. In terms of his stock as a prospect, for me, he went from a fridge Honorable Mention to a ranked player in the Braves system. In my Midseason Top 30, which I put out on August 6, I ranked Lugbauer at no. 27, right in between pitcher Tanner Gordon (26th) and second baseman Cody Milligan (28th), with the awareness that this could end up being a short-lived residence on my list.

However, now into mid-August, that just hasn’t been the case. Sure, Lugbauer’s numbers aren’t as strong through the month’s first dozen games (.146 AVG / 37.7 K%), but recently it appears he’s tried to tap more into his power stroke… which, unfortunately has resulted in more swing-and-miss. Although at this rate, Lugbauer is on pace to easily surpass his monthly-high in homers this season (six) as he already has four long balls, including two in the last two games (which features the grand-slam shown above from Tuesday night). Lugbauer may be striking out a bit too much, but he’s still contributing at the plate, and that’s exactly what you want to see from a prospect who’ll most likely always deal with strikeout issues.

The overall product is strong. In 70 games so far this season, Lugbauer heads into Thursday’s game with 16 homers, a .243 AVG and an .843 OPS, and more importantly, many of the most-noteworthy sites have started taking notice. Just consider where he stands among all Double-A South hitters right now…

16 HR – 4th

45 RBI – 4th

35 walks – 10th

.494 SLG – 4th

.843 OPS – 7th

129 wRC+ — 6th

Given his age and the position he plays, there’s no doubt Lugbauer will have a rather difficult path to Atlanta, which is the same thing we said about Bryce Ball two years ago, when he broke out in his first pro season. But unlike Ball (who was included in the Joc Pederson trade with the Cubs), Lugbauer is a much more seasoned professional hitter and could realistically be ready for a shot at The Show when the inevitable universal-DH comes around (most likely for the 2022 season). Regardless, it’s amazing what Lugbauer has accomplished this season, making the strides he’s made in such a short period of time. We’ll see how he finishes the year, but either way it’s evident the Braves have themselves another candidate to fill a future designated-hitter role. He sort of came out of nowhere… but it’s time to start paying attention to Drew Lugbauer.

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