Max Muncy recently hit his 20th home run for the Dodgers in just 183 at bats, breaking Cody Bellinger‘s record from last year. With a slash line of .281/.420/.649 he deserved to make the All-Star game outright and he has been the Dodgers’ most important player in the absence of Cory Seager. Muncy is just the latest in a series of similar stories including Justin Turner‘s meteoric rise and Chris Taylor‘s surprise breakout.
Before this season, Muncy had played parts of two seasons in the major leagues for the Athletics, during 2015 and 2016. With a .195 batting average across these two seasons it seemed as if he was simply not good enough to contribute in the majors. However, more advanced numbers showed that he was talented, at least in some aspects of hitting. While playing for the Athletics he swung at 20.4% of pitches outside of the zone, this puts him in 10th place among hitters with at least 200 plate appearances between 2015 and 2016. For context this means that Muncy is somewhere between Joey Votto and Carlos Santana, two hitters renowned for having an elite eye.
The elite plate discipline didn’t come with an astronomical strikeout rate, which you often see with struggling hitters. This combination of elite discipline and the ability to make contact may have been a big factor in the Dodgers decision to sign him in April 2017.
Max Muncy’s elite eye is starting to bring results for the Dodgers. A massive 19% walk rate has contributed to his .420 on base percentage, but perhaps the biggest advantage of Muncy’s patience is the hitters’ counts he finds himself in that allows him to see pitches in the middle of the zone.
So what has changed since his days at the Athletics that has allowed him to punish these pitches? The answer to this is not much. A slight tweak to Muncy’s swing has meant that he barrels the ball more consistently. Here is his old swing:
And his new swing:
Unfortunately there wasn’t a video of Max rolling a slow ground ball in his Oakland days but you can still see the difference in the two clips.
After being released by the Athletics he modified his swing so that he was crouched rather than stood upright. Unlike most swing changes this has not drastically increased launch angle, 16.8 degrees in 2015 to 17.1 degrees this year. However his barrel rate has exploded, 4.2% in 2015, 3.4% in 2016, up to 17.9% in 2018.
The crouch has meant that his swing more closely matches the plane of the ball coming towards the plate. Therefore he can still make hard contact even if his timing is slightly off. With the old swing being slightly early or late would have meant either rolling over the ball or popping it up.
What now for Muncy?
The more consistent contact has made a huge difference to Muncy’s production due to the effortless power that he possesses.His power has been evident since hitting 21 home runs in 93 games early in his minor league career. Not having to swing hard to hit a home run has meant that Muncy’s K rate has not gone up with his power numbers. Being able to harness his power has made Muncy into an elite, balanced hitter.
Max Muncy had been slugging in the minor leagues since making his swing changes and moving to the Dodgers suggesting this is more than a hot couple of months. In fact his BABIP is only .283 suggesting that if anything he has been slightly unlucky. However, as pitchers start to pitch to him more carefully you would expect his numbers to decline. For example he is yet to consistently make contact with breaking balls so you can expect him to start seeing more of those. Nonetheless, Muncy has the tools to be a solid contributor and more for years to come.
It seems to be a tactic of the Dodgers’ front office to acquire struggling players in the process of modifying their swings and are reaping the rewards. Don’t be surprised if another hitter comes out of nowhere to help the Dodgers compete next year.