After a Deep Slump, Muncy Is Maxing Out Again

Despite losing Corey Seager to a broken right hand, getting less-than-vintage work from Mookie Betts, and continuing to await the return of Cody Bellinger from a hairline fracture of his left fibula, the Dodgers have won seven straight games and 11 of 12 to move within half a game of first place in the NL West. Leading the way on the offensive side — indeed, leading the entire majors from an offensive standpoint over the past two weeks — has been Max Muncy. After a down 2020 season and a dismal slump that more or less coincided with the team’s 5-15 tailspin, the 30-year-old infielder has seen some adjustments to his approach at the plate pay off.

This past weekend, Muncy helped the Dodgers to a three-game sweep of the division-leading Giants by homering twice and getting on base a total of six times in Saturday and Sunday’s wins. After taking Friday night off save for a late-inning defensive cameo to replace Albert Pujols, he opened the scoring on Saturday by putting one into McCovey Cove at the expense of Scott Kazmir, who was making his first major league appearance since September 23, 2016.

As best we can tell, Muncy did not suggest that Kazmir go get the ball out of the ocean, as he did for Madison Bumgarner on his previous splash hit in 2019. Sunday’s homer was window dressing in a rout; he hit one off reliever Sam Selman, who replaced Anthony DeSclafani after the Giants’ starter was rocked for 10 runs in 2.2 innings.

The homers were Muncy’s ninth and 10th of the season, extending his team lead. Seven of his homers have come within his past 17 games (or 16 if you don’t count the cameo), and five within his past 12 (or 11…). Via our “Last 14 Days” split, his 298 wRC+ over his past 47 PA (.487/.574/.923) leads the majors. That binge helped to offset a strange skid that saw Muncy hit .051/.339/.051 in 56 PA from April 17 to May 1, with 15 walks but just two hits. Despite that, he’s batting a robust .292/.460/.549 overall, leading the NL in on-base percentage and walk rate (21.2%) while ranking second in WAR (2.5) and third in wRC+ (178).

That’s a big improvement from last season, by far Muncy’s worst with the Dodgers. After suffering a fractured left ring finger during an intrasquad game in July, he hit an uneven .192/.331/.389 for an even 100 wRC+, though he improved to .250/.438/.467 in the postseason while helping the Dodgers win their first championship since 1988.

For as bad as last year’s regular season line was — and it could have been worse, but a 15.7% walk rate and .197 ISO do provide a solid floor for production — he fell significantly short of his expected batting average and slugging percentage for the first time in his Dodgers tenure, and finished in a virtual tie with teammate Justin Turner for the seventh-largest shortfall in the latter category:

Largest Expected Slugging Percentage Shortfalls, 2020
Player Team PA Events SLG xSLG Dif
Bryce Harper PHI 244 150 .542 .658 -.116
Miguel Cabrera DET 231 155 .417 .515 -.098
Evan Longoria SFG 209 157 .425 .522 -.097
Carlos Santana CLE 255 164 .350 .445 -.095
Gregory Polanco PIT 174 96 .325 .418 -.093
Matt Carpenter STL 169 92 .314 .404 -.090
Max Muncy LAD 248 145 .389 .477 -.088
Justin Turner LAD 175 125 .460 .548 -.088
Marwin Gonzalez MIN 199 138 .320 .401 -.081
Corey Seager LAD 232 177 .585 .647 -.062
Gary Sanchez NYY 178 92 .365 .427 -.062
Jake Cronenworth SDP 192 143 .477 .538 -.061
Eduardo Escobar ARI 222 164 .335 .394 -.059
Paul DeJong STL 174 106 .349 .406 -.057
Shohei Ohtani LAA 175 103 .366 .423 -.057
Nick Castellanos CIN 242 150 .486 .542 -.056
J.D. Martinez BOS 237 154 .389 .444 -.055
Kevin Newman PIT 172 138 .276 .328 -.052
Avisaíl García MIL 207 132 .326 .375 -.049
Austin Riley ATL 206 140 .415 .463 -.048
Minimum 150 plate appearances.

That Muncy, Turner, and Seager all ranked among the top 10 might lead you to believe that there’s a ballpark component to this, though the Dodgers as a team fell just seven points short of their xSLG, the majors’ 10th-largest gap but a wholly unremarkable one. Muncy did have a larger gap at home (.098, based upon a .431 SLG and .529 xSLG) than on the road (.079, via a .347 SLG and .426 xSLG), but that 19-point difference is far less notable than his home/road SLG or xSLG splits themselves.

Anyway, he’s hitting the ball harder this year than last, with his highest barrel rate since 2018, and his highest xAVG, xSLG, and xwOBA of the four seasons. He’s doing all of that despite his highest groundball/fly ball ratio and infield fly ball rate (12.1%) as a Dodger (1.30), because 30.3% of his fly balls are going over the wall, a rate only slightly ahead of his 2018-19 rates.

Last week, Muncy told reporters that his recent hot streak owed to “making some adjustments” with his hitting coaches in response to seeing a higher frequency of high spin rate fastballs up in the strike zone. Via the Orange County Register’s Bill Plunkett:

“It’s really hard to be on top of a fastball right now with the amount of movement that everyone out there has,” Muncy said. “Everyone’s throwing rise balls now. So you’ve just got to make adjustments and mine are taking a little bit longer.

“It’s just the game is evolving and you’ve got to evolve with it. … Every pitcher, their fastball has a lot of rise on it now, a lot of vertical movement. That’s something that hasn’t been there even going back to last year really. It’s changing quick and we’ve got to change our swings to adapt with it. That’s kind of part of the game. A lot of guys have made the adjustment. For me, it took a little bit longer. But, we’ll get there eventually.”

“The challenge with Max is he sees the ball out of the hand very well, and he knows the strike zone,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts told reporters on May 14. “Players who tend to get walked can get overanxious and impatient because they want to swing the bat, and then they start to chase. I think that was happening at points over the last few weeks.”

It’s funny to hear Roberts talk about Muncy chasing, because the slugger has swung at pitches outside the zone a career-low 15.7% of the time this season, nearly six points below his previous career mark and more than two points below last year’s mark; it’s the lowest rate of any qualifier this year. During that 56-PA skid, his O-Swing% skyrocketed… to 17.8%, bumping him down to the 97th percentile among qualifiers. What’s more, he actually swung slightly less often during that stretch (30%) than overall (32.6%), though he did make less contact, and less quality contact.

To the extent that Muncy has struggled with fastballs, the numbers suggest that those struggles either have more to do with last year than this one, or constitute a very small slice of the pie:

Max Muncy vs. Four-Seam Fastballs, 2018-21
Season Split AB H AVG xAVG SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2018 All 122 36 .295 .283 .762 .695 .497 .475
2019 All 167 47 .281 .275 .677 .613 .445 .430
2020 All 70 16 .229 .283 .671 .743 .433 .478
2021 All 42 15 .357 .312 .667 .669 .505 .484
2018 Upper Third 31 6 .194 .226 .387 .493 .264 .324
2019 Upper Third 48 11 .229 .273 .667 .666 .362 .387
2020 Upper Third 21 5 .238 .332 .714 .862 .398 .497
2021 Upper Third 11 7 .636 .546 1.455 1.434 .866 .805
2018 2450+ rpm 17 4 .235 .228 .765 .662 .474 .440
2019 2450+ rpm 23 9 .391 .348 .826 .796 .531 .505
2020 2450+ rpm 28 8 .286 .260 .643 .610 .446 .427
2021 2450+ rpm 14 3 .214 .260 .500 .710 .369 .449
2018 2500+ rpm 11 2 .182 .166 .455 .448 .300 .290
2019 2500+ rpm 13 6 .462 .410 1.154 1.053 .654 .603
2020 2500+ rpm 20 5 .250 .263 .600 .601 .394 .402
2021 2500+ rpm 10 1 .100 .141 .200 .221 .256 .279
2018 Upper Third, 2400+ rpm 5 1 .200 .303 .800 .944 .406 .513
2019 Upper Third, 2400+ rpm 11 3 .273 .321 .909 1.031 .463 .534
2020 Upper Third, 2400+ rpm 7 2 .286 .256 .429 .421 .352 .339
2021 Upper Third, 2400+ rpm 2 0 .000 .465 .000 1.729 .231 .816
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Upper Third = Gameday zones 1, 2, and 3.

We’re talking about small samples at this stage of the season, shrinking to the point of granularity with each successive split, but as far as all four-seamers go, Muncy is demolishing them, that after last year falling 64 points short in xAVG and 72 points short in xSLG. For fastballs in the upper third of the strike zone, the story is similar, and in fact, he’s already surpassed last year’s totals of hits and total bases.

As for high-spin fastballs, the question is what constitutes a high spin rate in a context where, like velocity, the major league average continues to rise; it was 2,266 rpm in 2018, and is up to 2,319 this year. With an eye towards how small the samples get in Muncy’s case, I went first with 2,450 rpm as a cutoff; on a major league-wide basis, that described 13.5% of all four-seamers in 2018, growing to 18%, 22.9%, and 24.8% in the ensuing seasons. For Max Muncy, Proven Fastball Masher, such spinners represent a smaller share of his diet, growing from 4.6% to 5.3%, and then 10.5% last year, but falling to 8.0% this year. And while his actual stats are short of his expected ones within this year’s sample, they’re still better than the major league average .313 wOBA.

However, if I inch the cutoff up to 2,500, which describes a percentage of four-seamers that on a league-wide basis has grown from 8.2% to 17.1% from 2018-21, and for Muncy from 2.8% to a high of 7.0% last year but back down to 4.9% this year, the numbers show a performance dip relative to his own stats and to this year’s major league average .298 wOBA. While I wouldn’t hang my hat on this being a meaningful falloff for Muncy given the sample sizes, the difference between one hit and three could certainly be coloring his perception and that of Roberts.

At either cutoff, attempting to hone in on Muncy’s results on high-spin fastballs in the upper third of the zone leaves us with only single digits to work with in terms of at-bats. Even lowering the threshold to 2,400 rpm yields single digits in three seasons out of four, a level of granularity I’d generally avoid, but we can see what might constitute a point of inflection as far as perception is concerned, in that Muncy has eye-opening expected stats against such pitches this year but nothing to show for it, where in the past he’s gotten something for his trouble. Against 19 such pitches this year, Muncy has fouled four off, gotten two called balls (one of them ball four), taken 10 called strikes (including a called strike three against the Brewers Brad Boxberger), swung and missed twice, and absolutely smoked one pitch, a 2,489 rpm fastball from the Padres’ Blake Snell on April 24, in the middle of Muncy’s dry spell:

Muncy hit that 96.2 mph heater with an exit velocity of 104.7 mph and a launch angle of 25.0 degrees, which based upon his location produced an xBA of .929 and an xSLG of 3.458. Interpolating from Statcast’s more generalized exit velo/launch angle breakdowns, that’s a home run about 80% of the time, but this time the ball stayed in the park, where Trent Grisham ran it down at the warning track. A tough out to swallow in a game the Dodgers won, but one that occurred in the middle of slides by both the slugger and the team, which won only that game from among the four they hosted the Padres from April 22-25.

In the grand scheme of things, Muncy’s struggles this year constitute a hiccup, albeit a conspicuous one given the way they lined up with the Dodgers’ 5-15 tumble and their injuries to key players. While his adjustments may still be a work in progress, right now he’s raking, and the team is on somewhat stronger footing. The Dodgers’ odds of winning the NL West hit their nadir at 54.5% on May 5, when they were 17-15, down from 70% on Opening Day; at 29-18, they’re back up to 59.8%, while the Padres’ odds have fallen from 44.4% to 39.5% since May 5 even as they’ve taken over first place at 30-18. Particularly after the Giants were swept out of the top spot, the system doesn’t believe in their NL West title hopes, with respective (but hardly respectful) odds of 0.8% on May 5 and 0.7% today. Muncy’s reemergence may not be the turning point in the division race, but there’s little doubt that this Maximizing helps their chances.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Smiling Politely
Smiling Politely

…and he plays 2B! He probably won’t hit like this all year, but it’d be fun to see a guy most people still don’t know earn some MVP votes!