Max Muncy and the Dodgers Renew Their Vows

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Dodgers and Max Muncy clearly believe they have a pretty good thing going. Since retooling his swing after being cast off by the A’s, the late-blooming slugger has been a key middle-of-the-lineup component on six straight playoff teams, and part of three pennant winners including their 2020 championship squad. Within the past four years, the Dodgers have inked Muncy to three contract extensions, the latest of which — announced on Thursday — is a two-year, $24 million deal with a club option for a third season, potentially keeping Muncy in the fold through 2026.

Muncy, who turned 33 on August 25, is coming off a season in which he hit .212/.333/.475 and matched his career high with 36 homers, three of them grand slams. The batting average wasn’t pretty (though it was at least above the Mendoza Line) and his 26.4% strikeout rate was his highest since 2018, but his 14.7% walk rate and considerable power helped to make up for it. Amid some ups and downs, his 118 wRC+ was 18 points short of his career mark but still ranked eighth among regular third basemen.

Speaking of third, with Justin Turner having left for Boston, Muncy played a career-high 124 games at the hot corner, and not a single inning at either second or first, positions where he’s put up much better defensive numbers in the past. Even with shaky metrics (-3 DRS, -5 RAA, and -7.7 UZR in 1,052 innings this year), his season was still worth 2.9 WAR, fifth among Dodgers position players.

Muncy’s wRC+ represented an 11-point improvement on his disappointing 2022 season, during which he hit just .196/.329/.384 with 21 homers, though it was well short of the 135 wRC+ (.249/.368/.527) he put up in 2021, when he made his second NL All-Star team. Late in the season, he sounded a note of disappointment when he told The Athletic, “It still feels like a bad year to me,” apparently alluding to his inconsistency from month to month and his lingering difficulty in rebounding from the torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow, which he suffered on the final day of the 2021 regular season. The injury sidelined him for that year’s playoffs, though it wasn’t severe enough to require surgery, and he was back in time to make the 2022 Opening Day lineup. Still, the injury has left him with a sense of doubt about his own abilities. “You have an injury like that, you’re not sure if you’re ever going to get back to being the kind of player that you were,” he told The Athletic.

Looking at Muncy’s monthly splits from 2023, it’s not hard to understand where he’s coming from. Twice, his monthly wRC+ swung in one direction or another by 99 points relative to the previous month:

Max Muncy Monthly Batting Splits
Mar/Apr 103 11 .238 .408 .663 180
May 110 6 .186 .273 .402 81
Jun 54 1 .111 .259 .222 43
Jul 100 9 .217 .340 .566 142
Aug 103 5 .250 .379 .512 141
Sept/Oct 109 4 .226 .312 .398 94

Muncy missed half of June with a left hamstring strain, an absence that was preceded by a 2-for-28 slump. On either side of his IL stint, he put together a stretch of 28 straight hitless plate appearances. That will eat at a guy’s confidence.

Amid those streaks and slumps, Muncy hit the ball about as hard as ever. With infield shifts banned, he set career highs with a 53% pull rate and 60 pulled fly balls, 26 of which became homers. His barrel rate placed in the 90th percentile, his hard-hit rate in the 80th, his exit velocity in the 79th. Yet for the fourth straight season, he was well short of his Statcast expected numbers:

Max Muncy Statcast Profile
2020 145 88.5 14.2 12.4% 40.0% .192 .229 .389 .473 .316 .360
2021 378 91.2 15.2 16.1% 46.3% .249 .271 .527 .580 .379 .407
2022 329 90.3 20.9 13.4% 44.7% .196 .208 .384 .417 .318 .339
2023 335 91.2 21.7 14.6% 46.0% .212 .234 .475 .502 .344 .365
Total 1187 90.5 18.4 14.5% 45.5% .216 .237 .454 .498 .343 .369

Muncy was 20-something points short of his expected stats in all three categories this season, though his gap in slugging percentage was comparatively smaller than in past seasons.

The Dodgers first signed Muncy to a three-year, $26-million extension in February 2020, when he was in his first year of arbitration eligibility. That deal had a $13 million club option with a $1.5 million buyout for 2023. In August of last season, after a very rough first half (.164/.320/.319, 90 wRC+), the team made a show of faith in Muncy by reworking that option into a $13.5 million guarantee with a $10 million option for 2024, one that could increase to $14 million by reaching all of the various plate-incentive thresholds. With 579 PA this season, he maxed out (sorry).

Now the Dodgers have again reworked Muncy’s option, this time into a guaranteed multiyear deal. He’ll receive a $5 million signing bonus and a salary of $7 million for 2024, then $12 million in ’25, with a $10 million club option for ’26. At this writing, no details have been reported regarding whether that option can increase in the manner of this year’s one, but it wouldn’t be a surprise.

The structure of the deal lowers the average annual value of Muncy’s contract from $14 million to $12 million, giving the Dodgers a little extra breathing room for Competitive Balance Tax purposes. At either price point, he looks like a significant bargain, at least based upon the ZiPS projection Dan Szymborski provided:

ZiPS Projection (Prelim) – Max Muncy
2024 33 .218 .341 .459 449 98 29 79 137 116 -4 2.7
2025 34 .214 .335 .440 416 89 25 71 130 109 -5 2.0
2026 35 .204 .324 .407 378 77 20 63 121 98 -5 1.1

ZiPS suggests a two-year, $37 million contract for 2024–25 — about 54% more than Muncy agreed to. Even if his 2026 option is exercised, he’ll make less than that over three years, excluding any incentives.

That’s the contract of a player who values security and familiarity, even if there may be uncertainty regarding his role. The Dodgers don’t have an obvious in-house alternative at third base, given the question marks about Miguel Vargas‘ offense, which led to his second-half banishment to Triple-A Oklahoma City, and Michael Busch’s defense, which has been graded anywhere from 20 to 40 by various prospect evaluators. The team did play footsie with the Cardinals this past summer regarding Nolan Arenado, but given the likelihood of a pursuit of Shohei Ohtani and a dire need for quality starting pitching as well, taking on the 10-time Gold Glove winner’s remaining contract seems unlikely. Still, there are scenarios where the Dodgers could prefer Muncy play more second base or, if they don’t get Ohtani and do let free agent J.D. Martinez walk, serve as their regular designated hitter.

All told, this is a move with little downside. The Dodgers retain a big thumper who provides some flexibility to go along with his dingers, but doesn’t necessarily have to carry an offense led by Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman. Muncy, for his part, keeps himself in a familiar and comfortable place on a perennial contender with championship aspirations. Looks like a win-win situation from here.

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, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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5 months ago

Dodgers get a deal.