Max Muncy Might Be the Best Version of Himself

To the surprise of no one, the Dodgers are good. They lead all of major league baseball with a 10-2 record. They’ve outscored their opponents by 32 runs. Barring catastrophic injuries or a long run of bad luck, they seem poised to end the season as one of the league’s winningest teams.

You may be wondering where I’m going with this. It’s to introduce the idea that good teams are good by design. In a game whose goal is to maximize runs scored and minimize runs allowed, their hitters launch dingers, their pitchers compile strikeouts, and numerous depth players allow them to deal with injuries. But today, I want to focus on a single characteristic: plate discipline. As of writing, the Dodgers have the lowest in O-Swing% in the league. They’re also second in Z-Contact%, behind only the Astros. Laying off bad pitches, making contact with hittable ones – that seems like a recipe for success. And currently, no Dodger hitter is more emblematic of this approach than Max Muncy.

We haven’t written much about the first baseman here at FanGraphs. One reason might be that he isn’t the flashiest athlete – like Trout, he achieves greatness through consistent production at the plate. Theatrics are kept to a minimum, save for when he feuded with Madison Bumgarner. But another, more relevant reason might be that Muncy had remained true to himself since 2018, his breakout year. Sure, his wRC+ plummeted in 2020, but he sported an uncharacteristically low BABIP in one of baseball’s weirdest seasons. Besides that quirk, nothing much had changed. He drew his share of walks; he hit for power.

That is, until now. Somehow, someway, Muncy has become an even more extreme version of his patient, slugging self. His O-Swing rate of 12.5% is the lowest among all hitters, which is also the lowest of his career. But wait, that’s based on 12 games! How do you know this isn’t some small-sample blip? I wondered about that too, but looking at his rolling O-Swing% tells a different story, one which began in 2019:

There are fluctuations, of course, but consider the overall trend. Starting in 2019, Muncy has gradually chipped away at his O-Swing%. It reached a minimum in July of 2020, then climbed back up towards the end of September, but he seems to be back on track. It also provides strong evidence that his career-best O-Swing% (so far) isn’t merely a fluke. While the rate is arguably unsustainable, there’s clearly been a conscious effort on Muncy’s part to show more discipline.

Chasing less is great, but pitches in the strike zone matter, too. If you can’t capitalize on your efforts by doing damage to those, the benefit of ignoring balls is limited to drawing walks (see: Carlos Santana). Fortunately, Muncy got the memo. A Z-Contact rate of 87.3% represents the second-highest in his career, and when he makes contact, he’s demolishing the baseball: Of 131 hitters with at least 25 batted ball events, his wOBAcon of .541 is the 11th highest.

The lethal combination of a minuscule O-Swing% and a well-above-average Z-Contact% made me wonder – how does Muncy compare to other hitters in these regards? To find out, I plotted the O-Swing and Z-Contact rates of qualified hitters on the x- and y-axis, respectively. Muncy is the point in yellow:

He’s not quite on an island by himself, but where he is on a scatterplot doesn’t matter too much. This is for fun! For something more substantial, I have an at-bat that captures Muncy’s meticulous approach at the plate. It’s bottom of the third, one out, with a man on second against Rockies pitcher Antonio Senzatela. The Dodgers have a 3-0 lead. Here’s the first pitch:

A four-seam fastball straight down the pipe to Max Muncy – that could have been dangerous. You could argue that Muncy should have swung at it, but letting a few hittable pitches pass by is the small sacrifice required to maximize one’s on-base potential. It’s fine. Onto the next pitch:

Good take! The fastball wiggled within the strike zone before veering up, but Muncy knew better than to swing. The next two pitches aren’t that notable. Senzatela threw a fastball at the knees for another called strike, then he went back upstairs, which Muncy ignored. The count is now 2-and-2. Muncy’s overall swing rate is 33.5% so far this season, but on two-strike counts, he’s dialed it up to 49.5%. Like most accomplished hitters, he knows when and when not to exude patience:

Fouling off a well-located slider? Just another day in the office. This next pitch, though, is the highlight of this at-bat:

Forget about Senzatela’s performance this season – that’s a perfect two-strike curveball. From his perspective, it must have been irritating to watch our protagonist not even complete a quarter of his swing before letting the pitch hit the dirt. Now, it’s a full count. Will Senzatela challenge him, or will he induce Muncy to chase? Here’s the awaited finale:

The PA result: “Max Muncy flies out to center fielder Garret Hampson.” It’s an anticlimactic ending against a hittable changeup; Muncy even slammed his bat on the ground in frustration. Despite the out, however, the preceding events showcased many of his qualities. For one, he didn’t swing and miss at a single pitch. He also ignored everything outside of the zone, and when he did swing, it was in a reaction to a clear strike. Outside of maybe missing a first-pitch meatball, Muncy didn’t make a single mistake, discipline-wise. Sometimes, you just get under the ball.

Besides, he can do without the extra hit. The Dodgers’ first baseman has been slashing .368/.520/.632 so far, good for a 211 wRC+. After becoming a BABIP victim in 2020, his batted balls have more or less been finding spots to land as hits. Venturing outside the theme of plate discipline for a moment, Muncy seems to be benefiting from pulling the ball less. Below is data on his batted ball directions from 2018 to now. The changes are crystal clear:

Batted Ball Directions, 2018-21
Year Pull% Cent% Oppo% Non-Pull%
2018 44.7% 31.2% 24.1% 55.3%
2019 44.2% 33.2% 23.7% 56.9%
2020 45.5% 32.4% 22.1% 54.5%
2021 37.5% 34.4% 28.1% 62.5%

Why avoid pulled balls? Teams love to shift against left-handed sluggers in the mold of Max Muncy, and last year, he faced one in 88.6% of his plate appearances. That, in tandem with general bad luck with batted balls, is most likely why Muncy’s batting average sat below the Mendoza line. What’s crucial to monitor, though, is whether he can replicate his offensive output of previous years with more up-the-middle and opposite-field balls. Sure, the shift gobbles up a few hits here and there, but the fact remains that pulled air balls provide the most bang for a hitter’s buck.

Then again, none of this might end up mattering. We’re still in small sample territory, where data for a player consists of less than 100 batted balls. It’s possible that with time, Muncy returns to his pull-happy ways.

But… what if he continues to mix up his batted ball tendencies? And continues to lay off bad pitches and attack hittable ones? When we write about small samples, those are the speculative questions we’re asking. If he does, it would represent the next step for Max Muncy. I once assumed that his breakout 2018 represented a new status quo. He’d stay there for a bit, then decline with age. As it turns out, he’s more than capable of sharpening his already stellar plate discipline and addressing the shift, a new adversary. The Muncy of now is perhaps the best version yet.

Justin is a contributor at FanGraphs. His previous work can be found at Prospects365 and Dodgers Digest. His less serious work can be found on Twitter @justinochoi.

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2 years ago

I love Max Muncy. Cinderella kid, comes out of nowhere. But I don’t how he could have laid of the proverbial 1st pitch meatball. Sometimes mashers just need to mash. No?

Smiling Politely
2 years ago
Reply to  ed-ott

We can’t all be Corey Seager 😉

2 years ago
Reply to  ed-ott

In an at bat later that game he took another first pitch fastball down the middle from Robert Stephenson. On his next pitch Stephenson threw a fastball in the same spot that ended up in the seats

2 years ago
Reply to  careagan

Maybe he’s becoming the next Donnie Baseball albeit late-blooming…