Max Muncy Proves the Salvific Nature of the Walk

Max Muncy
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Max Muncy is having a slightly better-than-league average offensive season. That’s not at all unusual, as Muncy has been an offensive force ever since he joined the Dodgers in 2018. But remember, way back in the olden days of early spring, when he looked disturbingly lost? An elbow injury suffered last year had knocked his mechanics all out of whack, and pitches he’d usually line off the wall were getting popped up or beaten into the ground. Nothing worked. It’s not just that he hit .164 in the first half of the season; he hit under .200 in each of the first four months of the season individually.

It’s kind of remarkable that the Dodgers let him play through this funk; he wasn’t in the lineup every day, but he played 73 games and batted 297 times in the first half. That’s a lot of rope. Usually, in order to get that much playing time with a sub-.200 average, a player needs to be either a premium defender at an up-the-middle position or a Pittsburgh Pirate. But the Dodgers have been tolerant of struggling stars in recent years. Cody Bellinger, for instance, is still a regular despite having been stricken blind sometime in 2020.

The Dodgers were rewarded for their faith. In late July, Muncy told Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register, he and his coaches stumbled into a solution: taking a step back with his plant leg before swinging at the pitch. It worked. Since the start of a series against Colorado at the end of July, where he implemented the change, Muncy is hitting .258/.356/.516, good for a 144 wRC+. Extrapolated over a full season, that would be his best campaign in four years. A swing revival of this magnitude would ordinarily conjure Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.

Nevertheless, it’s interesting that Muncy was playable that whole time. Certainly his reputation has something to do with it, as does the fact that the Dodgers weren’t exactly hurting for offense elsewhere. Their lineup is so deep that two of their stars can hit like pitchers and they’ll still win a tough division by 20-plus games. Not every team is so lucky.

The thing about Muncy, however, is that he walks so much it’s hard for him to be truly terrible. Ever since he broke into the Dodgers’ lineup, he’s been one of the most selective hitters in baseball. But when he was at his worst at the plate, he became more so. Before his road-to-Emmaus moment in Colorado, Muncy had the second-lowest swing rate in the league, behind only Juan Soto. Once he started hitting the ball harder, he’s letting it rip a little more; since July 28, he’s only the 13th-most miserly swinger among qualified hitters.

Max Muncy, Before and After Adopting the Step Back
O-Swing% Z-Swing% HardHit% LD%
Through July 27 21.0 58.2 40.1 14.4
After July 27 22.0 65.2 51.0 25.4

Whatever the reason, whether physical discomfort, lack of confidence, or tactical imperative, Muncy got even stingier when his swing was in the gutter. And that selectivity, usually merely a component of his broader hitting approach, became his saving grace when his bat abandoned him. It’s important to remember that this is a player with a career walk rate of 15%. Sit with that number a moment. That’s a truly staggering number of walks, enough that no matter how badly Muncy was hitting, he still got on base. He might have hit .164 in the first half, but he walked so much he actually beat the league-average OBP (.320 to .317) during the depths of his slump.

We’ve known the value of the walk since the days of Eddie Stanky. Reinforcing and grasping the value of the walk, as a component of on-base percentage, was the insight that brought sabermetrics to widespread public attention some 20 years ago. And it still feels like edge cases like Muncy get underrated, as if the mind simply can’t comprehend that not all double-digit walk rates are created equal.

The highest walk rates usually belong to the most feared hitters, like Soto, or Aaron Judge, who nowadays is getting walked three times a night, like he’s an incontinent sheepdog. But Muncy’s 2022 slump is only one example of how an extremely high walk rate can make up for any number of other flaws. A walk rate like that raises the player’s floor to the point where they’re unbenchable. Anyone who’s walking 15% of the time is probably posting an OBP in the mid-.300s. With any power whatsoever, that’ll play at any position, no matter the player’s defensive or contact-based deficiencies.

The young Rhys Hoskins is one example, Robbie Grossman another. This year, Carlos Santana is hitting just .193 and slugging .374, thanks in part to the biggest gap between his wOBA and xwOBA among qualified hitters. But he’s been about a league-average offensive player this year, according to wRC+, thanks to his 14.1% walk rate. Santana’s teammate Jesse Winker, who’s lost his power stroke and is somewhere from below-average to dreadful defensively, is testing the limits of this archetype, but thanks to a 15.3% walk rate, he still has a wRC+ of 107. Not ideal for a corner outfielder, but not an emergency either.

In short, learn to walk. It might save your job.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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Pepper Martin
2 months ago

Cody Bellinger, or as he will someday be known, “Juan Soto 1.0”

cartermember
2 months ago
Reply to  Pepper Martin

Upvoted you to get you back to even. I appreciated it.