The Dodgers’ Latest Discovery

If there’s one thing to understand about the Dodgers’ season so far, it’s that it hasn’t been very good. The team has more losses than wins, and presently sits in third place in its division. If there’s a second thing to understand about their season so far, it’s that it could be so much worse. The Dodgers have the best Pythagorean record in the NL West. They have the best BaseRuns record in the NL West. They have the highest playoff odds in the NL West. And the team has already been put through the grinder.

Before the year, Clayton Kershaw was projected to lead the team in WAR. He ranks 10th, and he’s hurt. Corey Seager was projected to be second on the team in WAR. He ranks 14th, and he’s hurt. Cody Bellinger was projected to be third on the team in WAR. He ranks 16th, and there have been whispers of a demotion. Justin Turner was projected to be fourth on the team in WAR. He ranks 27th, because he was hurt. Rich Hill was projected to be sixth on the team in WAR. He ranks 39th, and he’s hurt.

The Dodgers are very much alive in the race, and they might very well be the favorites. And that’s despite the top of the roster having a strikingly unusual look. If it weren’t for a handful of surprise performances, they might already be too far underwater. The improbable team leader in WAR is Matt Kemp, a guy the Dodgers didn’t even want. The player in second is Ross Stripling, a starter who began in relief. And there’s another player who’s closing in on the lead. He homered twice on Sunday. Not long ago he was a 27-year-old spring training non-roster invitee. Max Muncy is slugging .551.

Maybe you’d heard of Muncy before. Maybe you hadn’t. He appeared in almost 100 games with the A’s between 2015 and 2016, but he did so quietly, slugging .321. To Muncy’s credit, he’s always been a fine hitter in Triple-A. He just didn’t bring it with him to the bigs. In January of 2017, the A’s designated Muncy for assignment. He cleared waivers. Somewhere in the next few months, he was officially released, and the Dodgers signed him to a minor-league deal near the end of April. He was brought to the most recent spring training almost as an afterthought.

To bring you up to speed, Muncy was promoted to the majors about six weeks ago. He’s batted 126 times. Out of the 298 players with at least 100 plate appearances, Muncy’s wRC+ ranks in the 90th percentile. Meanwhile, his expected wOBA, based on Statcast inputs, ranks in the 97th percentile. By hard-hit rate, he ranks in the 94th percentile. And by chase rate — out-of-zone swings — he ranks in the 90th percentile. Out of everyone with at least 50 tracked batted balls, Muncy ranks third in the rate of batted balls hit between +10 and +40 degrees. At last, his contact rate is basically average.

Plain and simple, as a hitter, Muncy has done nothing but impress. He’s controlled the zone, he’s put the bat on the ball, and he’s consistently hit the ball hard. And already, he’s feeling like the Dodgers’ latest find out of nowhere. Last year, of course, there was Chris Taylor, but before him, there were guys like Grant Dayton, Andrew Toles, and Justin Turner. As they’ve been successful year over year, the Dodgers have prided themselves on their organizational depth. Sometimes I think that depth has surprised even them. I’m sure they didn’t think Kemp would do what he’s doing. And I doubt they figured Muncy would do better than Bellinger.

Here we are, though, and what’s happening is happening. Perhaps this is Muncy’s own doing. Perhaps it’s actually been the Dodgers’ instruction. I don’t know the whole of the backstory, but I can at least say this — when Muncy was a weak big-league hitter in 2015 and 2016, he did rank in the 99th percentile in chase rate. That’s a good thing, and it showed that Muncy was aware of his own zone. He wasn’t a hitter who would expand. But he also didn’t hit the ball very hard. That’s not a trait you’re looking for out of a corner infielder.

And that’s where Muncy has grown. What he still has, today, is his discipline. But now he’s blending that with pop. The explanation is probably complicated, but I can simplify what’s presumably a big part of it. Here’s a Muncy swing from 2015:

Here’s a Muncy swing from 2016:

And here’s a Muncy swing from very recently:

Here are screenshots from appropriate moments:

In a sense, this should look kind of familiar. Muncy isn’t the first player to make these changes. In 2015 and 2016, Muncy had a very muted and simple timing mechanism, and he held his hands higher. Now, Muncy has incorporated a leg kick, and while it’s nothing exaggerated, it’s an obvious change, and it also comes with lower hands. These are changes Muncy folded in last year in Oklahoma City, and the result is, essentially, intent to do greater damage. It’s not just about swinging at the right pitches — it’s about swinging at the right pitches, and hitting them with authority. Muncy has gotten there without sacrificing much at all in the way of contact.

What Muncy doesn’t have is light-tower power. There are 343 players with at least 50 Statcast-tracked batted balls. By top exit velocity, Muncy ranks 223rd. But then, Scooter Gennett ranks 218th, and Jose Altuve ranks 226th, and Joey Votto ranks 254th. With contact consistency, a good hitter needn’t occupy the exit-velocity extremes. Another potential shortcoming is that Muncy might be too patient — he’s already struck out looking a dozen times. There’s a balance there, and maybe he should swing more often.

At the end of the day, though, Muncy knows the zone. He’s hitting the ball harder than he has before, and he’s surprisingly athletic. He’s preparing to take reps at second base, and he can already play first, third, left, and right. Whenever you have a late bloomer like this, you always need to see if there’ll be a crash, but if Muncy doesn’t regress too hard, you can see some shades of Matt Carpenter here. It’s a line-drive bat, with multi-position utility. Carpenter himself wasn’t much of a prospect, and he wasn’t established until 26. Talent got him where he needed to be in the end.

At the very least, Max Muncy has helped the Dodgers through a very challenging first two months. That much can never be taken away. But what’s happened is that Muncy has also repeatedly forced his way into the starting lineup, which no one would’ve expected in March. Every early indication has been positive. Whether they saw this coming or not, it looks as if the Dodgers might’ve done it again.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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5 years ago

One unrelated takeaway from this article: being compared to Scooter Gennett is officially and unironically a good thing.