Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Max Muncy has become one of the premier hitters in baseball. Since he made his Dodgers debut at the start of the 2018 season, he’s been selected to two All-Star games, first as a reserve player in 2019, and then getting the start for the National League at designated hitter in 2021.
With a batting line of .251/.380/.522 since the start of his Dodgers tenure, Muncy’s 142 weighted runs created plus (wRC+) mark through Sunday’s games is ninth-best in baseball and second among first basemen — just below Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman.
This hasn’t always been the story for Muncy. Though he’s been one of the most feared hitters in a perennially potent Dodgers’ lineup four years running, there was a time when Muncy struggled to even stay in the majors, let alone earn a starting job.
Muncy made his major league debut with the Oakland Athletics in 2015, and in 245 plate appearances combined in 2015 and 2016, he posted a pedestrian .195/.290/.321 batting line and an unsightly wRC+ mark of 70. Right before the start of the 2017 season, the A’s designated the up-and-down Muncy far assignment, removing him from the 40-man roster entirely. After every other major league team passed on him, the A’s brought him back to spring training on a non-roster invite but released him shortly thereafter.
Going into 2017, there wasn’t much reason to take note of Muncy. FanGraphs had this to say about his fantasy baseball outlook:
“Max Muncy is a 26-year-old first baseman with a career OPS just above .600. Move along.”
But Muncy’s fate changed in late April of that year, when he signed a minor league deal with the Dodgers. Armed with a brand-new swing, Muncy got his power stroke back for the Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate in Oklahoma City, posting his best offensive numbers of his professional baseball career. In 379 plate appearances, Muncy blasted 12 home runs and 20 doubles en route to a 139 wRC+ mark.
It was clear that Muncy’s swing change was paying major dividends: His production was a major step up from his most recent stint in Triple-A, when he posted a 108 wRC+ mark. Once the 2018 season came around, Muncy forced his way onto the major league club with a torrid start in Oklahoma City, posting a 153 wRC+ in his first nine games. The Dodgers needed some pop in the lineup, and Muncy got the call up to the show.
The second act of Muncy’s major league career took off immediately, as his first full season in the big leagues was better than even any of his minor league ones, hitting to a .263/.391/.582 batting line that was good for 62 percent above the league average. Even though Muncy didn’t register enough plate appearances to be considered a “qualified hitter,” he was easily the best position player on the team by FanGraphs’ wins above replacement. Heading into the 2019 season, FanGraphs had something completely different to say about his fantasy outlook:
“It’s hard to find any real flaws in what Muncy did during the 2018 season. Sure, it’s a small sample of just one season, but the magnitude and underlying skills are great.”
Off to prove his breakout season wasn’t a fluke, Muncy did not disappoint in 2019. His surface numbers came down to earth a bit, but his batting line of .251/.374/.515 and 134 wRC+ mark were nothing to scoff at. In addition, Muncy showed himself to be a force on both sides of the ball, playing more games at second base than he did at first base, after he played the vast majority of his games at first base in 2018.
After two great years in Dodger blue, Muncy inked a three-year extension right before the start of the 2020 season, ready to anchor a fearsome lineup. But though the Dodgers ended the year with a trophy, Muncy’s offensive output looked to have regressed in a major way. The power was still there, as Muncy still managed to swat 12 home runs in 58 games, but his .192/.331/.389 batting line netted him only a league-average 100 wRC+ mark. On the surface, Muncy looked more like the pre-Dodgers version of himself. But a quick look under the hood reveals that he was bound for a bounce back.
During the abbreviated year, Muncy was unable to break through. While his surface-level metrics took a concerning dive, his walk-to-strikeout ratio remained intact, and he made gains in barrel rate. Rather, the dips in production came from an extremely low batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and a large dip in his home run rate on fly balls, showing that he may have been getting unlucky on balls in play.
Now in 2021, Muncy has not only bounced back, but he is producing at his 2018 levels and may be having his best season to date. Muncy ranks third in the National League in wRC+ with a 158 mark and is tied for second in WAR among NL hitters with 4.3. Muncy is no stranger to the MVP discussion, receiving down-ballot votes in both 2018 and 2019. This year, however, he could be on his way to a top three finish.
It’s been a fascinating career arc for Muncy, who went from getting released by the A’s due to his inability to hit major league pitching to becoming one of the best hitters in all of baseball, seemingly overnight. Interestingly, the A’s are looking to right this wrong, drafting high school shortstop Max Muncy in the first round of this year’s MLB draft, nine years after selecting the original Max Muncy in the fifth round.
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