Healthy and motivated, Max Muncy out to prove he's no baseball bum

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - MARCH 10: Max Muncy #13 of the Los Angeles Dodgers grounds out in the third inning.
Max Muncy hits during a spring game between the Dodgers and Angels at Camelback Ranch on March 10. Muncy is eager to have a bounce-back season after struggling in 2022. (Dylan Buell / Getty Images)

The chip on his shoulder that fueled Max Muncy’s early years with the Dodgers — implanted during the month he spent out of baseball after being released by Oakland in 2017 — remains, though it has been reprogrammed.

Proving he belongs in the big leagues is no longer the main driver for Muncy, who established himself as a perennial All-Star by hitting at least 35 homers with an .889 on-base-plus-slugging percentage or more during each of his first three full seasons.

What’s motivating Muncy this spring is a burning desire to show he’s not the bum he suspects many felt he was last season, when his slow recovery from a left-elbow injury caused his swing to malfunction and his production to plummet.

“You feel like you get forgotten a little bit,” said Muncy, who had a career-worst .196 average, .713 OPS, 21 homers and 69 RBIs in 2022. “You have a bad year, and suddenly no one thinks you’re a good player anymore. So I feel like I have a lot to prove this year, and I like it that way. That’s how it’s been my whole career.”

The Dodgers are confident that Muncy, after a healthy winter with a normal workout regimen and a trip to Driveline to increase his bat speed, will return to pre-injury form, which would help ease the loss of Trea Turner and Justin Turner to free agency, and Gavin Lux to a knee injury.

It’s not so much Muncy’s solid numbers — he entered the final weekend of exhibition play with a .250 average (nine for 36), .803 OPS, one homer, three doubles and six RBIs in 15 games — it’s the way he looks in the box.

“This is as good as I’ve seen Max, body and mind, since he first came over here, and I think a lot of that is because he’s healthy,” manager Dave Roberts said. “He’s more free and easy. He’s able to get that extension, to stay through the baseball much better than he did last year. With that elbow, he wasn’t able to do that.”

Muncy’s 2022 struggles were rooted in the torn elbow ligament he suffered during the final regular-season game of 2021. Playing first base and attempting to field a throw up the line from catcher Will Smith, Muncy couldn’t pull his left arm back before Milwaukee’s Jace Peterson, who hit a dribbler in front of the plate, ran through it.

Dodgers third baseman Max Muncy throws to first during a spring game against the San Diego Padres.
Dodgers third baseman Max Muncy throws to first during a spring game against the San Diego Padres on March 6. (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Muncy spun to the ground in pain and walked off the field clutching his non-throwing arm. He was knocked out of the playoffs. He returned after the lockout ended last March but couldn’t find a comfortable swing.

Two months into the 2022 season, the left-handed-hitting Muncy was a shadow of the slugger who hit in the middle of the order from 2018 to 2021, batting .150 with a .591 OPS, three homers and 14 RBIs in 41 games.

He was put on the injured list in late May and sent to the minor leagues for a brief rehabilitation assignment. That didn’t help. Muncy returned to the Dodgers on June 9. On July 27, he was hitting .158 with a .612 OPS, nine homers and 31 RBIs.

“The elbow was a huge issue,” Muncy said. “It didn’t want to move how I wanted it to move. It wasn’t cooperating. And even when it got healthy, it wasn’t moving [right] because of all the bad habits I created while trying to get healthy.”

Muncy was in the batting cage before a July 28 game in Colorado when he and the Dodgers hitting coaches recalled an unorthodox timing mechanism used by former Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado, who was traded to St. Louis in 2021.

Taking a half-step back with his left foot as the pitch was delivered helped Muncy get his body into a position where he “wasn’t working so uphill and so down underneath the ball,” he said. “It was a radical way to do it, but I said, ‘Let’s try it.’ ”

Muncy singled sharply to right-center field in his first at-bat that night. He followed with three hard-hit grounders and a strikeout.

“I only had one hit, but I was hitting a lot of low line drives, was on time with everything and was above the ball,” Muncy said. “That was a turning point. I found something that could work, that I could stick with.”

Muncy hit a more acceptable .245 (50 for 204) with an .842 OPS, 12 homers, 13 doubles and 38 RBIs during his final 57 games, but once the season ended, he hit the delete key on those final two months. Though he had success with the step-back move, he knew it wasn’t sustainable.

“I needed to forget everything that I did, because I didn’t want to do that going forward,” Muncy said. “Even though it worked for me last year, I know that it’s not going to be the best solution for me. I had to revamp my swing last year, and now we’re un-revamping it to get it simpler again.”

Muncy hasn’t watched a replay of the first-base collision that cost him the 2021 postseason and marred 2022. “It’s too painful,” he said.

But he has put the injury behind him. The move to third base, a position where he made 80 starts last season and has grown more comfortable with this spring, has helped. The feeling in the batter's box has as well.

“The swing and the bat path, I’m 100% there,” Muncy said earlier this week. “I’m still working on timing, but I feel like I’m right where I want to be. You don’t want to be 100% locked in during the spring. You want to save that for the season, right?”

Between the anxiety of the injury and slow start and the drastic midseason swing adjustment, Muncy never felt right in 2022. But a normal offseason, he said, allowed him to “kind of reset mentally and reset my body,” which leads the Dodgers to believe they’ll get the Max out of Muncy in 2023.

“I see him getting back to who he was as a baseball player,” Roberts said. “He’s an All-Star player. He’s not blind to people, in his mind, writing him off for 2023. He works better when he’s got a chip on his shoulder. I think he feels like he’s the forgotten man. So that’s a good thing for the Dodgers.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.