How Max Muncy went from nearly leaving baseball to becoming the Dodgers' resident slugger

·MLB columnist
Max Muncy is a breakout hitter for the Los Angeles Dodgers this season and sits right in the middle of the team’s rebirth in the NL West. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Max Muncy is a breakout hitter for the Los Angeles Dodgers this season and sits right in the middle of the team’s rebirth in the NL West. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Max Muncy is a boxy 6-foot, 210-ish pounds, as though molded by a deli case turned on its end. A coarse beard wraps his face, razor wire on the perimeter. He’s coming up on 28 years old, which doesn’t seem like much unless your job – your career – is baseball and you’ve accumulated barely 400 big-league at-bats, not even 200 of those in the past two years, which means a chunk of your prime has been spent not playing in the big leagues and trying to figure out why.

He’s the Muncy in the Los Angeles Dodgers box scores you’ve been seeing, the Muncy with 20 home runs, the Muncy who showed up in the lineup in mid-April, starting hitting in May, and has been about the best hitter in the National League since.

He’s also the Muncy who hit .206 in 45 games with the Oakland A’s in 2015, and .186 in 51 games for the A’s the year after that, who was released by the A’s before the 2017 season and spent more time than he would have liked back home and thinking baseball might not be his thing anymore.

The Muncy whom scouts now praise for a swing that is short and sure to the ball, for plate discipline one said is “top five in the league, no doubt,” which is a long way from the hours Muncy spent wondering how long it would take him to knock out another 10 or so classes at Baylor for his business degree, to get on with his life.

A couple months spent on the bat barrel tends to soften the crummy memories and rally the scouts to your better qualities, to remind a guy that a little work and a lot of trust – unless it’s a lot of work and a little trust – is usually the way back. If there is a way back.

And so on a Friday afternoon when he’s batting .280 and OPSing 1.060 and right in the middle of the Dodgers’ rebirth in the National League West, on a Friday afternoon in which so much of the talk is how he couldn’t possibly be left off the NL All-Star roster, Muncy is able to smile at a journey that maybe for a few weeks looked finished, that turns out isn’t finished, that maybe is just getting started. And who knows how these things happen, how a few tips from your dad turns into an overhaul, how a call from the Dodgers turns into a minor-league season that makes it all feel right again, how just when you might have wondered how long you’re going to go on fooling yourself it’s OK to believe.

After being released by the Oakland A’s in 2017, Muncy considered leaving the game. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
After being released by the Oakland A’s in 2017, Muncy considered leaving the game. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

“One of the biggest things, I kind of lost confidence in myself as a player in ’15 and ’16,” he said. “You start experiencing failure and you don’t know if you’re as good as you thought you were. Mentally I wasn’t doing as good as I should have been. And then, last year was a chance for me to regroup and recover and focus on myself. I could just focus on baseball, remembering how much I love the game and how much I liked playing it. For me, that was the biggest thing. This year was a whole different mindset when I got called up. It wasn’t like, hey, you gotta go out there and prove yourself. It was, go out and have fun. That was the biggest thing for me.

“I was sitting at home opening day without a team, so right there you kind of realize how much you like playing baseball again, and how much you missed it. When I finally got a chance to play again, I was going to enjoy it as much as I could. … Two, just having any kind of success last year, having made a few changes in my swing, seeing how they worked, just made me feel that much better about it. And this year is just continuing over from last year.”

His father, Lee, had a hand in it. As a batting practice pitcher, as the voice on the other end of the phone for a couple hours at a time, as the person who could reach around those big ol’ shoulders of Max’s and remind him, “Enjoy every day because you never know when it’s going to end.” Also, when the oh-fers come, and they always do, “Short step, quick hands, Max.” Like always. Big part of the field, too. Short step, quick hands, big part of the field. Since Max was a kid. No matter the pitcher, no matter the level, no matter if it’s batting practice or there’s 44,000 people in the place, like there was Friday night, short step, quick hands. And those same scouts now adore the simplicity of a swing that is working.

“I never had any problem recognizing pitches,” he said. “I never had any problems laying off pitches. I was always good with that. It was just when I saw the pitch I wanted, I wasn’t able to get to it because I wasn’t in a good position. So it was kind of just getting the swing into a position to attack pitches easier.”

So if you like small-ish samples, or if 230 plate appearances are enough for you, no player in baseball homers at a greater rate than Muncy’s one every 10 at-bats. Only three – Mike Trout, Mookie Betts and Joey Votto – have a higher on-base percentage. There’s more, all of it a long way from having nowhere to play, from considering what else there could be.

Ten good at-bats became 50, then 100. And here he is, the Muncy you’ve been seeing in those box scores.

“As time went on I just felt more and more comfortable being part of the team, being part of the lineup every day,” he said. “It’s one of those things where over time it’s grown into a natural thing. So, there might’ve been one, but I can’t think of a certain time.

“What have I learned about myself, I don’t know. Just, basically, having success gives you that confidence that, hey, you belong here, you can play with these guys, you can make an impact on the team, you can make an impact on the game.”

Probably what it feels like to be in the big leagues, to be the hitter you always wanted to be, and not wasting too much time trying to figure out why.

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