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Maximum Muncy

Before the start of last season, Max Muncy was released by the middling Oakland A’s. A little more than a year later, he’s the best hitter on the defending National League champs.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The 2018 Los Angeles Dodgers are a walking rebuke to transhumanism: No matter how much money you put into a project, sometimes the human body will just fail you. From Clayton Kershaw and Corey Seager to Walker Buehler and Cody Bellinger, just about every important Dodger has either been hurt, or not great, or both.

Last year’s 104-win Dodgers outfit got by not just on its stars, but on surprising contributors like Chris Taylor and Alex Wood. In 2018, Taylor (111 OPS+) has been pretty good, but not good enough to replace the injured Seager. Wood has pitched better than his 4.22 ERA would indicate (his DRA is 3.36, and while his K% is down a little from his 2017 numbers, so is his BB%), but he’s leading the Dodgers in innings pitched. Considering Wood’s own checkered injury history, that’s its own indictment of the Dodgers’ roster.

And yet, L.A. is just 1.5 games out of first place in the National League West, thanks to a brand-new crop of surprising standouts: the rejuvenated Matt Kemp, who’s hitting .338 in his age-33 season; Ross Stripling, a career no. 5 starter who has a 1.76 ERA in 66 1/3 innings and is striking out seven batters for every walk; and Max Muncy.

Among Dodgers position players with at least 100 PA this year — a list that includes two NL Rookies of the Year; five players with a top-10 MVP finish; and Taylor, Yasmani Grandal, Yasiel Puig, and Joc Pederson — Muncy has the highest OBP (.386) and slugging percentage (.599), and leads the team with 13 home runs. In response, Dodgers fans have unearthed an old nickname from Muncy’s time with the A’s: Maximum Muncy.

Muncy isn’t a Seager- or Bellinger-type prospect, but yet another breakout reclamation prospect, and probably the Dodgers’ most shocking one to date.

Muncy, a 2012 fifth-rounder out of Baylor, spent parts of five seasons with Oakland before the A’s cut him on the eve of the 2017 season. He caught on with the Dodgers at the end of April and spent the rest of 2017 kicking around Triple-A Oklahoma City, where he hit .309/.414/.491 in 379 plate appearances. Once starting third baseman Justin Turner went down and Seager’s injury started to force the Dodgers to move players around, playing time opened up for Muncy. He has played third base, filled in at first when Bellinger is in the outfield, and chipped in a few innings in left field and at second base. But while it’s tempting to look at his stats, his career path, and cubical body type (Muncy is listed at 6 feet and 210 pounds, but looks a little huskier) and label him a Large Adult Chris Taylor, Muncy’s breakout is perhaps even less likely.

During his time with the Mariners, Taylor didn’t hit a lick, but he was a competent defensive shortstop, and competent defensive shortstops (and catchers) will always be able to find a spot on big league rosters. Sometimes they’ll even get enough reps to develop into competent hitters.

Muncy isn’t Chris Taylor. He’s the kind of player you’d invent if you wanted to make fun of the Oakland A’s: a college corner infielder with a Charlie Brown body type. Even in the post-Moneyball era, the A’s always seem to have six or seven guys like Muncy hanging around their roster. While Muncy duly rose through the ranks and inveigled his way into 96 games with the A’s — 21 of them at second base, God bless him — Oakland finally cut him in March 2017. And if a corner-bound power hitter can’t stick with Oakland, that’s a bad sign.

Over his two big league campaigns with Oakland, Muncy showed parts of the hitter he is now, just not all at the same time. In 2015, he posted a solid .186 ISO, but had a walk rate of just 8.0 percent and hit .206/.268/.392. In 2016, Muncy walked 15 percent of the time, but his ISO was just .071 (for reference: Dee Gordon, a slap-and-run hitter, has a career ISO of .073), and his overall batting line was .186/.308/.257. Combine that patience and power and you’ve got a decent big league hitter. In his first big league season with the Dodgers, Muncy’s been better than decent.

The Dodgers might be the best possible landing spot for Muncy, for two reasons. The first is mechanical. FanGraphs lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen recently pointed out that Muncy is crouching lower at the plate and staying low throughout his swing, more so now than he did at any time in the past.

Here’s Muncy, using fairly upright swing mechanics in college:

And here he is remaining upright in Oakland:

But here, Muncy starts from a deeper crouch, stays low, and tilts his swing plane up:

That’s a particularly Dodgers swing, as you can see by comparing Muncy’s follow-through to Bellinger’s and Seager’s. This swing path helps players generate loft, not only hitting the ball hard, but keeping it in the air.

The result is that he’s getting the ball in the air a ton. Muncy’s fly ball rate is 47.9 percent, 23rd out of 326 hitters with at least 100 plate appearances. That’s not too far out of line with the 54.9 percent he posted in 2015 in Oakland, but that year he walked 8 percent of the time and hit .206.

However, Muncy has developed one of the most discriminating batting eyes in baseball. He almost never swings. His swing rate is just 35.1 percent, seventh-lowest out of those 326 hitters. Fellow Dodgers Austin Barnes and Logan Forsythe are also in the top 10, while Chase Utley is 18th. Muncy isn’t just spitting on pitches outside the zone, though his 19.6 percent swing rate on pitches outside the zone is 15th lowest in baseball. Muncy’s in-zone swing rate, 55.8 percent, is the 10th lowest out of 326. Barnes, Utley, and Forsythe are also among the league leaders in both categories.

This kind of approach means Muncy is taking a lot of strikes, and even on those rare occasions when Muncy does swing, he doesn’t make a ton of contact: His 78.2 percent contact rate is 146th out of 326 batters. So when Muncy does put bat to ball, he has to make the most of it. That’s the good news, because Muncy is absolutely pulverizing the ball. Baseball Savant, which produces Statcast-based hitter leaderboards, has 374 hitters with at least 50 batted ball events this season. (A batted ball event is any batted ball that results in a hit, out, or error.) Forty-nine of Muncy’s 96 batted balls this year were measured with an exit velocity of 95 mph or more, the 13th-best percentage in baseball.

Muncy’s contact numbers are even more impressive when you track barrels. A barrel, according to MLB, is any ball that is hit at least 98 mph and travels within a range of launch angles that expands the harder a ball is hit. Out of those 374 players, Muncy is third in barrels per batted ball event, behind Joey Gallo and Eric Thames. The 6-foot-5 Gallo could probably hit a Honda Civic 98 mph if you threw it over the plate, while Thames is probably the most jacked player in baseball — he looks like he makes his bats by pulling trees out of the ground and squeezing them. Muncy is right there with him.

So much of the successes or failures we run into in life are the result of chance: talent and hard work will get you only so far. Sometimes you just need to find yourself in the right place in the right time, surrounded by the right people. Muncy always possessed some measure of patience and power, but with the Dodgers he has refined those tools, adopted some of his teammates’ tricks, and achieved maximum results.

Stats updated through Monday afternoon.