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Dodgers

From unknown to indispensable, Max Muncy is putting up All-Star numbers for the Dodgers

Eyes locked on the right field bleachers, searching for his latest homer cresting through the ink-black sky, Max Muncy exhaled and let his bat roll through his fingers. It was the fourth inning of a game against Pittsburgh on Monday, but it could have been a day later or a few days prior. Muncy has gone deep 20 times this season, enough for his bat drop to become a subtle signature.

“It just kind of happens,” Muncy said. “It’s not something that I think about. It’s not something that I plan to do. I just hit the ball, I see it go and it just kind of happens.”

Unknown in his first spring training at Camelback Ranch, unheralded on his arrival on the big league roster on April 17, Muncy has become indispensable as the Dodgers (47-39) have rebuilt their season. The team resided half a game behind Arizona in the National League West on Thursday morning as it prepared for the first leg of the Freeway Series this weekend in Anaheim. Muncy, a 27-year-old signed on a minor league deal last season, has played a sizable role in the revival.

After three more homers during a sweep of the Pirates, Muncy stabilized his foothold in the Dodgers’ lineup. He has replaced injured shortstop Corey Seager as the No. 2 hitter. Manager Dave Roberts has made him the primary second baseman. He leads the team in almost every meaningful offensive category in home runs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Clayton Kershaw referred to him as “Babe Muncy” earlier this week.

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“We knew Max was a good hitter,” Kershaw said. “But I don’t think anybody in the world would expect this. He’s the best hitter in baseball right now. I don’t think anybody could argue with that.”

The praise sounded like hyperbole. What is remarkable is that it is not. Muncy has not made enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. But among hitters with at least 230 plate appearances, Muncy ranked third in baseball with a 1.060 on-base plus slugging percentage. Only Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts (1.101) and Angels star Mike Trout (1.082) have been better.

Here is another way to put Muncy’s season into perspective. On July 5, 2017, Cody Bellinger had supplied 24 homers with a .946 OPS in 279 plate appearances. He was hitting .258/.333/.613. Muncy is hitting for a better average (.280), making fewer outs (.419 on-base percentage) and slugging at a greater clip (.640).

The diversity of skills is what has allowed Muncy to stay ahead of opposing pitchers, Dodgers officials say. His eye at the plate is keen. His power has become fierce. Hitting coach Turner Ward praised Muncy for bringing a “large golf bag when he’s going to the plate,” meaning his approach is not one-dimensional.

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“It’s not one of those things where the league can figure him out because he’s covering a lot of pitches,” Roberts said. “He’s not afraid to walk, either.”

Muncy represents the latest unremarkable acquisition to provide huge dividends for the Dodgers. Last year, it was Chris Taylor, who didn’t make the opening day roster, got called up in April and changed positions so the team could keep him in the lineup. All season long, Taylor heard the same question Muncy has been hearing lately: How are you doing this?

Taylor laughed when asked whether he had any advice for how Muncy could handle the repetitive inquiries. “No, no, he’s on his own,” he said. “I’ve got no answers.”

Muncy refurbished his swing last spring, after Oakland cut him. He spent a month at his home outside Dallas, hitting in a cage with his father, before signing with the Dodgers and heading to triple-A Oklahoma City. Muncy never graduated to the majors last season, but he impressed team officials with his progress.

The alterations to his approach were minor, but the incremental changes stacked up. Muncy stood less upright at the plate. He multiplied the natural speed of his hands with the power of his legs. He became more aggressive.

“The changes in my swing are putting me in a better position to use the power that I have,” Muncy said. “I’ve always had the power there. My swing wasn’t built for hitting home runs before. Whereas now I just feel like I get myself into a better position to use it.”

Bellinger ran away with the National League Rookie of the Year award in 2017. He represented the Dodgers in the All-Star Game and took part in the Home Run Derby. It will be a challenge for Muncy to earn similar laurels. He lost his rookie status with Oakland in 2015. He was not listed on the All-Star ballot.

Roberts will manage the National League’s team, but he lamented earlier this week he will not be able to pick any players. All he can do is lobby for someone like Muncy. Muncy admitted he did not want the prospect of appearing in the All-Star Game to cloud his thoughts. “It’s hard,” he said. “It’s hard, but I’m trying not to.”

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The chorus for Muncy to take part in the Midsummer Classic in Washington may only grow stronger. His manager does not equivocate on the subject: Muncy belongs beside the game’s best.

“It’s not a surprise anymore,” Roberts said. “He understands his swing. He’s a baseball player. He’s putting up All-Star numbers. That’s just the way it is. That’s just the truth. He’s taking advantage of an opportunity. It’s good to see.”

andy.mccullough@latimes.com

Twitter: @McCulloughTimes


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