Here’s what Dodgers manager Dave Roberts knew about Max Muncy a year ago: He was a left-handed hitter with an acute sense of the strike zone.
That’s about it.
Muncy was a fairly anonymous nonroster invitee. He was coming off a good year with triple-A Oklahoma City, but boasted 96 unremarkable games of major league experience. He was seeking to attract attention in spring training from a club that fell one win shy of a World Series title. The spotlight was distant.
“No one really knew who Max was last year,” Roberts said.
Things have changed this spring. Recognition comes with a stunning breakout season featuring 35 home runs and a .973 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 137 regular-season games, capped off by a walk-off home run in the 18th inning of Game 3 of the World Series. “Babe Muncy,” as Clayton Kershaw referred to him last summer, reported to camp at Camelback Ranch this month knowing his place on a major league opening day roster is secure for the first time in his career.
“It’s a lot different for me,” the 28-year-old Muncy said. “I’m trying to treat it the same as years in the past, but obviously it’s a lot harder for me.”
While his spot is locked, Muncy’s role is not as rigid. Muncy was called up last April to fill in at third base, but Justin Turner eventually returned from injury and Muncy made just 13 starts there. He started 58 games at first base and 30 at second base.
Roberts said Muncy will play some second base this spring, though he will spend most of his time in Cactus League games at first base and enter the season primarily as a first baseman. His final numbers against left-handed pitchers last season were eye-popping — Muncy sported an .891 OPS with eight home runs in 119 plate appearances — but Roberts indicated that the plan is for him to platoon at first base with David Freese, a veteran right-handed hitter who specializes in tormenting left-handed pitching.
“That’s to be determined,” Roberts said. “Max is going to have a huge role with our ballclub.”
Muncy debuted for the Dodgers carting various mechanical adjustments he implemented after the Oakland Athletics cut him the previous year. He crouched more at the plate, relied more on his legs and amplified his aggressiveness. But the most important changes, he said, were between the ears.
“I made a lot of mental changes that I felt like was the turning point for me,” Muncy said. “Mental changes for everything.”
Roberts recalled realizing Muncy was a legitimate major leaguer about a month into his Dodgers career, as the team was slumping. Muncy had been struggling for the first few weeks, particularly against changeups and breaking pitches. After 17 games, he was batting .190 with a .663 OPS in 49 plate appearances. But he did not panic or let things speed up on him, Roberts remembered. Instead, he kept his composure. He reset himself. And after May 9, Muncy was tied for third in home runs (33), sixth in OPS (1.010) and tied for fifth in Weighted Runs Created Plus (171) across baseball.
“Max did a great job of keeping his wits about him and that right there for me was telling,” Roberts said. “And then, just because his strike-zone awareness was very consistent, that obviously led to a lot of his success.”
The Dodgers’ push to the World Series resulted in a new challenge for Muncy: His offseason was two months shorter than the previous year, when his campaign with Oklahoma City ended in early September. He married his wife Kellie two weeks after the Dodgers’ bitter ending.
There was less time to recover and work, but he said the busy, truncated winter helped him overcome the sting of the World Series defeat and did not allow him to reflect on 2018. He said it allowed him to avoid complacency. The goal is to continue dodging it while continuing to make a name for himself.
“I’d prefer it to be not thinking about it and keep preparing every single year like I haven’t done anything yet,” Muncy said. “That’s exactly how I want it to be.”
Buehler starts up
Walker Buehler threw his first bullpen session since reporting to spring training. The 24-year-old right-hander made 30 pitches, the final 13 with Cody Bellinger standing in.
Buehler logged a few bullpen sessions back home in Kentucky before arriving in Arizona, but was held back by the Dodgers over the first week after logging 177 innings between the regular season and playoffs in 2018 — double his output in 2017. He said he would throw another bullpen or two before pitching in a live setting — either in batting practice or a game. The Dodgers begin Cactus League play Saturday against the Chicago White Sox.
“My schedule is probably right on last year, when I had that back [strain] early in spring,” Buehler said. “I think the way I throw the ball and the way my arm works, I don’t need quite as many reps to get to the velocity and stuff like what I want to be at. I’m happy with it.”
Paper replaces plastic