On April 18, 2018, in his second game as a Dodger, Max Muncy saw a 94-mph fastball from San Diego Padres pitcher Luis Perdomo. The pitch hovered over the plate before colliding with the barrel of Muncy’s bat. A two-run, opposite-field home run soared over the left-center fence. It was Muncy’s first homer with his new team.
On April 18, 2019, in his 157th game as a Dodger, Muncy saw a 92-mph fastball from Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Matt Albers. The outcome was identical to the at-bat against Perdomo 365 days earlier. Muncy crushed the pitch. A two-run, opposite-field homer cleared the left-center fence.
Muncy circled the bases as a mainstay of the Dodgers lineup. He has not forgotten where he was a year ago, when he was a 27-year-old hoping to secure a foothold on a big-league roster. His wife informed him about the serendipity of the two homers after Thursday’s game.
“It’s hard to imagine that this is where I’m at,” Muncy said. “But I’m enjoying it.”
By now, he has grown used to trotting around the bases in the majors. Muncy led the Dodgers with 35 home runs last season. He faces stout competition in that category this year from Cody Bellinger, who delivered his 10th homer of 2019 on Thursday. Muncy collected No. 5 after taking Albers deep.
In the first few weeks of 2019, Muncy has displayed the same qualities that led manager Dave Roberts to install him in the center of the lineup last season. He takes extended at-bats and practices patience. He can pull inside pitches for hits and hammer outside pitches the other way. He is the team’s primary first baseman, though he can start at second base, as he did in Friday’s 5-3 victory over the Brewers.
“With Max, he’s obviously solidified himself as a very, very productive major-league player,” Roberts said.
Roberts credited Muncy for maintaining his approach even as pitchers grow accustomed to him. Given the quickness of his hands and the keenness of his eye, Muncy can recognize off-speed pitches as they depart from the strike zone and punish fastballs when they enter it.
Muncy rejected the conventional wisdom that his performance might decline as opponents studied him more. He had already completed nearly a full season, at a time when data and video scouting can solve opponents soon after they arrive in the majors. A player can only remain a mystery for so long.
Muncy offered a counter to that thought. He was privy to the same information that the pitchers possess. He understood their tendencies, too.
“The industry always seems to think that it’s only them that makes the adjustment, it’s not both sides,” Muncy said. “So, yes, they’re going to make adjustments. But we’re going to make adjustments to them. That does seem to be a thing, where everyone says ‘Oh, he’s not going to do what he did last year, because people know what he does.’ Or ‘people know how to pitch him now.’ Or whatever they say.”
The Dodgers clubhouse features several players who followed a path to big-league prominence like Muncy did. Justin Turner bounced around three organizations before taking flight with the Dodgers in 2014. He suggested perspective was critical for a player trying to maintain success after spending years merely searching for it.
“The hardest part is you have a good year, a really good year, and then you want to repeat it — better than that year, and you already had a great year,” Turner said. “It raises your bar for expectations pretty freaking high.
“When you set the bar that high, that’s not easy to live up to. It turns what might be considered a pretty damn good year, in your mind, it almost makes it a failure, because you didn’t do what you did the year before.”
Turner pointed to Bellinger. As a rookie in 2017, Bellinger bashed 39 homers. A year later, he finished with 25. “You hit 25 homers, you’re having a great year,” Turner said. “But in his mind, it was a down year.”
Chris Taylor faced a similar quandary last season. He emerged as the team’s multipurpose leadoff hitter in 2017, hitting 21 homers with an .850 OPS. A season later, he was a slightly diminished, but still valuable, member of the roster, with 17 homers with a .775 OPS. He generated 4.1 wins above replacement, only a slight dip from the previous season’s total of 4.8, according to Baseball Reference.
Muncy went hitless in five at-bats on Friday. He ended the evening with an .858 OPS. He believes the .973 OPS he produced in 2018 remains within his reach.
“It’s one of those things where you wonder, well, why can’t it be the other way around?” Muncy said. “Why can’t it be, well, now I know how they want to pitch me?”