The three-year, $26-million contract Max Muncy signed with the Dodgers in February changed the slugger’s tax bracket, but little else.
“I don’t live an extravagant lifestyle,” the 29-year-old infielder said. “I have a nice car, but I didn’t go out and buy a Ferrari or anything like that. The only thing it does is guarantee my family to be set up for the future.”
Muncy has established a firm foothold in the big leagues with two prolific offensive seasons but still acts and sounds like a guy battling for a roster spot.
“You don’t ever want to take anything for granted,” said Muncy, who earned National League most valuable player votes in 2018 and 2019 and an All-Star selection in 2019. “I don’t like to get complacent.
“If you get too comfortable knowing you supposedly have a spot on the team, you don’t really get hungry for better things. Part of that has to do with where I came from, some of the things I’ve gone through.”
It was three years ago this month that Muncy was released by the Oakland Athletics, who drafted him in the fifth round out of Baylor in 2012. Muncy showed a keen eye and superb bat-to-ball skills, but the power he flashed in the low minors dried up in double-A and triple-A.
With budding star Matt Chapman at third base and left-handed slugger Matt Olson emerging as the starter at first, the A’s had little use for a reserve corner infielder with little pop and questionable defensive skills.
Muncy spent the first month of the 2017 season at home in Keller, Texas, about 20 miles north of Fort Worth, hitting in a cage with his father. A text message from then-Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi, who knew Muncy during their time together in Oakland, offered a lifeline.
Muncy signed a minor league contract with the Dodgers on April 28. He spent the rest of that season at triple-A Oklahoma City, refurbishing his stance and his left-handed swing in an effort to unlock his power.
Two weeks into 2018 the season, with the Dodgers in need of a third baseman after Justin Turner fractured his wrist and Logan Forsythe injured his shoulder, Muncy was called up with little fanfare.
“Good defender at third,” manager Dave Roberts said at the time. “Third and first is where he thrives. Really like him in the batter’s box.”
Soon, a lot of observers shared Roberts’ view. Muncy hit a two-run homer in his first start and quickly slugged his way into the middle of the lineup, hitting .271 with a 1.013 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, 22 homers and 41 RBIs before the All-Star break.
Muncy finished 2018 with a .263 average, .973 OPS, 35 homers, 79 RBIs, 131 strikeouts and 79 walks. He provided the highlight of a World Series loss to the Boston Red Sox with a dramatic walk-off homer in the 18th inning of Game 3 at Dodger Stadium.
The hits kept coming in 2019, when Muncy batted .251 with an .889 OPS, 35 homers, 98 RBIs, 149 strikeouts and 90 walks while playing first, second and third base.
“He always had an unbelievable command of the strike zone — that’s probably why Oakland loved him, because they love those types of players — but for whatever reason, I think he hit a lot more ground balls with Oakland,” Turner said.
“Whatever the swing adjustment was when he came here, he started getting more balls in the air and doing more damage. But the beauty of it is his command of the strike zone hasn’t wavered a bit. He still stays in the zone as good as anybody. He takes his walks and swings at strikes.”
Turner, 35, has a special appreciation for Muncy’s meandering path. A fellow late bloomer, Turner was waived by Baltimore in 2010 and allowed to walk as a free agent in 2015 after three unremarkable seasons with the New York Mets. He signed with the Dodgers in 2016 and became a star.
“Our careers are very similar,” Turner said. “He was kind of floating around, trying to make a team, he was up and down with Oakland, gets let go, comes over here, gets an opportunity to play and has obviously made the most of it.”
Muncy is expected to split time this season between first base and second. He made most of his 2019 starts in the second, fifth and sixth spots in the batting order, but Roberts said he is leaning toward keeping Muncy in the second spot, behind new leadoff man Mookie Betts and in front of Turner and 2019 NL MVP Cody Bellinger.
“He’s a guy you could hit anywhere in the lineup, really,” Turner said. “You could hit him leadoff, with the way he stays in the zone and gets on base. You could hit him in the middle of the order. It doesn’t matter.”
Wherever Muncy plays in the field, wherever he bats in the order, the Dodgers are confident he will be as motivated as he was in 2017, when he was scrambling for a job with nowhere near as much money in the bank.
He’s trying to soften the front leg in his swing this spring, which will allow him to adjust to breaking balls better. He’s constantly working on his defensive footwork. He’s determined to get better.
“He’s still got that chip on his shoulder, he always will,” Roberts said. “I think Max will never forget being at home watching baseball [in April 2017]. That feeling never leaves you.”