While we now have to focus on the 2019 season, we can’t just ignore things that happened in 2018. Part of evaluating players for the coming season is in looking back at players who had surprisingly strong or poor numbers last season. Were they one-offs who are poised to be drastically overrated or underrated in coming drafts? Or was 2018 predictive, indicating a trend that owners need to be out in front of? Today, let’s take a look at a player who significantly elevated his stock in 2018; Dodgers infielder Max Muncy, whose late-season ability to make a counter-adjustment has me all-in for next season.
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Max Muncy, Los Angeles Dodgers
The Max Muncy story has been told ad nauseum. After five nondescript years in the A’s system- including 245 terrible MLB plate appearances- Muncy got another chance this year in Los Angeles. By now, you know the deal. 35 regular-season home runs (tied for fifth in the NL), a Home Run Derby selection, over five wins above replacement, per Fangraphs. In June, Mike Petriello of MLB.com noted some mechanical alterations and a mindset improvement that upped Muncy’s exit velocity and launch angle. Those changes have gotten their attention. I want to focus on something a little more minute.
Predictably, much of the Muncy attention came when he first seemed to be breaking out; comparatively little attention has been devoted to what he did later in the second half. I’ll try to fill in that gap here. Were I writing this article at the end of August, it would’ve taken a less optimistic tone. Muncy’s final month of the season, though, was among his most impressive.
I’ll start with the one skill Max Muncy has always had, even when he was struggling to keep his head above water in Oakland: plate discipline. Unsurprisingly, Muncy’s been at his best when he’s stayed away from pitches out of the zone. Around the All-Star Break, Muncy began to expand the strike zone a bit, peaking in mid-August when he was chasing pitches for really the first time in his career.
Muncy’s August results were still elite- .259/.348/.638 with ten extra-base hits- but they looked decidedly less sustainable. His strikeout rate pushed 40%, a level which, even in the most strikeout-heavy era in MLB history, no qualified hitter threatened this season. Had Muncy continued to strike out that often, there’s no doubt his results would have eventually crumbled.
Fortunately, the player was aware of that too, and he promptly corrected it, reestablishing his patience. By September, Muncy had nearly halved his peak chase rate (the percentage of pitches out of the strike zone at which he swings), and his walk and strikeout rates reflected the change.
This reflected Muncy’s ability to counter opposing pitchers’ adjustments. Between June and July, pitchers clearly began to recognize Muncy as a legitimate power threat.
Per Baseball Savant’s tracking data, pitchers went to a fastball almost two-thirds of the time against Muncy in June. This was certainly a case of opponents holding to their preseason scouting reports on Muncy; he was, after all, a disciplined but under-powered hitter, exactly the type of player to attack with a high rate of fastballs in the strike zone. After Muncy’s Bondsian June (.289/.465/.711 with ten home runs), opponents tore up those scouting reports and leaned increasingly heavily on soft pitches.
For a while, it seemed to work. As noted, Muncy hit for power coming out of the All-Star Break, but his strikeouts surged to dangerous levels. He ran some risk of degenerating into a prototypical slugger. He had enough walks and power to remain on the field, but too many strikeouts could keep him shy of a star-level hitter.
Pitchers’ increased fear of Muncy is most obvious in traditional fastball counts. From the beginning of the year through July 3, the date when Muncy’s rolling 25-game offense hit its peak (essentially reflecting the high point of Muncy’s season), pitchers went to non-fastballs only a third of the time when they were either even or behind in the count. From that date through the end of the season, their non-fastball rate in such counts spiked to 40%. Despite this increased fastball-aversion, Muncy continued to do damage. In fact, among hitters who put at least 50 ‘soft’ pitches in play, Muncy got the third-best results, behind only the best hitter in baseball and the (likely) NL MVP. This is an impressive group of hitters able to do that kind of damage.
So what does this all mean? In 2018, Max Muncy showed everything you’d want to see from a breakout performer. He jumped the competition early, touched a ceiling very few hitters matched, and weathered the storm when the league adjusted by throwing him fewer fastballs. Most importantly, he made a successful counter-adjustment; not only did he better identify balls from strikes in September, he showed an elite ability to impact soft stuff, even when pitchers tried to pitch him ‘backwards,’ going away from heaters in traditional fastball counts. In a league which is progressively eschewing traditional notions of establishing the fastball and is increasingly willing to throw any pitch in any count, Max Muncy showed he was adept enough to handle whatever pitchers could offer. No one saw this 2018 coming, but it seems legitimate.
Maybe you don’t buy Max Muncy as a perennial 35-home run hitter; that’s fair. His HR/FB rate this year was probably unsustainably inflated, and the Dodgers have been wary of exposing him to left-handed pitching. Nevertheless, a .250/.380/.530 line with 30 homers seems realistic, even baking in some regression. That’s a superstar, especially given his multi-position value in most leagues. The competition for Muncy will be hot in this year’s drafts, but it seems warranted. Great players demonstrate an ability to make adjustments, to stay ahead of their opponents, and Max Muncy did that this season. This season came out of nowhere, but don’t be surprised if he follows it up with a killer encore.
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