Max Muncy’s career has had its ups and downs in recent years… or steps forwards and backwards, depending upon which plane you prefer for directional metaphors. Lately the slugger has been on a home run binge, one involving a mechanical tweak — a slight step backwards with his left foot at the start of his swing — that he adopted last year and then briefly abandoned this spring.
This weekend, Muncy took over the major league lead in home runs with 11. He went yard four times during the Dodgers’ four-game visit to Wrigley Field from Thursday through Sunday, starting the festivities with a solo shot off starter Javier Assad on Thursday night, adding a pair of late-inning blasts off Mark Leiter Jr. and Brad Boxberger on Saturday (the first of those a two-run homer), and capping his weekend with a two-run drive off Marcus Stroman on Sunday. The last of those gave the Dodgers the lead and helped them take three games out of four from the Cubs.
Muncy’s hot streak didn’t just begin last Thursday; it’s been going on for two weeks. After homering just once while going 4-for-33 in his first nine games, he bookended a three-game series at Oracle Park with a pair of two-homer games, then homered in losing causes in series openers against the Cubs and Mets at Dodger Stadium.
So that’s 10 homers in a 13-game span, a spree exceeded last year by only Aaron Judge, who had three overlapping stretches with 11 homers in 13 games, the first of which began on July 14. Judge also had three such stretches with 10 homers and two with nine, all of which began in mid-July and had some overlap with the 11-homer streak. Mike Trout and Kyle Schwarber were the only other players who had even one 13-game stretch with nine homers. Muncy is the first Dodger to homer 10 times in 13 games since Cody Bellinger did so in June 2017. He’s the second-fastest Dodger to 11 homers in a season, after Matt Kemp bashed 11 in the team’s first 21 games in 2012.
Muncy has hit .368/.510/1.158 in 49 plate appearances during this stretch, lifting his overall line to .254/.411/.718, which places him second in the NL in slugging percentage behind only Brandon Marsh (.758) and third in wRC+ (193) behind Marsh (217) and Luis Arraez (199). Remarkably, those 11 homers represent the entirety of his extra-base hit total; he hasn’t hit a double or a triple all season. The last player with a similar stretch was Joey Gallo, who while still a member of the Rangers homered 11 times without a double or a triple in two overlapping 13-game stretches in 2021, the first of which began on July 25; Schwarber had a 12-homer, 13-game jag without any other extra-base hits from June 12–24 (with a couple of overlaps) in 2021 as well. It’s weird, but it happens.
Already, Muncy is more than halfway to last year’s total of 21 homers, and he’s gotten there by drawing upon one of the few positives he could take from what was a trying campaign. Recall that the slugger suffered a tear in the ulnar collateral ligament of his left elbow in a collision at first base on the final day of the 2021 season, ending what had been an exceptional year (.249/.368/.527, 36 homers, 139 wRC+) on a sour note, as he missed the playoffs. The tear wasn’t big enough to require offseason Tommy John surgery, but while he was in the Opening Day lineup and totaled 136 games in all, he scuffled mightily, hitting .158/.308/.304 (82 wRC+) through July 27. A two-week break due to a bout of elbow inflammation followed by a minor league rehab stint didn’t set him right.
“The elbow was a huge issue,” Muncy told the Los Angles Times‘ Mike DiGiovanna in March. “It didn’t want to move how I wanted it to move. It wasn’t cooperating. And even when it got healthy, it wasn’t moving [right] because of all the bad habits I created while trying to get healthy.”
On July 28 of last year, hitting coach Aaron Bates worked with Muncy to implement a timing mechanism that Nolan Arenado had used. Via DiGiovanna:
Taking a half-step back with his left foot as the pitch was delivered helped Muncy get his body into a position where he “wasn’t working so uphill and so down underneath the ball,” he said. “It was a radical way to do it, but I said, ‘Let’s try it.’”
Muncy got a hit the first time he tried the new mechanism and batted .245/.357/.485 with 12 homers in 244 PA for a Muncy-like 138 wRC+ from that point to the end of the season. Yet he came to spring training determined to move beyond what worked last year, believing it wasn’t sustainable. “I needed to forget everything that I did, because I didn’t want to do that going forward,” Muncy said. “Even though it worked for me last year, I know that it’s not going to be the best solution for me. I had to revamp my swing last year, and now we’re un-revamping it to get it simpler again.”
Yet that attempt to undo what had worked led to Muncy’s slow start, he believed; not only did he get just four hits in his first 33 at-bats, he struck out 16 times, including five times on Opening Day. Before the Dodgers’ April 10 game against the Giants, he brought back a less pronounced version of the mechanism, more of a tap back than a step back. The move paid immediate dividends, as he clubbed a three-run homer off Logan Webb and a grand slam off Sean Hjelle that night.
“This was just the easiest solution to fix things,” Muncy said afterwards. “I was just in a good position to hit… The only thing I have to worry about is just getting my foot down on time instead of thinking about so many other things. It was just simplifying it, really, even though it’s more movement.”
Since the change, Muncy has struck out just 22.5% of the time, a rate lower than in any of his other seasons with the Dodgers except for 2021, when he struck out just 20.3% of the time. Meanwhile, he’s pasted the ball when he’s made contact, averaging 94.0 mph in exit velocity, with a 29.5% barrel rate (second in the majors behind Matt Chapman) and a 50% hard-hit rate. Those numbers are based on 44 batted ball events, about six short of where barrel rate stabilizes. While his slash line is ahead of his Statcast expected numbers, his .610 xSLG is nothing to sneeze at.
Nobody expects Muncy to maintain his lofty slugging percentage, but one thing that could help keep his numbers up is the new anti-shift rule. The post-injury Muncy has been pulling the ball more than at any other point in his career; he ranked fourth in the majors at 49.2% last year, and is currently fourth at an astronomical 59.1% this year. On pulled groundballs against shifts, he hit just .109 (7-for-64) last year and .105 (18-for-171) over the last three years, which helps to account for his sub-Mendoza Line batting averages in 2020 and ’22. This year, he’s already 2-for-9, and while that’s not a whole lot to hang one’s hat upon, that start and a bit of logic suggest he’ll pick up at least a few extra hits.
Even with their series victory over the Cubs, the Dodgers are just 12-11 this year, though that’s good enough to tie them with the Diamondbacks for the NL West lead, half a game ahead of the Padres. It’s worth pointing out that in both 2017 (when they won 104 games) and ’18 (when they won 92), they went just 11-12 over their first 23 games yet still reached the World Series, but neither this year’s lineup nor its pitching staff appears to have the depth of those squads, as contributors such as Trea Turner, Justin Turner, and Tyler Anderson are all wearing different colors now. These Dodgers particularly need Muncy to wield max power, and the good news is that he’s doing just that.