Friday, January 27 2023

By Rowan Kavner
FOX Sports MLB Writer

The Los Angeles Dodgers didn’t just say they believed in Max Muncy. In good times and bad, they demonstrated it.

They showed it in 2017, signing him to a minor-league deal and allowing him to rediscover his zest for the game after the Oakland Athletics cast him off. They did it again a year later, bringing him back to the big leagues. They proved it in 2020, rewarding him with a three-year contract extension after he exploded with back-to-back 35-homer seasons.

And this season, amid a down year that at times left Muncy questioning his abilities, the Dodgers again demonstrated their unyielding belief in the two-time All-Star. Even as Muncy’s slash line sat at a dismal .161/.310/.303 at the end of July, the Dodgers continued playing the scuffling slugger, trusting he would get right. Around that time, Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman began discussing with Muncy’s agent the possibility of keeping him in Los Angeles beyond this year.

“It’s one thing to say how much we believe in him,” Friedman said. “It’s another to be able to come up with something that shows it.”

Three weeks later, with Muncy’s season back on track, the Dodgers officially signed the infielder on Monday to a one-year, $13.5 million contract extension for the 2023 season with a club option worth $10 million plus incentives for the 2024 season.

“It means everything to me,” Muncy said. “There’s no place I’d rather be. Hopefully, next year won’t be it, and there will be more after that. Just the support I’ve had from the front office and the coaches this year, it’s really helped me through everything I’ve gone through.”

Muncy called it a relief to get the extension done, though his struggles at the plate had burdened him far more than his contract uncertainty.

He didn’t look the same after last October’s collision at first base with Milwaukee’s Jace Peterson, which injured the UCL in Muncy’s left elbow and ended his 2021 season prematurely. Muncy returned in time for Opening Day this year, but his production took a significant hit as he worked to find his mechanics. After the first game of the season, his batting average never crossed the Mendoza Line again.

“I think just not being a good baseball player was weighing on me,” Muncy said. “It was a rough go there. Just trying to understand where I was, with everyone around me picking me up and reminding me of certain things, things got a little bit easier.”

Apart from a brief early June respite — one that allowed him time to rest both his elbow and his mind — the Dodgers continued playing Muncy, primarily hitting in the middle of the lineup. They believed his underlying numbers were better than the results and continued reiterating that to him, particularly as his frustration built.

The plans to extend Muncy were put in motion before his season turned around.

“He came into this game as a big-league ballplayer with nothing but upside and having to prove people wrong,” manager Dave Roberts said. “I think every player has something that motivates them, and to kind of prove people wrong again, that, ‘I deserve an extension,’ I think everyone has their own motivation. Knowing what he’s gone through in the past, we knew that he wasn’t going to quit.”

The new contract was less a reward for Muncy’s tantalizing play of late — he has a 1.185 OPS through his first 16 games of August — and more a gesture of confidence that this level of play remained possible, dormant, waiting to be tapped. Friedman hoped the extension would put Muncy at ease — that it might help remove any stress preventing what the Dodgers believed still existed.

“I think there was some peace of mind for him, knowing that he would be here, that I think mattered to him,” Friedman said. “So, for us, when we start having those conversations in late July, we went into it with the idea of trying to figure something out that would provide him that peace of mind and also continue what he’s done here for the last four-plus years.”

Whether it played a role in Muncy’s turnaround is impossible to know, but the results since those talks began have been astounding.

Roberts noticed an uptick in Muncy’s quality of at-bat in Colorado in the last series of July. He doubled on July 30 at Coors Field. One series later, he homered in his first game in San Francisco. The encouraging start to August began.

Muncy’s seven home runs this month are tied for the major league lead, while his 1.185 August OPS is the third-best among qualified batters. He has reached base safely in all but one game this month, much more closely resembling the slugger who set career highs in hits (124) and homers (36) last season.

“Maybe that’s why the last couple weeks have been so important, just knowing you can be the player you’ve always been,” Muncy said.

READ MORE: Muncy took step back to move past struggles

The Dodgers could have let his deal play out, gaining a greater sample size in the process, before deciding whether to exercise their $13 million club option next year. But this was a player the Dodgers felt comfortable betting on. Just five years ago, Muncy was released by Oakland, left to ponder his baseball future. He dug out of those doldrums, mashing 118 homers and leading the Dodgers in wins above replacement from 2018-2021.

“At every turn, we kept trying to positively reinforce the progress and what we were seeing,” Friedman said. “Again, there’s no better way to show it than this.”

It’s a display of faith Muncy doesn’t take for granted.

“There’s not anywhere else that I’d rather play,” Muncy said. “So, the chance to come back and play for another year was a no-brainer for me. Hopefully, there’s more after that. I try not to look ahead too much. We have a pretty special thing going right now. I’m trying to focus on that.”

Rowan Kavner covers the Dodgers and NL West for FOX Sports. A proud LSU alumnus, he credits his time as a sportswriter and editor at The Daily Reveille for preparing him for a career covering the NFL, NBA and MLB. Prior to joining FOX, he worked as the Dodgers’ editor of digital and print publications. When not at a stadium or watching sports, Rowan enjoys playing with his dog, hiking, running, golfing and reminiscing about the Mavs’ 2011 championship run. You can find him on Twitter at @RowanKavner.

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Source: FOX Sports


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