How the Dodgers’ Max Muncy salvaged his nearly lost season

Max Muncy had to take a step back to save his season. And he might have Nolan Arenado to thank for it.

“Maybe,” Muncy said. “It saved a lot of things, I can tell you that. It saved my mental health.

“When you get to a point where you’re throwing your hands up and you’re willing to try anything, you’re not in a good spot.”

Muncy got to that point in late July during a four-game series in Colorado. The elbow injury that kept him from playing during the Dodgers’ postseason run last fall – a good deal more serious than Muncy or the Dodgers wanted to let on at the time – was also ruining his 2022 season.

Muncy had avoided surgery and tried to play through the lingering effects, making a brief trip to the injured list in late May that wasn’t the ‘mulligan’ he and the Dodgers hoped. When they arrived in Colorado in late July, Muncy was hitting .158 with a .612 OPS and only nine home runs – far below the standards he had set during his first four seasons with the Dodgers when he hit .246 with an .890 OPS, 118 home runs and twice made the All-Star team.

“I think coming back, trying to hit the ground running, fight through where his elbow was at, then you get off to a slow start – an extremely slow start – (it was) absolutely taxing on him mentally,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “Then you kind of find yourself in no man’s land, trying to figure out how he’s going to recoup this season which adds anxiety and pressure. That’s real.”

What was really frustrating for Muncy was that he knew what was wrong. He just couldn’t fix it – in games, at least.

“My shoulders were too uphill and my elbow didn’t want to get to the correct slot just because of the injury. It wanted to work in a certain direction that was not good for my swing,” he said. “It was just working too much underneath the baseball. That was causing my shoulders to be too uphill at the point of attack. We knew that was the problem and for a while in the cage we were doing drills to try and fix that. In the cage, it was going fine. Then as soon as I got into a game, it would revert back.

“Every time I got into the batter’s box, my body went back to what felt easy and comfortable. And that wasn’t what was correct.”

The result was a lot of fly balls that weren’t driven into gaps or over fences at the rate to which Muncy had become accustomed. Finally, on that first day in Colorado, Muncy reached a breaking point.

“It got to the point where we were literally just throwing our hands up and it was like, ‘Alright, we have to do something radical, basically. We’ve got to come up with a crazy idea to make this work,’” Muncy said. “We were in Colorado. Being in Colorado we were kind of looking at a guy who used to play there in Nolan Arenado. We were in the cage and someone was like, ‘Why don’t you just try hitting like that?’”

Arenado takes a step back with his right leg, the back leg for the right-handed hitter, to initiate his swing. The idea was “all of ours and none of ours at the same time,” Muncy said.

Hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc also called it “a collaborative thing.” The step-back is part of a drill that hitters use at times as a way to focus on keeping their hips in line during the swing.

It worked. And it kept working.

“I took like three or five swings and the hitting coaches were like, ‘Wait a minute – this might actually work,’” Muncy recalled. “It started out as almost a joke but then, ‘Your body is in the perfect position every time and you’re not even thinking about it.’ The fact that I didn’t have to think about it gave us hope that when I took it into the game – because that’s the hardest part. When you get into the batter’s box, if you’re having to think about anything, then you’re already defeated. You have to have a free mind in the batter’s box. You can’t be thinking about mechanics.”

Muncy took the ‘step-back’ into batting practice. Video confirmed that he was getting into the right position at the point of contact.

“At first, we were skeptical because, again, ‘Oh, we found something that works in BP but it’s not going to work in the game. But let’s just try it. It feels very uncomfortable so let’s try it,’” he said. “That was the other thought. It felt so uncomfortable. I was doing something that I didn’t like. Maybe my natural swing would come out the way it’s supposed to.”

He had a hit that night – “a low, line-drive single, something I really hadn’t done all year.” More video analysis confirmed that “this is where my body needs to be.” Muncy decided to stick with it.

“The original thought was let’s just do this until my body gets back to working normal then we can eliminate it,” Muncy said. “We’re still at that point where I would like to get rid of it because I don’t like doing it. But why would I get rid of it when it’s working right now? It’s putting me in the right position and I’m willing to bet on myself that I can make things happen with the bat as long as I’m in the right position.”

What has followed has been the first sustained offensive production of Muncy’s nearly-lost season. Starting with that series in Colorado, Muncy has hit .272 with a .915 OPS, 11 home runs and 30 RBI in 39 games.

“I don’t know why he (Arenado) does that. I don’t know what his thought process is,” Muncy said. “But for me, doing the step back allowed my back hip to stay taller, my shoulders to stay downhill and that allowed my hands to be free and when my hands were free then they could work to the top – even though my swing is still going to be uphill. In my head, I’m able to work to the top with free hands and that allows me to not overswing. When I was working uphill, I was having to overswing and I would be late on things and underneath everything. My shoulders were uphill.

“It’s not a long-term plan. But at the same time, if it keeps working, why wouldn’t it be a long-term plan?”

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Well, there might be a reason. Muncy developed soreness in his left knee from the unfamiliar repetitive movement added to his swing. He received a cortisone injection for that last week.

“Max is a super competitor. He’s an intelligent guy,” Roberts said. “I think we unlocked some things with the mechanics, the health, the intent part of it. The bet is he’s smart enough to maintain these thoughts. If he continues to do that, the performance should be there.”

The Dodgers need it to be. His absence from their lineup last fall was one of the factors that kept them from reaching the World Series. He wants to be a positive factor this time around.

“For me, my goal is making sure I’m ready for October,” he said. “This year? It is what it is. It hasn’t been the best. But I’m not worried about what my stats say. I’m worried about what my swing says and making sure I can be prepared to help the team win in October then going out there and helping the team win. That’s all I’m focused on.”

UP NEXT

Dodgers (RHP Dustin May, 1-2, 4.29 ERA) at Giants (RHP Logan Webb, 13-8, 2.88 ERA), Friday, 7:15 p.m., Apple TV+, 570 AM

“The original thought was let’s just do this until my body gets back to working normal then we can eliminate it,” Dodgers slugger Max Muncy says of the step back he takes with his back foot, which allows his back hip to stay taller and his shoulders to stay downhill. “We’re still at that point where I would like to get rid of it because I don’t like doing it. But why would I get rid of it when it’s working right now? It’s putting me in the right position and I’m willing to bet on myself that I can make things happen with the bat as long as I’m in the right position.” (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)