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Dodgers’ Max Muncy embracing ‘less is more’ mentality

LOS ANGELES ― In his third plate appearance on Tuesday, Max Muncy hit a pop-up with unusual force and height to the Dodger Stadium outfield. It came to rest in Mike Trout’s glove a few seconds later, unremarkably, one of 24 outs the Dodgers made that night against the Angels.

It was the kind of parabola that goes unnoticed by casual fans, not by struggling sluggers. Muncy, he of the .156 batting average, is a struggling slugger. He recited the ball’s exit speed (99.3 mph) and launch angle (52 degrees) a day later as signs of progress.

“That tells me the barrel is getting there,” Muncy said Wednesday, “which it wasn’t doing before.”

For a day, it seemed as if Muncy was all the way back. He recently took a 13-game sabbatical to Phoenix and Oklahoma City to rest his “barking” elbow. Upon his return on June 9 in Chicago, Muncy went 2 for 5 with a home run, a double and five RBIs. It was the Max Muncy the Dodgers had been waiting for all season.

It was not, however, the Max Muncy the Dodgers have seen in five games since: 2 for 16 with three walks and two strikeouts. That’s why even the loud outs, like his flyout in the sixth inning Tuesday, bear notice.

Batting average only tells part of the story of Muncy’s 2022 season. After slugging .520 from 2018-21, Muncy is now slugging .280, with only four home runs in 46 games. Even his on-base percentage, usually a strength, is a shade above league average at .323. The output scarcely resembles that of a hitter who collected National League MVP votes in three of the last four seasons.

Muncy’s struggles stem from a freak play in the final regular-season game of 2021, when he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow in a collision at first base. Muncy missed the entire 2021 postseason. He admitted the elbow was not fully recovered when he was placed on the 15-day injured list.

To hear Muncy and Dodgers manager Dave Roberts tell it, the time he spent on the IL (May 26 to June 8) was not a wasted exercise, even if the results raise questions. Did Muncy come back too soon? Can he be the hitter the Dodgers need with a left elbow at less than 100%? If not, should Roberts give Muncy more days off the remainder of the year to keep him fresh?

“I think that he’s physically fine, emotionally fine,” Roberts said of Muncy. “There will be some days – a day or two (off) in that stretch of (19) in a row. He’s built to play every day so I don’t think I need to find arbitrary days to sit him, especially if he’s swinging the bat well.”

Muncy is swinging well enough, at least in the estimation of Roberts and the team’s front office, to maintain his place in the Dodgers’ batting order. When he’s in the starting lineup, Muncy bats fourth or fifth. Only five-time All-Star Freddie Freeman bats higher among the team’s left-handed hitters.

Roberts’ insistence on keeping Muncy in the middle of the lineup merely emphasizes his importance to the team.

“Freddie and Max, to me, (are) prominent guys in the lineup from that side of the batter’s box,” Roberts said. “When Max is good it makes everyone’s job easier. … But it’s not just Freddie and Max. It’s everybody that’s got to kind of work together to make our offense go.”

Perhaps the most important takeaway from Muncy’s IL stint was the realization that sometimes less is more.

Days off have been rare events – and not entirely by Muncy’s choice. A 99-day lockout imposed by Major League Baseball delayed the start of spring training, and ultimately the regular season too. The 162-game schedule was condensed to include fewer off-days and more doubleheaders.

After games in which he struggled at the plate, Muncy said his response was to take more swings in the batting cage.

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