"When you're sitting there at home, you realize you have to make a change," recalled Max Muncy about being without a job last spring, "because what you're doing before wasn't really working."
A little more than a year ago, Muncy didn't have a place in the baseball world. After parts of five years in Oakland's system, the A's, who had already outrighted him off the 40-man roster in January, released him just before Opening Day. Muncy remained unemployed for nearly a month, eventually scoring a Triple-A gig with the Dodgers in late April. He hit well for Oklahoma City (.309/.414/.491), but he did not receive a September callup.
It's safe to say that things have changed. Muncy (.263/.386/.599) is regularly hitting second for a surging Dodgers lineup, one that's been the National League's best since May 15. He leads the team with 13 homers, and if he had enough plate appearances to qualify, he'd have baseball's sixth-best slugging percentage. Muncy is even become something of a fan favorite, scoring his own T-shirt and theme song based on an on-air back-and-forth between the team's broadcaster, Joe Davis, and organist, Dieter Ruehle.
This has become something of a recent theme for the Dodgers, picking up essentially free talent and finding or creating stars out of them, most notably with Justin Turner and Chris Taylor. It's easy to think that Muncy is simply the next in line, that a retooled swing pushed by a hitting guru helped get the ball off the ground and unlock the talent within.
Video: SD@LAD: Muncy launches a 2-run home run in the 8th
It's true that there's some evidence of swing changes, in that perhaps Muncy is bending more, maybe using a slightly more noticeable leg kick. He admitted as such, saying that "when I got released last Spring Training, in those couple of weeks I didn't have a job, I kind of made a lot of mechanical adjustments."
That might be how this story ends, but it's not how it begins. Muncy didn't go to a fancy swing coach. He went to his dad -- a geologist.
"He knows my swing better than anybody," said Muncy when asked about his father. "So [it was] kind of me and him working on it together."
When Muncy was between teams last year, his father threw to him "almost every single day."
But for all the talk of mechanical changes, the word that Muncy keeps coming back to is "confidence."
"When I was with Oakland," said Muncy on Saturday, "I was laying off the bad pitches, but … because I had lost confidence in myself, I wasn't able to get my barrel to the ball like I should, like I am now. I wasn't chasing bad pitches when I was over there, I just wasn't squaring up the pitches I was supposed to be squaring up, whereas now, I'm squaring those pitches up -- and that's where all the difference is coming from."
Muncy made it clear he doesn't pay much attention to advanced metrics, but that doesn't mean we can't use them to tell his story. He's not wrong about "laying off the bad pitches," because that's always been a strength of his.
In 2015, only 35 hitters (of 409) chased fewer non-strikes than Muncy did.
In 2016, only seven hitters (of 413) chased fewer non-strikes than Muncy did.
In 2017, only three Triple-A hitters with as many plate appearances had a higher walk rate.
Thus far in 2018, only five hitters (of 289) have chased fewer non-strikes than Muncy, and we're talking names like Joey Votto, Joe Mauer and Mookie Betts. (Also, Cesar Hernandez and Russell Martin.)
So we know that Muncy has had elite plate discipline, an incredibly valuable skill that's difficult to teach. Then again, he had that with the A's, too, and he hit all of .195/.290/.321 in 245 plate appearances over two seasons. It didn't seem to matter. What changed?
"When I got picked up by the Dodgers, and I was in Triple-A, that was when I was able to start making adjustments to my mental approach at the plate, my aggressiveness, a bunch of little tweaks in that area," said Muncy.
"In a sense, my swing was still the same, but I was in a better position to start it. The swing itself, nothing had really changed in that, it's just that I was able to get myself into a better position to fire the bat quickly, and a lot of that had to do with being mentally more aggressive. Also, I was able to figure out that I could be more aggressive, mentally, but still lay off pitches that I didn't want to swing at, and when that kind of clicked for me last year, that's when things really started taking off."
Muncy hasn't actually gone after more balls in the strike zone, swinging at 54.7 percent of strikes this year after swinging at 58.1 percent of in-zone pitches in his time with the A's. He's just found far, far more production on them.
Muncy's performance on in-zone pitches
2018: .716 slugging, 55.2 percent hard-hit rate
2015-16: .394 slugging, 33.3 percent hard-hit rate
That .716 slugging on in-zone pitches is sixth best of those who have seen 100 such pitches. Looking at Muncy's combo of power and patience overall this year, the company he's keeping is nearly unbelievable.
Muncy has actually struck out more often in 2018, up to 25.3 percent with the Dodgers after whiffing 22.3 percent of the time with the A's. While no hitter wants to strike out more, it's a good reminder that you'd happily accept more strikeouts when it comes with this much added power.
No one expects Muncy to be a true-talent Top 10 hitter all year long, but it's that combination of power and patience that gives the Dodgers confidence that this isn't just a small-sample fluke. That's according to the Statcast™ metric Expected wOBA, which looks at quality of contact (launch angle, exit velocity) and amount of contact (strikeouts, walks) to output a number similar to OBP that's free of defense or ballpark factors.
There are currently 258 hitters with 150 plate appearances. Muncy is sixth, right there with some of the game's biggest monsters.
Highest Expected wOBA in 2018
.495 -- Mookie Betts
.474 -- Mike Trout
.454 -- J.D. Martinez
.441 -- Freddie Freeman
.440 -- Joey Votto
.437 -- Max Muncy
.425 -- Brandon Belt
.416 -- Jose Martinez
.417 -- Nelson Cruz
.416 -- Robinson Cano
This doesn't guarantee that Muncy will keep this up. It just shows he hasn't faked his way to this point. He's legitimately been that good.
Even the mechanical changes that Muncy did make weren't exactly new, at least not in the way they were for Turner or Taylor. Muncy's best season in Oakland's system was back in 2013, when he hit .273/.381/.476 with 25 homers between Class A Stockton and Double-A Midland. He was an All-Star in both '13 and '14.
"I kind of went back ... the physical changes I'd made in the swing, mechanically, that was something I'd worked with the hitting coach in Triple-A last year, Shawn Wooten. He was able to pull up some film from , and we kind of looked at the differences between that year and how I was in Oakland. Going back to how I was that year, 2013, that was kind of what I was thinking I was wanting to do in the first place when I was working on the changes. When he showed me the film of it, that's when I realized what I needed to be doing."
Wooten is no longer with the Dodgers, but he was credited with helping Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger improve. He might have had some part in Muncy's success, too.
That brings us back to confidence.
"From Day 1 [in Triple-A in 2017], it's, 'All right, let's start implementing the changes I'd made,'" Muncy said. "At first, it started off as just excitement to be playing, then after getting a couple hits here and there, starting to get back on my feet, realizing this works a little better than what I used to be doing, then confidence-wise, it just started building from there. It was almost like a snowball effect.
"The more hits I got the more confident I felt in the changes I'd made, and then before I knew it, it felt natural, and it was kind of just, from that point on, I'd regained all the mental confidence I'd had."
Muncy is now a relied-upon run producer for a perennial contender looking for their sixth straight division title. One imagines confidence is no longer an issue.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. MLB.com reporter Ken Gurnick contributed to this report.