'He's on a mission': How Max Muncy quelled concerns about his defense at third base

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The first three-homer game of his big-league career last weekend was “a really cool moment,” Max Muncy said, but as much as the Dodgers third baseman digs the long ball, he’s just as pleased with the ground balls he’s digging out of the dirt and the long throws he’s making to first base.

Muncy had a rough defensive start to the season, just like he did in 2023, committing one fielding error and misplaying two catchable grounders that were ruled hits in the season-opening series against the San Diego Padres in South Korea and making another fielding error in an April 6 game against the Cubs in Chicago.

But Muncy has found his bearings in the field over the last month, stringing together 23 straight errorless games and entering a weekend series at San Diego with three defensive runs saved, according to Fangraphs, which ranks third in the game among 18 qualified third basemen.

Pittsburgh’s Ke’Bryan Hayes, the 2023 National League Gold Glove Award winner, and Washington’s Trey Lipscomb top the group of third basemen with four defensive runs saved each.

Behind Muncy on that list are four-time Gold Glove and two-time Platinum Glove winner Matt Chapman (two) and 10-time Gold Glove winner and six-time Platinum Glove winner Nolan Arenado (minus-two).

“Yeah, absolutely,” Muncy said, when asked if he was as proud of his three defensive runs saved as he was of the three homers he hit in last Saturday night’s 11-2 win over Atlanta. “Obviously, it wasn’t the best start to the season … but I got deathly sick [with norovirus] in the three days before we went to South Korea.

“We had a 14-hour flight, we’re playing on the other side of the world, and my eyes were acting weird. They were pumping us full of vitamins to try to make our bodies feel right. And when we got back here, I was still feeling sick. Then, after I got over that, all of a sudden, everything turned around for me, and I feel like I’ve been in a really good spot.”

Muncy, who lost 15 pounds over the winter in an effort to be more nimble in the field, dropped 10 more pounds because of his illness, but the day after the team returned from Seoul — an off-day before a three-game exhibition series against the Angels — he was back in Dodger Stadium working with third-base coach and infield instructor Dino Ebel.

“He had a couple of mishaps in Seoul, but what I loved about that was, we got on that plane and he told me, ‘Let’s get back on the routine,’ ” Ebel said. “That off-day, he was the first guy on the field. It’s been like that from Day 1 of spring training, when he grabbed me and said, ‘All right, whatever I need to do over there, let’s go to work.’

“He’s on a mission to … I don’t want to say prove to everybody that he can still field — he’s always done it — but I think he’s at a point now where he’s like, ‘Hey, you know what? I’m going to be a good third baseman.’ He’s working hard, it’s paying off, and everybody knows he’s playing well. He’s locked in.”

Muncy committed 16 errors last season, second-most among big-league third basemen, and ranked 12th among 15 qualified third basemen with minus-3 defensive runs saved, according to Fangraphs. He ranked 33rd among 36 third basemen with minus-8 outs above average, according to Baseball Savant.

The left-handed-hitting Muncy, 33, is a prolific slugger with a career .828 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and 35 homers or more in four of his last five full seasons, and he enters Friday with a .256 average, .917 OPS, nine homers and 26 RBIs in 34 games this season.

But when the Dodgers signed two-way star Shohei Ohtani to a 10-year, $700-million deal in December, the designated hitter spot would no longer be an option for Muncy or any other Dodgers position player for the next decade.

To stay in the lineup, Muncy knew he had to play better defense, which is why he lost some weight, adjusted his winter workout regimen to include more mobility and flexibility exercises to help him get lower to the ground to field ground balls and worked out all winter with a smaller glove.

“It started in the offseason — I took my normal time off from hitting, but I didn’t take any time off from fielding ground balls,” Muncy said. “I went right into that, starting in the fall, and that’s something that normally you don’t do. When I showed up this spring, it didn’t feel like there was a catch-up period for me.”

The Dodgers gave Muncy, who signed a two-year, $24-million contract with a $10-million club option for 2026 last fall, a detailed pregame regimen, which includes fielding grounders with one hand and two hands, to his glove side and backhand side, and a throwing program to maintain arm strength and accuracy.

Ebel and infield coach Chris Woodward helped Muncy make a mechanical adjustment to decrease the amount of space between his glove and body on backhand plays so the elbow of Muncy’s glove hand is more limber and his body is more athletic.

And, perhaps most important — and something the Dodgers are doing with all of their infielders this season — is Muncy has been fielding more live-fungos before each game, with a coach flipping the ball to Ebel and Ebel smacking grounders to infielders to better simulate game conditions.

“The main thing with Max is as long as he’s moving his feet and working through the baseball, that’s when he’s at his best,” Ebel said. “Once his feet stop, the hands get a little rough, the elbow locks up, and now you’ve got problems.

“With live fungos, we’re taking full swings, and you don’t know what the ball is going to do. They’ve been seeing all of these reps every day since February, and now, they get into a game, and they’ve seen the spin, they’ve seen the hop, and they’re attacking the ball, which is good.”

Muncy also credits the daily tutelage of veteran Dodgers utility infielder Miguel Rojas, who worked extensively with Gavin Lux at shortstop before Lux was moved to second base because of his erratic arm in early March, and has helped ease Mookie Betts’ transition from second base to shortstop.

“Miggy Ro comes up to me every single day and tells me the things I’m doing well, the things I’m doing wrong — he’s holding me accountable,” Muncy said. “And I think Mookie would say the same thing, that Miggy has been kind of our second infield coach next to Dino and has been trying to help us out as much as possible.”

The Dodgers did not ask the slick-fielding Rojas, 35, to take on more of a mentorship role this season. Rojas, the team’s regular shortstop last season, assumed it on his own.

“I give him a lot of credit because understanding your role on a ball club is really important,” manager Dave Roberts said of Rojas. “Everyone wants to play every day, but to feel you can do things that are additive, that help your teammates and help us win baseball games … he’s done that.

“Mookie would be the first to tell you that if it wasn’t for Miguel, he wouldn’t be where he’s at right now. And for Muncy and Lux, seeing a player like Rojas pride himself so much on defense and getting off the ball, throwing it over there accurately, having the intensity and the focus every pitch, that’s contagious.”

There were concerns about the Dodgers defense this spring, especially the left side of the infield, with Muncy coming off a shaky season and Lux returning after missing the entire 2023 season because of knee surgery. Those concerns looked legitimate with Lux’s early spring throwing woes.

But the Dodgers enter Friday with 25 team defensive runs saved, according to Sports Info Solutions, the second-best total behind Kansas City (35). The shortstop, second-base and third-base spots have combined for 12 defensive runs saved, led by Betts’ six DRS. First baseman Freddie Freeman (minus-two DRS) is the only infielder in the red.

Muncy may never win a Gold Glove Award at the hot corner, but he’s been a reliable defender this season and has shown a strong and accurate arm and improved range, which he flashed by making nice plays to his left and right against the Braves last weekend.

“Me, Mookie, Miggy, Lux, Kiké [Hernández], we’re all out there every single day trying to be as good as possible,” Muncy said. “All anyone talked about during spring training was how terrible of a defensive team we were gonna be, and we want to prove everyone wrong.”

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