The Keller High School baseball team, of Keller, Texas, generally follows the same daily schedule. As a result, Lee Muncy and his son, Max, could venture an educated guess as to when practice would end and a batting cage would open for the Muncys' use. "We didn't want to interfere with what they were doing," Lee Muncy recalled.
Once they got their turn, usually in the early evening, Max Muncy would take about 200 swings -- four buckets of baseballs, roughly 50 balls per bucket. Then Max would throw and catch and field a few grounders, trying to stay fresh in case somebody called to offer him a job in pro ball. But as each day passed in those first weeks of April 2017, Max chatted with his father about what else might be next. He was 26 years old, after all, and had been released by the Oakland Athletics at the end of spring training. Maybe he would go back to Baylor, he said, to finish that last year of courses and get his degree in business. Maybe he would try independent ball.
Fifteen months later, Lee and Midge Muncy structure their days around the schedule of the Los Angeles Dodgers -- an afternoon nap to prepare for a 10 p.m. Eastern time start -- because their son got a job. Max didn't have to go back to college to pursue another line of work, and he no longer must wait his turn for a round of swings at a high school cage. He's playing regularly for the Dodgers, and the other day, Clayton Kershaw referred to him as "the best hitter in baseball right now" -- in earnest.
Over the past 34 days, Muncy is batting .319, with a .479 on-base percentage and a slugging percentage of .749. He has blasted 17 homers in his past 41 games, and it's possible that on Sunday, Max will be part of the National League All-Star team unveiled on ESPN at 7 p.m. ET.
"It's unbelievable. It's surreal," Lee Muncy said. "When he was first called up [by the Dodgers], we thought, 'OK, we hope he gets to pinch hit.' Then we went to hoping he would get to platoon. Now we hope he's playing more.
"We always thought he could hit 20 homers in a season. For him to do that [already], that's surprised us, along with everybody else."
It even surprised Farhan Zaidi, who was responsible for the belated phone call that brought Muncy into the Dodgers' universe late in April 2017. Zaidi, the Dodgers' general manager, previously worked with the Oakland Athletics under Billy Beane and knew Muncy from that organization. After playing three years at Baylor, Muncy was a fifth-round draft pick of the Oakland Athletics in 2012. He advanced to the big leagues for brief appearances in 2015 and 2016, hitting .195 in 96 games and 215 at-bats, but the Athletics released Muncy at the end of spring training in 2017.
Under Andrew Friedman and Zaidi, the Dodgers have built layers of functional depth in their farm system, creating safety nets, and Muncy was a good candidate for that, in spite of his first unremarkable appearances in the majors. He established a history of good at-bats, with relatively few strikeouts, a good contact rate and a willingness to take walks, and he played multiple positions. Zaidi and the Dodgers signed Muncy to a minor league deal, and he spent last year with Triple-A Oklahoma City, batting .309 with a .414 on-base percentage.
Along the way, Muncy joined the wave of players who have adjusted their approaches in an effort to lift the ball. Like Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner, Muncy is something of an ideal candidate for adaptation because of his hand-eye coordination and ability to make contact. He explained in the visitors clubhouse Saturday that the changes were not really to his swing but to the mechanics setting up his swing and allowing him to hit underneath the ball.
Max Muncy has tried different swings his whole life. Lee Muncy is an ardent fan of baseball, and years ago, he absorbed an observation by Duke Snider about left-handed hitters -- that they enjoy the natural advantage of being a step or two closer to first base than right-handed hitters. He encouraged Max, naturally right-handed, to swing from both sides of the plate. Max smiled when Snider was mentioned and said, "That's my Dad's story. I can't remember a time when I didn't hit left-handed."
Lee remembers a very young Max standing in front of a TV imitating the stance of whatever hitter happened to be on the screen: perhaps the left-handed Ken Griffey Jr. or the right-handed-hitting Jeff Bagwell. For a time in his early life, Max modeled what he did at the plate after Jim Thome, with the point of the bat in the direction of the pitcher and the socks exposed high.
Now, many years later, there are probably young Dodgers fans standing in front of televisions and imitating Max Muncy, who has tried to fend off thoughts of whether he could be selected as an All-Star, little more than a year after he was out of baseball and running out of options.
"It's been pretty crazy," he said. "I've been enjoying it a ton."
News from around the majors
The Indians are one of the teams linked to Manny Machado, the Baltimore shortstop currently being marketed by the Orioles. But given Cleveland's place in the standings, an expensive trade for Machado could be construed as malpractice for a front office of a small-market team with limited resources. (And the Indians have long had one of the best and most progressive collections of adept baseball executives.) The Indians' lead over the worst division in baseball is in double digits, and the Twins and Tigers, the second- and third-place teams, are much closer to being sellers than contenders. If Cleveland were to spend to get Machado, the first time he would have any opportunity to be a difference-maker would be in October, in a division series against the Astros or Yankees or Red Sox. If the Indians were eliminated in that round, it would mean they surrendered coveted prospects for the sake of 15 to 20 Machado postseason plate appearances.
When they made an aggressive trade for Andrew Miller in the summer of 2016, dealing Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield for the lefty, the Indians passed on Aroldis Chapman because he was a rental. Miller, on the other hand, was under contract for 2017 and 2018. The Indians are riding a parallel course right now: They are digging into the market for relievers who could help their weak bullpen this year and into 2019, after Miller and Cody Allen depart as free agents. That sort of expenditure makes a whole lot more sense than Machado for the Indians, who could lurk as dangerous October sleepers. While other American League contenders -- the Red Sox and Yankees in the East, the Astros and Mariners in the West -- might have to push to win their respective divisions and tax themselves down the stretch, the Indians almost certainly will have the luxury of handling their pitching conservatively, properly resting Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco and Mike Clevinger for the postseason. The Indians also have time to tinker with their bullpen mix and, similarly, rest relievers as needed, a luxury the Yankees, Red Sox, Mariners and Astros might not have in September.
• The one scenario in which an Indians acquisition of Machado would make more sense would be if the market for Machado never develops in the way the Orioles anticipate and they are forced to take a bad deal rather than settle for draft-pick compensation. That is what happened with the Rangers and Yu Darvish last season, and it might be that five or six teams will monitor the Machado situation with the hope that a modest offer will be enough to get a deal done in the last hours before the July 31 trade deadline.
• For years, the Orioles have driven other teams to distraction during trade talks because other clubs sometimes haven't been sure whether an offer would stand or whether a player involved would pass a physical or who was making the decision. But in recent weeks, rival evaluators have been privately complimenting the work and process of the Orioles, saying they seem especially focused and prepared, with spot-on knowledge of what they want in return for Machado (and perhaps others). The sense of other teams is that the Orioles are prepared to move Machado relatively soon, maybe a couple weeks before the July 31 trade deadline. The Dodgers and Diamondbacks are regarded as two of the most ardent suitors, according to sources, with the Brewers, Braves and a handful of other teams hanging around the edges of the conversations so far.
• The Yankees have continued conversations with the Blue Jays about lefty J.A. Happ, with the two sides haggling over the price tag. But despite the struggles of Sonny Gray, it could behoove the Yankees to wait a little bit longer before finalizing a move for a starting pitcher because as the July 31 deadline gets closer, it's possible that other high-end starting pitchers will suddenly become available, giving Yankees GM Brian Cashman more alternatives to consider.
• Giancarlo Stanton was the NL MVP in 2017 in close voting, but the field of candidates in 2018 appears to be completely wide open, from the Braves' Freddie Freeman to Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado to Cubs infielder Javier Baez to a couple of starting pitchers, Washington's Max Scherzer and Philadelphia's Aaron Nola. Maybe Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford or even Paul Goldschmidt or the Nationals' Bryce Harper could be in the conversation, despite terrible first-half slumps. The award is up for grabs.
Baseball Tonight podcast
A special Call To The Legends podcast: Randy Johnson weighs in on the current practice of pulling starting pitchers before they're exposed to the opponent's lineup for a third time.
Friday: Dick Williams, the head of baseball operations for the Reds, on the team's progress, hitting philosophy, forthcoming managerial search, Matt Harvey and Billy Hamilton; Karl Ravech on the Nationals' comeback and Dexter Fowler's relationship with the Cardinals; Jessica Mendoza discusses Matt Kemp, and the future of Shohei Ohtani; and Paul Hembekides on Bryce Harper's marketability.
Thursday: Keith Law goes through the Manny Machado market, team by team, and reviews the Carlos Gomez dugout explosion; Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post on the Nationals' struggles; Sarah Langs plays The Numbers Game.
Tuesday: Braves play-by-play man Chip Caray on Atlanta's season, his father Skip's influence and career advice, and his grandfather, Harry Caray; Jerry Crasnick on Dexter Fowler and a baseball moment between friends Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello; and Sarah Langs.
And today will be better than yesterday.