The Triple-A Nashville Sounds beat the Iowa Cubs on Tuesday, and leading the charge once again was Max Muncy. He homered to lead off a five-run 4th inning that put the Sounds in front for good. It was Muncy's team-leading sixth homer of the year, and with that it's time for us to take a more serious look at him.
Last winter, Muncy was not a popular figure around Athletics Nation. It's not that anyone disliked him for any reason, but rather a simple matter of logistics. His best defensive position is first base, where the A's were overstuffed with options at the MLB level (Alonso, Canha, even Butler) and well-stocked with hotter prospects in Triple-A (Olson, Ravelo). He can also hold his own at third base, but again the A's had multiple better options already on hand (Valencia, Coghlan) and the hot corner seemed to be spoken for in the upper minors (Nunez, Chapman, even Healy). Muncy was blocked from moving up while simultaneously being chased from behind by the next wave of potential stars.
Between that residence in no-man's land, and 2015 numbers that didn't jump off the page in either the Majors or minors, many in the AN community didn't see where Muncy fit into the picture. Even I had my doubts at times, though Nico was always there to remind me that it's always worth having an MLB-ready backup when possible (especially when your presumed starters, guys like Alonso and Lowrie, have reps for being injury-prone). It was going to take a precise set of circumstances for Muncy to become truly relevant again, but that doesn't mean those circumstances were unlikely to occur and indeed we find ourselves facing them now in real life. They are:
1. Multiple infielders get hurt (in this case, Lowrie to the DL and Valencia day-to-day with a chance of joining him).
2. Muncy hits well in Nashville.
3. All of this happens early in the season, such that recent Nashville additions like Nunez and Pinder might not quite be ready.
4. Joey Wendle isn't setting the world on fire to force his own promotion.
All of those things needed to happen. If only one infielder was hurt, the A's could survive with Tyler Ladendorf as a backup (as they currently are). If it was June right now and Renato Nunez was still hitting at his current pace then the answer might just be to get his MLB career started. Wendle seems like a more natural replacement for Lowrie, but his .652 OPS (74 wRC+) at least makes you look at your other options. But add all of those things together, all while Muncy ranks as the best hitter in Nashville, and the door opens up.
Looking back through Muncy's career, it's almost difficult to understand why we're not more excited about him. He crushed the High-A Cal League in 2013, with 21 homers in 93 games and a wRC+ of 134. His power virtually disappeared in Double-A Midland, but that's pretty standard for lefty hitters and he still ranked well above average thanks to his on-base skills (wRC+ around 120 in over 700 PAs).
The problem came last year. He was only 15 games into his first stint at Triple-A when Ben Zobrist got hurt in Oakland, and suddenly Muncy found himself getting the call to the bigs far sooner than he expected. At spring training this year I asked him about that experience and how it affected his season:
"I was not expecting that at all. ... Going into the season I was expecting to be there (in AAA) all year and if I was lucky maybe get a Sept callup if I had a good year. ... And then Zobrist got hurt the second week, and I got that callup 2 in the morning and I was just, I was so in shock and surprised -- 'This can't be real.' Was not expecting it at all; it was a lot sooner than what I was expecting.
"What I wasn't happy about was how I handled some of the things myself. I wasn't quite ready to deal with being in a bench role. I'd never done that in my life and it's something I think I can do -- I don't want to be that guy, I want to be an everyday player, but sometimes you don't get that choice -- and I think that because I hadn't done that before I didn't know how to handle how to get myself prepared, what I need to do to be ready to pinch hit late in games, or to be ready to play every couple days.
"I wasn't quite sure how to make sure my swing was ready, how my body was going to be ready, and I went through a little problem gaining weight last year because I wasn't playing every day so ... I was doing the same thing I was doing when I was playing every day but because I wasn't playing I wasn't burning calories and so ... I didn't really know what I was doing. That's what I wasn't happy about. It took me all year to figure out how to get into that rhythm, into that routine of preparing myself every single day even if I'm not in that lineup."
You can see it in the numbers. Muncy was off to a wonderful start in Nashville (.293/.408/.466), but he got only 88 PAs in his first two-month stint in Oakland and he never seemed to get into a groove. Even when he returned to the minors later that summer he just wasn't the same -- he hit only three homers in the final two months in Triple-A, and even worse, his usually dynamite BB/K rate fell apart. We sometimes reference the phenomenon of "calling up a player too early and messing with his development," and I think this is a prime real-life example. With another offseason behind him, Muncy returned this year and rediscovered both his power (.196 isolated slugging) and plate discipline (12.6% BB, 17.3% Ks).
And that brings us to the present. For his part, Muncy is doing everything he can to get in the lineup and help the team -- that meant taking grounders at second base this spring (it was his primary position entering college, when he switched to 1B due to team needs), and it's meant playing 15 games in LF for the Sounds this year (more than he's played at 1B and 3B combined). The 25-year-old is showing versatility and unselfishness, he's the best hitter on his team, and he's got the benefit of experience to help him avoid the mistakes of yesteryear (specifically, he'll be better prepared for a non-everyday role if that's where he ends up).
The A's infield is in trouble, but fortunately it's exactly the kind of trouble everyone anticipated could happen and there are plenty of contingencies in place. Alonso looks great at 1B and is finally starting to hit, but his top backup (Canha) is on the DL. At 2B, Lowrie is on the DL, Coghlan looks primed to start in his place, and Ladendorf is the obvious backup (or platoon-mate). Semien looks great at SS. The problem is that, as long as Valencia is out, the plan appears to be moving Alonso to 3B with Butler starting at 1B, which is the wrong answer for so many reasons that the topic deserves it's own article. If Valencia has to go back on the DL, then the choice should be clear: Free Max Muncy.
Season stats (thru 32 games)
NOTE: The hitting stats do not include the Wednesday morning game (May 11), in which Nunez hit his sixth HR. However, the pitching stats are updated. I can't calculate wRC+ on my own and I don't have time to calculate the updated slash lines of the entire lineup, but the pitchers are much easier because Overton is the only guy on my list who appeared in the game.
Renato Nunez, 3B: .277/.336/.500, 5 HR, 7 BB, 19 Ks, 125 wRC+
Joey Wendle, 2B: .228/.262/.390, 4 HR, 5 BB, 33 Ks, 74 wRC+
Rangel Ravelo, 1B: .244/.300/.329, 1 HR, 7 BB, 13 Ks, 74 wRC+
Bruce Maxwell, C: .220/.313/.271, 0 HR, 8 BB, 11 Ks, 68 wRC+
Matt Olson, 1B/OF: .170/.279/.319, 3 HR, 15 BB, 33 Ks, 66 wRC+
Chad Pinder, SS: .200/.218/.314, 1 HR, 2 BB, 31 Ks, 39 wRC+
The happiest news of the last week was Ravelo's big game on Tuesday, in which he went 3-for-4 with a homer and a double. For as much as folks are fretting about Olson's slow start, I'd be more worried about Pinder, who has brought virtually nothing to the plate in any category. (But really I wouldn't be worried about anyone because it's still early May.)
Max Muncy, 1B/3B/LF: .280/.386/.477, 6 HR, 16 BB, 22 Ks, 139 wRC+
Andrew Lambo, OF: .240/.291/.365, 1 HR, 6 BB, 22 Ks, 79 wRC+
Jake Smolinski, OF: .224/.280/.345, 1 HR, 8 BB, 17 Ks, 71 wRC+
Matt McBride, C/OF: .175/.246/.286, 1 HR, 6 BB, 16 Ks, 46 wRC+
Look sharp in Midland, Jaycob Brugman, because Nashville's outfield just isn't producing and Smolinski is miscast in CF.
Pitchers (stats include Wed game)
Dillon Overton, LHP: 7 games, 4.89 ERA, 38⅔ ip, 34 Ks, 7 BB, 2 HR
Daniel Mengden, RHP: 2 starts, 0.00 ERA, 12 Ks, 2 BB, 0 HR
Daniel Coulombe, LHP: 11 games, 0.64 ERA, 14 ip, 14 Ks, 2 BB, 0 HR
Tucker Healy, RHP: 12 games, 3.29 ERA, 13⅔ ip, 22 Ks, 6 BB, 1 HR
Patrick Schuster, LHP: 12 games, 1.35 ERA, 13⅓ ip, 15 Ks, 5 BB, 0 HR
J.B. Wendelken, RHP: 10 games, 3.27 ERA, 11 ip, 20 Ks, 4 BB, 1 HR
Anyone have a good reason why Mengden won't make his MLB debut sometime this year? He's made six starts between Nashville and Midland, and five of them were scoreless. (He gave up two runs in the other one.) He has a 0.50 ERA in 36 total innings so far.
Three affiliates are in action.
Triple-A Nashville: Lost 4-2 vs. Iowa
High-A Stockton: 3:30 p.m., Brett Graves vs. Visalia
Single-A Beloit GAME 1: Lost 4-0 vs. Peoria
Single-A Beloit GAME 2: Won 4-0 vs. Peoria
Overton took the loss for Nashville but his line wasn't awful (6 ip, 4 runs, 6 Ks, 2 BB, 0 HR, 9 hits).
Beloit played a doubleheader after being rained out Tuesday, and both games finished with the same score (but different victors). James Naile took the loss in the opener, but Angel Duno threw six shutout frames in the finale while Chris Iriart added a homer.