BRISTOL, Va. — Carlos Munoz is not your typical baseball player. He’s listed at 5′ 11″, 225 pounds, but is currently much bigger than that, sitting at 241 pounds at the moment. He looks in no way to be an athlete at first glance, and the idea that he could be a prospect seems far-fetched. But then you look at the numbers, and you realize one thing: Munoz can hit. Really well.
I first noticed Munoz when prepping for the 2014 GCL season, looking solely at his numbers. The thing that stood out to me was that he had walked twice as many times as he struck out in every season in the VSL and DSL. He also started hitting for average and hitting for a bit of power in his final season in the DSL in 2013.
During that 2014 season, I had mixed opinions on Munoz. I loved the hitting and the approach. He didn’t strike out much, showed good plate patience, and he made solid contact, even showing some power after the first few weeks of the season. He was a fringe prospect for me, although I was still skeptical about the weight. Munoz moves well for a big guy, but he still has the build of a beer league softball player, rather than a professional athlete. When he struggled in August, that raised questions about whether he’d have the stamina to last through a full season.
Now Munoz is moving up, and he continues to hit. Maybe I shouldn’t say “continues”, because that implies that he’s been doing what he’s been doing all along. The truth is that Munoz is improving, and destroying opposing pitchers in the Appy League. He currently has a .383/.479/.702 line. And just to be clear, that last one is his slugging percentage. Once again, he’s rarely striking out (15 total in 141 at-bats) and walking more than he strikes out (24). He’s also showing a ton of power, with 18 doubles and 9 home runs in his 141 at-bats. Just to put that in perspective, only three players in the system have more home runs, and everyone with nine or more have over twice the amount of at-bats as Munoz. Likewise, only eight players have more doubles, and all of them have more than twice as many at-bats.
What has always impressed me about Munoz has been his approach at the plate, and it was no different when I saw him last week. He’s a very advanced hitter, and he’s great at making contact, which is why he has such favorable strikeout and walk ratios.
“It’s pretty special,” Bristol manager Edgar Varela said to me last week. “He’s got a good approach. Don’t have to tell him much. He can make adjustments pitch to pitch right now.”
Munoz has a very advanced approach for the low levels, knowing to change his approach when he has two strikes and just protect the zone. He widens the zone and just tries to make contact, and as he puts it “doesn’t let the umpire call a third strike”.
“Most of the players, when they get to two strikes, I think they get in a panic,” Munoz said. “I know that I still have one more strike, so I try to keep my zone covered, and just don’t try to do too much. Just try to make contact.”
As for the power spike this year, Munoz works on putting the barrel on the ball, and said that he’s benefitting from more velocity. The home run totals are impressive when you consider that the field in Bristol is deep, and the walls are all about 20 feet high all around the field, meaning you need a lot for a home run. Only two of the nine home runs for Munoz are at home, although he still has a .221 ISO in Bristol, compared to a massive .411 ISO on the road. And the Appalachian League isn’t really a hitter’s league at all.
“He’s had a pretty good approach the whole year,” Varela said. “I think he was ready to do damage in his counts a little bit more.”
Even with two strikes when he shortens up and changes his approach, Munoz can show some power. Last week I saw him battle back from being down 1-2 in the count. He worked the count full, then lined a double off the wall with two strikes, showing an overall great piece of hitting. I do have some concerns with his swing choices. He can make contact with pretty much everything, but there were a few pitches I saw that he probably should have laid off of, which instead went for weak singles because he makes such great contact. The stuff out of the zone in the upper levels will be a lot more difficult to hit, and that approach might not lead to the same results as he moves up.
But the big concern still remains his weight. Munoz said he has lost about 15 pounds the last few years, and that he’s still trying to get to this year’s target weight of 236 pounds. He’s been doing some agility drills, and that shows, as he moves quick for a big guy. However, Munoz faces a new challenge in Bristol, and that challenge is finding healthy food now that he’s out on his own. In all of his previous levels, including the GCL and DSL, the Pirates provided specific meal times and specific food available, aimed at getting players in shape. They still provide post-game meals at their affiliates, but players are on their own for breakfast and lunch. And with low salaries for minor league players, that doesn’t leave the best food options.
“It was hard at the beginning, because we’d just eat fast food, which is hard for me,” Munoz said. “I’ve been trying to find a way to get healthy food, and I think it has been really good for me. I’m still losing weight, so I think it’s a good thing for me.”
Munoz noted that his main focus this year is trying to eat healthy, and that he believes this is still possible.
“At the end of the day, you have to find a way,” Munoz said. “It’s your career. So you’ve got to try to get some good food. I think you can do it. It’s hard, but I think you can.”
This gets into the topic of minor leaguers being under-paid, which is a totally different topic that requires a large discussion, and is currently being looked at in a court case in California. But that topic aside, the system is what it is right now, and Munoz is trying to make it work. Varela credits Munoz for his work on trying to stay healthy.
“It’s a testament to him,” Varela said on the weight loss. “We’ve told him, and he does it. You tell some guys, and it’s up to them. Ultimately at the end of the day you’ve got to take ownership of your career, and he’s doing that right now.”
Munoz will probably always be a big guy, and that might become more of a problem as he gets older and starts to add more weight and more muscle. The agility drills should allow him to focus on first step quickness, which will help his speed on the field and out of the batter’s box. I’m not sure at this point if he profiles as more than a designated hitter, but he’s definitely an interesting guy to watch.
The big question this year is whether Munoz will carry his strong hitting through the end of the season, rather than falling off like last year. So far, the results have been good, as he has a 1.305 OPS in 23 plate appearances in August. And of course, that includes six walks and just two strikeouts. Munoz told me that finishing with a strong August was a big focus for him this year, and that he thinks it’s more of a mental issue than a physical issue. If he does finish well, I could see him going up to West Virginia next year to be the regular first baseman, which would be a big test to see how he fares at an advanced level, while playing a full season. I’m not ready to call Munoz a legit prospect yet, but he’s definitely an interesting guy to watch, especially if he keeps putting up strong numbers and showing an advanced hitting approach as he moves up in the system.