What to Make of MJ Melendez

Late-season changes make Melendez a compelling fantasy add.

Every new baseball season, we get a handful of prospects that break through to the big leagues and dominate the sport upon arrival. Just this past season, we saw Michael Harris II threaten a 5-WAR season in just 114 games, Julio Rodríguez put up a 146 wRC+ as a 21-year-old, and Spencer Strider break a strikeout record previously held by Randy Johnson. With all of this young talent laying waste to the game, we can often forget that these players are exceptions to the conventional development pattern, not the norm. It is far more common for a player to struggle at the big-league level initially and improve gradually over time, but it is easier than ever to overlook these players with all of the immediate superstar talents around.

One such player is Royals catcher MJ Melendez, who was once revered for his prodigious power as a prospect but has since fallen squarely in the “post-hype” category following his first full taste of action in Kansas City. Despite a disappointing rookie campaign on the surface, Melendez made some interesting developments over the course of the 2022 season that indicate room for growth and could make him a solid buy-low option for 2023.


The Rookie Season in Review


Melendez opened eyes in the minors with his power, evidenced by a 60 FV rating for both raw power and game power upon his graduation from prospect status. Scouts saw 30-homer upside and elite athleticism from a catcher and were understandably infatuated. So, did that raw power translate to the big league level in 2022?

I’m leaning towards yes, but not in the most immediately recognizable way. Melendez finished the season with 18 homers, a .393 slugging percentage, and a .176 ISO over 129 games. These figures are nothing staggering, but they look far better relative to the .367 slugging and .141 ISO that major league catchers managed as a whole.

It doesn’t help that Melendez played in the third-worst stadium in MLB for left-handed home runs, according to Baseball Savant. Given his poor home environment, perhaps a better way to gauge Melendez’s power output is to take a closer look at batted ball quality and exit velocities compared to the 55 other catchers with at least 100 plate appearances in 2022:

MJ Melendez Batted Ball Quality (2022)

Melendez consistently hits the ball hard and finds his way to a lot of barrels at the plate, which is a good indication that his raw power is carrying over from the minors and may signal that his game power isn’t far behind. The concern with Melendez was always going to be whether the hit tool and plate skills would be good enough to hold down a starting job at the major league level. On that front, his rookie campaign was a pleasant surprise.

Among all qualified players age 25 or younger, there were only four who maintained a walk rate over 12%, a strikeout rate below 25%, and a barrel rate above 10%. Their names?

Yordan Alvarez, Juan Soto, Lars Nootbaar, and MJ Melendez.

That’s some rarified air for Melendez, and it paints a pretty clear picture of how impressive his plate discipline and barrel control were as a rookie.

Despite a paltry .217/.313/.393 line and 99 wRC+ in 2022, Melendez’s advanced numbers show that the high praise his power received as a prospect was not misplaced and that his plate approach may actually wind up being better than evaluators thought.

Still, why am I convinced the ceiling is even higher than this? What changes did Melendez make as his rookie year wore on that showed real growth as a hitter?


Don’t Go Chasing Breaking Balls


The first thing I noticed when digging into Melendez’ hitting profile was one of the most lopsided reverse platoon splits I’ve ever seen from a left-handed batter. Just take a look at how much more effective he was against lefties in 2022:

2022 Platoon Splits

Quite often, reverse platoon splits are nothing more than sample-size anomalies and will even out over time as a hitter accumulates more plate appearances. This holds especially true for left-handed hitters facing same-side pitching.

Melendez hitting 35% better than league average against lefties over 130 plate appearances and 13% worse than league average against righties over more than 400 plate appearances leads me to believe that righties identified a hole in his swing that they were able to consistently exploit.

Turns out, that hole was backfoot breaking balls. Check out this breakdown of where in and around the zone Melendez whiffed most often against righties in 2022:

Right-handed pitchers were pounding that lower inside quadrant of the plate both in and out of the zone and drawing a ton of chases and whiffs, which prevented Melendez from seeing enough fastballs to keep him productive early in the year.

See for yourself:


At the peak of his struggles with breaking pitches in June and July, opposing pitchers were throwing Melendez 33% breaking balls and he was chasing them out of the zone 30% of the time. Not a recipe for success, evidenced by his dismal .202 wOBA against them in that timeframe.

But then, something magical happened: Melendez started adjusting.

From July to the end of the season in late September/early October, Melendez turned himself into a completely different hitter against breaking pitches. He cut his chase rate against breakers nearly in half, driven by an overall drop in his swing rate. Just take a look at this progression:

Melendez went from chasing breaking pitches out of the zone nearly 35% of the time in May to just 16.5% of the time in September. Even more promising, he slashed his chase rate against breaking balls in 2-strike counts as well. In July, he was chasing half (48.4%) of the 2-strike breakers he saw out of the zone. In September, that number plummeted all the way to 25.6%. By the end of the year, he brought his total 2-strike chase rate down to a below-league-average 24.9%.

That’s an astounding improvement over the course of a single season, especially for a player who seemed totally lost against breaking balls as late in the season as July. He still wasn’t crushing breaking balls in September by any means, but he upped his wOBA against them by over 80 points at the end of the regular season compared to July. This allowed him to hunt fastballs more effectively, as his whiff rate against heaters dropped to a season-low in September.

This rapid improvement against breaking balls didn’t lead to immediate results in terms of productivity for Melendez, as his second-half wRC+ was actually a couple ticks lower than his first-half. Still, the fact that his xwOBA reached a new season high of .354 in September reiterates the idea that he noticeably improved his plate skills and quality of contact late in the season. This is exciting stuff for his 2023 prospects, to be sure.

If Melendez can keep laying off backfoot breakers, his performance against fastballs should improve over time and we may start to see much better results from him, especially in the power department. Kauffman Stadium is going to rob him of a few homers, but the potential is there for him to really pop out of the gate in 2023.


Fantasy Outlook


Melendez potentially unlocking a new level of plate discipline that may lead to better power numbers late in the season does make him an intriguing buy-low candidate this season, as previously mentioned. Here’s the thing, though. That buy-low potential may come in your fantasy trade markets, not necessarily in drafts.

Melendez is the rare major league-caliber catcher that is also athletic enough to man a corner outfield spot, giving him both catcher and outfield eligibility. Similar to Daulton Varsho last draft season, this is going to significantly ramp up his ADP, to the point where it may not be worth it to buy in on the upside.

The early returns on his 2023 ADP have him going around pick 127 in drafts, according to Fantrax. That’s within the top 10 catcher range and ahead of more proven bats like Willson Contreras, Brandon Nimmo, and José Abreu.

That may be pretty rich for a lot of managers, which is understandable. That outfield eligibility is doing a lot to inflate his draft value. I’m not going to sit here and tell you he’ll be the best bang for your buck among catchers. He almost certainly won’t be, especially with catchers like Danny Jansen, Francisco Álvarez, and Gabriel Moreno all going over 100 picks later than Melendez.

Still, if someone in your league isn’t valuing him highly enough or he starts slipping in your draft, I would get aggressive. You rarely see catchers with his combination of raw power, rapidly improving plate skills, and positional versatility all before turning 25.


What to Look for in 2023


The main thing we want to see from Melendez is an ability to sustain the low chase rate on breaking balls we saw last September and improved performance against fastballs as a result. He brought his strikeout rate down to below league average by season’s end, and this improved approach will help keep it there.

Something else to watch out for is higher pull rates and fly-ball rates. He already has a knack for barreling the ball, so directing more of these barrels to the pull side would likely improve his power output, even in Kauffman Stadium.

If we take Melendez’s September average launch angle, barrel rate, fly-ball rate, and pull rate and assume he can sustain those into 2023, we can find a couple of similar left-handed hitters that have seen substantial success with nearly the same profile:

September Batting Profile Comparisons

This is all to say that if Melendez carries over his September approach into next year, there’s a strong chance his overall production improves once he gets to a stable number of plate appearances.

With Salvador Perez shifting to a primary DH role in Kansas City, Melendez should have ample opportunity to accumulate those ABs out of the gate whether it comes behind the plate or in a corner outfield spot. His mastery of left-handed pitching in 2022 may also help him avoid a platoon role that would cut into his playing time.

As a whole, we have something pretty appealing with Melendez. A young catcher who showed substantial growth as a hitter, has valuable positional versatility, projects well thanks to strong batted ball data, and has a hitting profile that is rapidly converging with some established sluggers. It’s no wonder Steamer has him putting up a 118 wRC+ in 2023, tied for 5th highest among all catchers.

He’s no guarantee in the batting average department, but the potential for a high number of walks and 20+ homers is absolutely there.  We’ll have to see if his ADP sinks to a more reasonable range as we get deeper into draft season, but I’m not totally opposed to buying him at his current price. Even if he doesn’t make those offensive leaps I expect, he’ll still be a valuable addition to any roster.


Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)

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