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MJ Melendez could succeed in left field, but it would be a rare position change

Catchers don’t often play in the outfield

MJ Melendez #1 of the Kansas City Royals throws to second base during the seventh inning against the Cleveland Guardians at Progressive Field on October 3, 2022 in Cleveland, Ohio.
MJ Melendez #1 of the Kansas City Royals throws to second base during the seventh inning against the Cleveland Guardians at Progressive Field on October 3, 2022 in Cleveland, Ohio.
Photo by George Kubas/Diamond Images via Getty Images

No defensive position is more specialized in baseball than the catcher. The outfield positions are, more or less, the same. And while the infield positions demand different skills in different amounts (especially first base), you can move a fast enough player anywhere around the infield rather easily. Even the pitcher becomes just another infielder after they throw the ball. Furthermore, there are lots of players who spend time in both the infield and the outfield.

But to play catcher, well, to quote Liam Neeson from the 2008 hit action film Taken, that requires “a very particular set of skills.” They’ve got to call pitches, prevent passed balls, and control the run game. It’s a huge and hugely different demand than other positions, and it makes catchers specialists who aren’t relied on as much for their offense; the league-wide OPS this season is .707, but catchers have a combined .663 OPS, lowest among all positions.

Enter one MJ Melendez. Called up in the beginning of May after Cam Gallagher went down with an injury, Melendez, a catcher in the minor leagues, was a preseason top 50 prospect per Baseball America. Melendez immediately showed a variety of offensive skills, such as strong power to all fields and an advanced eye at the plate. He ended up with an essentially league average OPS of .706, much higher than the average catcher.

Unfortunately, Melendez was a very bad defensive catcher. Among all 40 catchers with at least 500 defensive innings played, Melendez ranked dead last with -18 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). He tied for the sixth-most passed balls allowed and tied for the eighth-worst fielding percentage. Among the 44 players who called at least 1500 pitches, Melendez was the second-worst pitch framer.

Those in charge of the Royals, floundering and trying to (unsuccessfully) save their jobs, decided to put Melendez in left field. It, somewhat predictably, did not work. True positional versatility is both difficult and overrated, and you just can’t slap a catcher in a different position and expect them to be successful. Before this season, Melendez played a total of zero (0) innings in the outfield at all before spending two games in right field just before getting called up. Of course he was bad at it; why would anybody expect otherwise? Melendez was one of the worst outfielders in baseball, with a DRS of -5 and an Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) of -4.2 in only 311.2 innings which, over a full season, equates to about -15 runs. Ouch.

Melendez playing in the outfield means that the Royals can roll out a lineup that includes him as well as Salvador Perez, Vinnie Pasquantino, and Nick Pratto all at once. So, sure enough, it seems like that’s what the Royals plan to do:

Though the catcher position saw significant change in 2022, it’s also one area in which the Royals will have decisions to make this offseason. With Cam Gallagher traded away and MJ Melendez now the incumbent as the club’s everyday left fielder, who backs up Perez next season?

Can Melendez be a serviceable left fielder? The numbers this year look ugly, but remember: he played zero (0!) innings in the outfield as a professional before this year. Melendez likes playing the outfield, and if he gets a full offseason and spring training dedicated to honing his outfield defense, that will go a long way.

Additionally, Melendez is one of the most athletic catchers in Major League Baseball. Officially listed at 6’ 1” and 190 lbs, he’s more similar in build to Bobby Witt Jr., (listed at 6’1” and 200 lbs) than Perez (6’ 3”, 255 lbs) or someone like Adley Rutschman (6’ 2”, 220 lbs). Melendez boasts above average speed and has the fastest home plate to first base run time among all MLB catchers, and he combines that with an arm strength in the 95th percentile. He profiles not unlike Alex Gordon: a quick, if not fast, corner outfield fielder with a cannon arm who can make preposterous throws look simple.

Of course, just because Melendez has the tools to be a good outfielder does not mean that he will be a good outfielder. Since 1995, there have only been half a dozen players who have caught at least 500 innings and spent at least 500 innings somewhere else other than first base.

Catchers Who Play Other Positions

Name G PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Catcher Innings Other Innings WAR WAR/150
Name G PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Catcher Innings Other Innings WAR WAR/150
Brandon Inge 1532 5617 0.233 0.301 0.384 81 3031.2 9046, 3B 14.5 1.4
Daulton Varsho 283 1022 0.234 0.306 0.432 101 553 1414, OF 7 3.7
Eli Marrero 724 2126 0.243 0.303 0.411 81 2327.1 1872.2, OF 6.3 1.3
Isiah Kiner-Falefa 534 2054 0.264 0.316 0.347 82 586 2683, SS; 967, 3B 3.7 1.0
MJ Melendez 129 534 0.217 0.313 0.393 99 578.1 311.2, OF -0.2 -0.2
Eric Munson 361 1186 0.214 0.289 0.394 78 585.2 1534.2, 3B -1.7 -0.7
Ryan Doumit 980 3407 0.264 0.324 0.432 101 4397.2 1065.2, OF -8.6 -1.3

You’ll notice that none of those players are particularly great. Brandon Inge and Ryan Doumit had long careers, but Inge was a poor hitter and Doumit was an extremely poor fielder. Isiah Kiner-Falefa has yet to see a year where he hit better than league average. Eli Marrero and Eric Munson had very poor on base skills that limited them to utility players. Only Daulton Varsho looks to be an impact guy; in his age-24 and age-25 seasons for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Varsho has swatted 38 home runs en route to an above average wRC+ while playing excellent outfield defense.

It would be a mistake to come away from that list thinking that it is impossible for Melendez to make the shift to becoming a successful outfielder. Plenty of prospects are drafted as catchers but end up elsewhere defensively; as a well-known example to Royals fans, Wil Myers came up in the Kansas City farm system as a catcher but his bat and mediocre defense as a catcher carried him elsewhere on the diamond.

But it would not be a mistake to claim that Melendez must thread a needle here, especially if he wants to become an impact player and not just a serviceable big league regular: he needs to become a much better defender and a better hitter. Do one or the other, and the Royals will have a perfectly nice player. Do both, and Melendez might just become a star. As history has shown us, though, catcher specialization is a double-edged sword.