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MJ Melendez is the unluckiest hitter alive – when he makes contact

Yes, that is an important caveat

Kansas City Royals v San Francisco Giants Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

I have always been a fan of batted-ball stats. The most fundamental goal of a plate appearance is a hard hit ball. Guys like Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer learned that to be really, really good, you have to hit the ball hard in the air. But you can work with a high exit velocity. There’s a reason why Hosmer and Nicky Lopez have very similar groundball/flyball profiles but one has a career 107 wRC+ and the other a career 73 wRC+.

Batted-ball stats are helpful because not all outs are created equal. An unsustainable BABIP turned Lopez into a 6 fWAR player for a brief moment.

However, I have often went a step too far with batted-ball statistics and prescribed bad luck to a player with a somewhat high exit velocity. 2016 Hosmer is a perfect example. He hit 25 homers, he had an 8.2% Barrel%, higher than his career average, and had the ninth-highest average exit velocity in baseball, yet he barely had a wRC+ above league average.

On the surface, you might look for bad luck. But really, he just hit too many ground balls. So when I say that MJ Melendez might be off to the unluckiest start I’ve ever seen, I’m not kidding.

Despite the numbers above, Hosmer’s expected SLG (xSLG) was just seven points higher than his actual SLG (.440 to .433). So far this season, Melendez is slugging just .297, good for 210th out of 264 batters. His xSLG is .674 (!!), which ranks 10th out of 264 batters. That is good for a differential of nearly 400 points! Last season, the highest differential was under 100 points.

We are very early in the season so that of course will stabilize. But it is still staggering. Only two batters have a higher averaged exit velocity than MJ and no batter hits the ball further on average than MJ. Only Matt Chapman hits the ball hard at a higher percentage than MJ and his 16 degree launch angle is a bit below the 17-20 sweet spot, but still good. His ground ball percentage is down nearly 15% from 2022.

He should have at least two more homers than he actually has and nearly three. That’s not to mention that his framing has dramatically improved and he is near the top 20% of the league in outs above average. If you had told me before the season that this would be MJ’s percentiles, I would have said he’s maybe the hottest player in baseball.

So why isn’t he? Well, bad luck for sure. You don’t have a near 400 point differential in xSLG and SLG without some bad luck. However, his BABIP only ranks 132 out of 189 batters. Bad, but not .400 points bad. Which leads us to our caveat.

While MJ is the unluckiest hitter in the league now by expected statistics, he is also a victim of his own regressions. While his walk percentage is still in the top 25% of all hitters, his chase percentage has skyrocketed. Last season, he was in the 78th percentile in chase rate and he has dropped all the way down to the 33rd. This was one of his strengths as a hitter that countered his high strikeout and whiff rate that has only gotten worse so far this season.

He was a bottom 25% player in terms of K% and Whiff% last season, but he’s now among the worst swing-and-miss players in baseball. It is true that MJ is wildly unlucky when he hits the ball. But he’s only done that 20 times this season while striking out 17 times!

So you can either be a glass-half-full person or a glass-half-empty person in response to MJ’s start, because MJ is currently on both ends of the extreme. The glass half-full person says that he seems to have dramatically improve as a defender and is absolutely smoking every ball he hits. His chase rate doesn’t worry you because the one skill we knew he had coming into the league was his ability to draw walks, so once that stabilizes, MJ is going to be a force!

The glass-half-empty person says that his whiff percentage has always been an issue and 20 batted balls is a very small sample size. When he stops smoking every ball he hits, the regression to the mean will be even more severe because of his contact issues.

I tend to think it will be more glass half full in this case. Ten games is a very small sample, but he has proven that he’s not a hyper-aggressive Dayton Moore-era style player. The chasing will slow and the walks will increase even more than they already have, not to mention the strike outs slowing to a serviceable rate.

He won’t continue to smoke every ball he hits, but it is encouraging that he is hitting the ball so hard. The Royals are 3-9. I choose to hope in MJ.