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MJ Melendez is so close

Just not improved quite enough

Kansas City Royals left fielder MJ Melendez (1) rounds the bases after hitting a home run during the ninth inning against the Cleveland Guardians at Progressive Field.
Kansas City Royals left fielder MJ Melendez (1) rounds the bases after hitting a home run during the ninth inning against the Cleveland Guardians at Progressive Field.
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

MJ Melendez has been, if we’re being honest with ourselves, a huge disappointment. Defensively, Melendez couldn’t stick at catcher and has been about as bad as possible in the outfield, where he has paired average sprint speed with some of the worst initial jumps in the game. Offensively, literally no baseball player swings and whiffs at more pitches in the strike zone, contributing to a poor batting average and an unsightly strikeout rate.

Per Fangraphs, Melendez has been far in the negative Wins Above Replacement this year and for his career; at -1.1 WAR since the start of last year, he has been the second worst player for the Royals over that time. Per Baseball-Reference, he fares slightly better at -0.8 WAR—unfortunately, WAR isn’t quite that granular, and those 0.3 points aren’t really statistically significant enough to matter. Melendez has been terrible overall. There’s no way around it.

But. But, but, but...did you see his home run against Cleveland on Wednesday? Melendez unleashed a violent swing and decimated a baseball for his eighth dinger on the year. It was over 110 MPH off the bat. The swing was direct and compact. A beautiful piece of hitting, as Rex Hudler is known to say.

That swing gets to the heart of the matter: Melendez is so close despite seeming so far. When Melendez makes contact, he does not do so lightly; he’s in the 96th percentile in average exit velocity, the 92nd percentile in hard hit rate, the 86th percentile in max exit velocity, and the 78th percentile in barrel rate. When he gets to the ball, watch out, because fireworks are inbound.

Under the hood, many of Melendez’s metrics are better than they were last year. He is hitting more line drives and fewer ground balls. His hard hit rate has shot to 51.5% from 43.7% last year. His average exit velocity of 93.3 MPH is significantly higher than his 90.7 MPH exit velo last year. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is up.

Melendez has been the recipient of bad luck and has the double misfortune of playing in Kauffman Stadium, where a cavernous outfield gobbles up what would be home runs in many parks. His expected weighted on base average (xwOBA) is .312, two points higher than last year’s average wOBA. That suggests Melendez’s performance has been about league average independent of luck.

Still, Melendez’s improvements have been limited to his contact. Last year, he walked over 12% of the time, a figure that has fallen by three full percentage points. Meanwhile, he’s striking out 29% of the time, four and a half percentage points more than last year. Why? Well, he’s making worse swing decisions. Check out his plate discipline section on Fangraphs and you can see why: he’s swinging more often at pitches out of the zone and making a lot less contact at pitches outside the zone—and making less contact at pitches inside the zone, too.

All is not lost for Melendez. The swing and miss part of his game is troubling, but it does not preclude him from good performance. Among the 10 players who swing and miss more than 25% of the time in the zone, Melendez is surrounded by power hitters who are nevertheless hugely productive: Nolan Gorman, Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, and J.D. Martinez.

It’s all to easy to forget that Melendez turned in a league average offensive season when he was 23 years old. In his age-24 season, his xwOBA suggests he’s replicating it where it counts. And he doesn’t even have to do anything he’s not already done; if he marries last year’s swing decisions with this year’s swing results—and gets some better luck along the way—he could get hot real quick.

Things are bleak in Kansas City baseball, but if you choose to be optimistic, you can see the position player contingent start to come together. Bobby Witt Jr. has hit .286/.337/.497 over his last 164 plate appearances. Vinnie Pasquantino will be back next year, recovered from a shoulder injury that was clearly hampering him. Nick Pratto has improved from last year (albeit modestly). And Melendez has flashed all the offensive tools (albeit not all at once).

Pitching is a different discussion. But Melendez still has promise, and with two months left in the season, it’s up to him to show the promise can become reality.