This is the time of year when I start missing baseball. The holidays have come and gone, March Madness is still a ways off, and going outside is often not an option for more than a few minutes at a time. We do not have a lot of projections yet to go off of, but I was poking around in the Steamer data and noticed two Royals projections that a lot of casual fans would be surprised by, MJ Melendez and Nelson Velazquez.
MJ Melendez has only had one season that you can point to and say that he has star potential, and it was a minor league season. In 2021 he hit 41 homers across AA and AAA along with higher than normal walk rates and lower strike outs. It looked like he had a chance to be a special bat in the pros. Since then, things have not gone very well. And yet, his 2024 Steamer projection has him going .241/.332/.435 with 22 home runs and a 107 wRC+. That is not a line to get anyone crazy excited, and yet I have a hard time believing it anyway. He has not shown the ability to consistently hit at an above average rate in his two years of MLB play. The only reason it seems feasible is his second half last season.
The 2023 season started off abysmally for Melendez. In April, May, June, and July he was a below average major league hitter, and we still don’t know what position he is going to play in 2024 due to his defensive struggles. Finally in August and September he hit extremely well posting a wRC+ of 120 and 145 respectively. That shows the projection is at least attainable, but it is also just 49 games and 195 plate appearances. The .381 BABIP in August shows some possible luck too, though you could just say that was balancing out the beginning of the year when he was hitting the ball hard into outs all the time.
I hope that MJ can carry that end of the season into 2024 to put a solid year together, but I have two concerns. One, where does he play? The outfield has Drew Waters, Hunter Renfroe, Nelson Velazquez, and Kyle Isbel all needing time along with a handful of others that will get some play out there. Melendez has to hit to justify playing him over any of those guys who are all better than him defensively. At catcher, Salvy and Freddy Fermin are going to eat up all of the time. DH will likely be needed for Pasquantino, Salvy, and possibly others at times depending on how/if Pratto and and Loftin are used. Where are the 606 PAs in the projection going to come from? The other concern is just consistency. Melendez can hit major league pitching, but he seems to do so for a while and then go back to struggling again. How long can the Royals run him out there if he gets into another long slump?
On to the other odd looking projection, Velazquez. His projection is the opposite of Melendez, where it seems to not like him very much. Both of his MLB stints in each of the last two seasons have been short. In 2022 he showed some pop, but struggled overall. Last season he 17 homers in just 179 plate appearances, which is an Aaron Judge 2022 sort of pace. That is likely unsustainable, but his projections have him hitting 18 (just one more) in more than double the number of times at the plate. That seems like a very steep drop.
As far as I can tell, Steamer is saying a lot of the home runs from last year are going to be doubles this season and drop his ISO and SLG way, way down. That would be more in line with his AAA performances, so I understand why the computer is showing that as the likely outcome. Fans are going to expect more than that, and I think there is reason to believe they will get it. His home runs were not cheap last year. His Baseball Savant page says his expected HRs for 2023 were 17.1, almost exactly what he hit. There we nine no-doubters and nine balls he hit that were out in most parks.
More importantly, from my perspective, were his pitch values. In 2022 with the Cubs he struggled against four-seamers, sliders, sinkers, changeups, and curveballs. Last year, only the slider and changeup had a negative run value of those, so he was not just feasting on fastballs or anything like that. Again, we are dealing in a limited sample here, but there seems to be some progress in his hitting, which is good to see as he approaches the typical peak years for a player.
For now, these are just small and possibly insignificant blips of interest, so I am looking forward to ZIPS and a few other projections coming out to see if their math sees these players similarly. This team has a lot of question marks, so projections are going to miss on several of the Royals most likely. I still think they are a great way to help think about where a player is and how you view them and whether or not you are framing a player the correct way.