How Worried Should Royals Fans Be About MJ Melendez’s Defense?

It hasn’t been an easy season for Royals fans, especially with the club’s record currently 25-43. And yet, while the playoffs will be on the back burner for at least another season, Royals fans do have a core of young hitters in the middle of the lineup that they can look forward to for years to come.

Specifically, Bobby Witt, Jr. and MJ Melendez have been as good as advertised at the plate this season and could be even better not just in 2022, but in 2023 and beyond.

For the year, Witt is posting a 104 wRC+ with 10 home runs, 10 stolen bases, 38 runs scored, and 36 RBI over 66 games and 274 plate appearances.

Melendez has been just as good, if not better in some cases. The 23-year-old catcher is posting a wRC+ of 114, and has six home runs, 15 runs scored and 17 RBI over 43 games and 168 plate appearances.

The emergence of the Royals’ preseason No. 1 and No. 2 prospects at the Major League level this year, especially over the past month, is a big reason why the Royals are 9-11 so far in June, which actually matches their win total in May.

Thus, this Royals squad could continually get better over the next couple of months, especially if Witt and Melendez continue to produce like they have over the next few months. Furthermore, the production offensively could get even better once prospects Vinnie Pasquantino and Nick Pratto make their Royals debut, which could happen as soon as Carlos Santana and Andrew Benintendi are traded (which seems likely by the deadline).

While Witt and Melendez have both had a significant impact in the Royals lineup on an offensive end, it’s been a different story defensively.

Since moving over to shortstop, Witt has been solid defensively, though metrics seem to disagree quite a bit.

He is four outs above average at shortstop this season (and two outs above average overall), according to Savant, and his Def, according to Fangraphs is 3.6 runs above average, which contributes to his 1.6 fWAR overall. On the other hand, defensive runs saved (DRS) sees him as six runs BELOW average, and his UZR is two runs below average as well.

Despite the disagreement, there are at least some positive metrics that contribute to Witt being productive defensively up the middle.

Melendez on the other hand doesn’t have really anything going defensively, especially behind the plate.

Melendez has the second-worst strike rate of all Royals catchers this year, and he been four framing strikes below average as well, which ties him with Salvador Perez for the worst mark on the team, according to Savant. He also has a -9 DRS, as well as four errors and three passed balls over 210 innings behind the plate. In fact, despite being over a decade younger and cathcing nearly 100 fewer innings this season than Salvy, Melendez has three more errors and two more passed balls than Salvy.

That isn’t a promising sign, especially for a prospect who had a 60 grade fielding tool in his most recent Baseball America Scouting Report.

Now, Melendez is in his first season behind the plate at the Major League level, so some growing pains were to be expected in 2022. After all, it’s not easy to catch in the shadow of a multi-All Star and future Royals Hall of Fame catcher, and it’s possible that Melendez’s catching will get better as he accumulates more big league innings.

That being said, what areas of Melendez’s defense are simply due to the MLB “learning curve”? And which ones should be cause for long-term concern?

Because while Melendez’s tools and athleticism behind the plate are certainly good enough to carry him at the MLB level, there are some early warning signs that could prevent him from being a long-term option at catcher, unless he makes the proper adjustments in the future.

What Royals Fans “Shouldn’t” Be Worried About

Though the errors and passed balls are a bit of an issue so far, this is one area of his defensive game that I think Royals fans do not need to worry about.

In his Baseball America scouting report, they mentioned that his blocking and receiving were still raw, even as a prospect. That has been evident in the first 43 games of his Major League career.

Here is a quote from that BA scouting report that talks about his defensive outlook as a catcher:

Melendez still has work to do with his receiving and blocking behind the plate, but he’s athletic and flexible enough to keep improving. Blessed with a plus-plus arm, he continues to throw out runners at a high rate. In 2021, he threw out potential base stealers at a 31% rate.

“MJ Melendez Scouting Report”; Baseball America.

Receiving and blocking tends to be a learning process for most Major League catchers, and that certainly was the case for even Salvy when he first debuted with the Royals in 2011. Take a look at his first two years of standard fielding data (via Baseball Reference), and the metrics from a 21 and 22-year-old Salvy are not all that far off from what Royals fans are seeing from Melendez today.

Notice that Salvy had three errors and two passed balls in 338.2 innings in his rookie year, and only threw out 21 percent of runners as well, which was nearly seven percent below the league average in that latter category. In year two though, over nearly double the innings, he only had one more error and passed ball, and he doubled his caught-stealing rate (which was also 17 percent higher than league average).

Therefore, Royals fans can expect some improvement from Melendez when it comes to his blocking and receiving by 2023 if Salvy’s example is any precedent.

For comparison, not only does Melendez have similar error and passed ball metrics this year, but he has also thrown out 27 percent of runners this season, which is actually four percent higher than the league average this season, and six percent higher than Salvy as a rookie. It is likely that Melendez will continue to get better at throwing out runners, especially as he gets more comfortable with the pitching staff and more used to the Major League game (though to be fair, it will be hard to match Salvy’s 42 percent rate).

The natural tools are there, and that is evident in Melendez’s poptime data, which comes courtesy of Baseball Savant. Take a look at how Melendez fares to other Royals catchers this year when it comes to throwing down to second base.

Melendez’s velocity on his throws is nearly 2.7 MPH higher than Salvy’s, which is a big reason why Melendez’s poptime to second is .03 seconds better than Salvy, even though he does have a slower exchange by 0.06 seconds. Once Melendez cleans up that exchange, he could be one of the better catchers in the league when it comes to gunning runners out on the basepaths.

And that is something the Royals need behind the plate, especially with Salvy getting older and less likely to handle full-time catcher duties over the remainder of his contract.

What “Should” Royals Fans Be Worried About?

There are two areas I’m primarily worried about when it comes to Melendez: how he works with pitchers and his framing.

Let’s begin with his pitch calling with pitchers, especially the Royals’ young starters.

I decided to take a look at Brady Singer, Kris Bubic, Daniel Lynch, and Jon Heasley’s battery data for this year. When I say “battery data”, I mean the stats of how a pitcher does with a particular catcher in a given time span, which can be found on Baseball-Reference.

When it came to data to focus on, I honed in on K/BB ratios over ERA or other metrics. In my opinion, battery ERA could be kind of fluky, especially when other factors such as BABIP and hit quality are involved. However, K/BB ratios can reveal the kind of command pitchers have with certain catchers, which could hint at the comfort level and chemistry between the pitcher and catcher.

Here’s a look at the K/BB ratios with the young starters and Salvy this season.

  • Singer: 10.00 K/BB ratio (10 IP)
  • Bubic: 1.72 (33.2 IP)
  • Lynch: 2.67 (21.2 IP)
  • Heasley: 4.00 (15 IP)

Now, let’s look at the corresponding data with Melendez.

  • Singer: 6.20 (27.2 IP)
  • Bubic: 0.00 (0.1 IP)
  • Lynch: 1.61 (28.1 IP)
  • Heasley: 1.15 (20 IP)

Every young pitcher performed better with Salvy behind the plate than Melendez.

Furthermore, Lynch and Heasley were significantly better with Salvy than Melendez, which is a surprise, especially since Melendez spent considerable time with Lynch and Heasley in Omaha in 2021. One would think that Melendez’s experience working with Lynch and Heasley in the Minors would work to their advantage.

And yet, the data suggests that Lynch and Heasley suffer command-wise when Melendez is behind the plate this season.

Of course, one could point to Melendez not getting regular innings behind the plate as a big reason why those young starters struggle to find the strike zone with Melendez. That being said, Melendez hasn’t shown much growth since he took over behind the plate in early May, and his future long-term is going to be with that group of young starters if he wants to stay behind the plate. If he can’t be successful with that starting pitching core, the Royals may need to explore moving Melendez to another position, especially with Salvy firmly entrenched in KC for a few more seasons.

Maybe Melendez can help Lynch and Heasley be better with their command and find the right pitch sequences in the next couple of months, which can happen with Salvy probably heading to the IL soon after re-aggravating his thumb injury on Wednesday night. If Melendez can help Lynch and Heasley throw more strikes and limit the walks, then perhaps this narrative about Melendez can change.

But if it continues to be the same, high-walk, low K/BB ratio results with Salvy out, then it won’t look good for Melendez long-term as a catcher, which would be a huge disappointment considering his massive promise and tools.

Lastly, Melendez’s framing is an issue not just because it’s a weakness of his, but it’s also a sign of the organization’s persistent struggles when it comes to this area.

Here’s how Royals catchers fare on a framing end this year, according to Savant, and as Royals fans can see, the early results are not good.

Melendez is tied for last in catcher framing runs and second-to-last in strike rate (only Sebastian Rivero was worse). However, Salvy also struggles in both categories, and though Rivero has zero catcher framing runs, his strike rate suggests that his runs would be much lower over a larger sample.

The bottom line is this: the Royals organization is pretty poor when it comes to developing framing with their catchers, as only Cam Gallagher has been above average in this category (even Meibrys Viloria was a poor framer when he was with the Royals).

And that only hurt Melendez’s development long-term.

He has the arm strength and athleticism to be a successful catcher. But, if he cannot develop to be at least an average framer, it will be tough for him to find long-term success behind the plate defensively, especially if he is expected to guide this young Royals’ pitching staff along in the next couple of years.

At first, I thought Salvy’s framing issues were solely a problem pertinent to him.

However, Melendez’s struggles, as well as Rivero and Viloria’s over the past couple of seasons, prove that framing is something the organization doesn’t value, and that certainly doesn’t help the Royals’ pitching issues. The Royals’ pitchers need those extra strikes, and they are not getting it with Salvy AND Melendez behind the plate.

I initially imagined Melendez would be a better framer when he debuted, especially since he is more familiar with its value in the modern game. And yet, his framing has been arguably worse than Salvy, which is a big reason why Melendez lags behind Salvy in most advanced defensive categories this year.

Perhaps “Robo-umps” get installed in the next few years, and framing becomes a moot point. However, as long as there are “human” umps, framing will have value.

Unfortunately, the Royals do not fare well in this area of defense, as they rank dead last in the league in catcher framing runs, largely due to Melendez and Salvy’s struggles.

Of teams with negative framing runs, only the Astros and Padres are in serious playoff hunts (the Red Sox could, but they play in a brutal AL East division). The bottom four teams are also some of the worst teams in the league in their respective divisions, and the Royals fall in that category as well, especially since they are last in the AL Central.

The Royals need Melendez to improve his framing at some point.

But considering where the Royals rank and how they have regularly rated over the past few years, that may be easier said than done. He most likely won’t get that help within the organization, unless something drastically happens coaching or development-wise.

And that is not good for Melendez’s outlook as a catcher defensively in Kansas City, both this year and beyond.

Photo by Kelsey Grant/Getty Images

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