Three Metrics That Will Be Key For MJ Melendez in 2023

It’s been an intriguing season for MJ Melendez in his rookie campaign in 2022.

On one end, Melendez has been solid, if not unspectacular at the plate. That is demonstrated by his 102 wRC+, 18 home runs, and 62 RBI in 526 plate appearances going into Tuesday’s contest against the Guardians. While the 23-year-old former second-round pick has struck out 24.1 percent of the time at the plate this season, he is producing a 12.5 percent walk rate and 0.52 BB/K ratio, which rank first and second respectively of current Royals hitters with 10 or more plate appearances this season, according to Fangraphs.

However, the catcher/outfielder still has some work to do at the plate and in other areas of his game. Melendez is only hitting .221 with a .718 OPS, in addition to generating a 0.0 fWAR to boot.

Royals fans know Melendez has been more than “replacement level” with the Royals this year, especially considering his position versatility and patience at the plate, which is not too common for hitters in the history of the Royals. Nonetheless, there are some aspects to his profile, highlighted by some lackluster metrics, that have really weighed him down overall in his rookie season.

So, what should Royals fans be paying attention to in 2023 as we look back on his overall 2022 campaign? What metrics could help make Royals fans feel optimistic about Melendez’s outlook next year? And likewise, which ones may continue to be a concern in his sophomore year at the Major League level?

Let’s take a look at three numbers from Melendez worth focusing on this offseason, with these numbers not just encompassing his hitting, but baserunning and fielding value as well.

.335 xwOBA

XwOBA is an acronym for expected weighted on-base average, which can be commonly found on Baseball Savant. According to Savant, xwOBA can be defined as follows:

xwOBA is formulated using exit velocity, launch angle and, on certain types of batted balls, Sprint Speed.

“XwOBA Definition”; Baseball Savant

Now, let’s take a look at Melendez’s percentile via Savant to get a glimpse of how he ranks in those categories (and many others) in comparison to his peers.

When Royals fans take a glimpse at this graphic, it’s easy to see Melendez as more than just a replacement-level player.

His exit velocity numbers are solid (82nd in average exit velocity; 71st in max exit velocity). His barrel rate ranks in the 72nd percentile. And his sprint speed ranked in the 61st percentile, pretty impressive for a guy who primarily profiles as a catcher (comparatively, Salvador Perez ranks in the 11th percentile in sprint speed).

It is not a surprise that Melendez’s .335 xwOBA is 20 points higher than his xwOBA, as of October 4th. Plus, when one compares his wOBA rolling chart versus his xwOBA chart, it is easy to notice that Melendez consistently was much higher above average throughout the year on an xwOBA end than on a wOBA end.

(Scroll right for xwOBA; scroll left for wOBA).

So why hasn’t Melendez’s “expected” production at the plate live up to his “actual” production in 2022?

Two primary reasons can be credited for the difference, and that can be seen in the following numbers:

  • .261 BABIP.
  • 43.7 percent pull rate.

Melendez is hitting the ball hard, which is confirmed by his 43.4 percent hard-hit rate, which puts him in the 68th percentile in baseball in that category. His frequent tendency to pull the ball to the right side though has made him predictable to opposing defenses.

Here is a look at the shift percentage of Royals hitters this year with 100 or more plate appearances.

Opposing defenses employ a shift in 77.9 percent of Melendez’s at-bats this year. That’s the third-highest percentage of Royals hitters this season, behind only Vinnie Pasquantino (93.4 percent) and Michael Massey (88.2 percent).

Unlike Pasquantino and Massey though, who still hit relatively well despite the shift (.357 and .316, respectively), Melendez has only generated a .283 wOBA against shifted defenses. That is a stark contrast to his performance against non-shifted defenses, which is .418.

To further see why Melendez struggles against the shift so much, Royals fans simply can look at his spray heatmap below and see Melendez rarely puts the ball in play beyond the pull side (especially in the gaps, where Melendez batted balls are non-existent).

So why is this shift difference important to note, and how does it relate to xwOBA?

Well, the shift will be regulated next year. And thus, considering how Melendez did so well against “non-shift” infield positioning, it is possible that some of those hard hits that were outs in 2022 will be base hits in 2023.

And that could help raise his BABIP toward league average (which is around .300) and lower the difference between his xwOBA and actual wOBA.

This, in turn, will make Melendez an even more productive force in the Royals lineup next year.

-0.5 BsR (Baserunning Runs Above Average)

It is easy to look at runs or stolen bases as “catch-all” numbers to evaluate baserunning metrically. BsR, short for Baserunning Runs Above Average, does a pretty good job of assessing overall baserunning that includes a variety of factors.

Here’s a look at how Royals hitters rank on a BsR end, according to Fangraphs.

Thankfully, Melendez is not that much in the “red” on a baserunning end. He ranks 10th of current Royals with a -0.5 BsR mark, which is actually better than other athletic players such as Drew Waters (-0.6) and Kyle Isbel (-0.8).

However, the main issue is that Melendez’s primary position in the batting order has been in the leadoff spot, as he has accumulated 276 plate appearances in that spot this year.

Melendez certainly generates a solid enough walk percentage and BB/K ratio to earn those duties as the Royals’ leadoff hitter this season (he is a far cry from Whit Merrifield who posted paltry walk rates over his career). His mediocrity on a baserunning end this season though does give cause for concern for Melendez in that spot.

If anything, Melendez’s slightly below-average BsR numbers basically negated Melendez’s solid walk numbers.

Now, I am not averse to Melendez continuing to bat leadoff for the Royals in 2023.

Other than Vinnie Pasquantino, there are not many Royals hitters currently on the 40-man roster who have demonstrated a disciplined enough plate approach to merit that top spot. Furthermore, his power potential at the top of the batting order gives the Royals an edge in this category, much like Jorge Soler for the Braves in 2021.

And it was also cool to see him make history like this leadoff home run below in Detroit, which was his fourth of the year:

That being said, Melendez has to show some progress on the basepaths in 2023.

Seeing an uptick in that BsR next season would be a good step forward to showing that he can handle the leadoff spot in Kansas City long-term.

-5 DRS in the Outfield

If Royals fans want to know why Melendez profiles a replacement-level player on an fWAR end in 2022, look no further than his advanced fielding metrics via Fangraphs (which can also be seen in the table below).

No matter the category, Melendez has done poorly defensively this season, and not just at catcher, but in the outfield as well.

I am not going to go into too much depth about his struggles behind the plate, as I have already discussed it at great lengths in an earlier blog post. That said, his struggles in the outfield have been a bit of a surprise, especially since many scouts felt that he had the athleticism and tools to stick there at the Major League level should catching not work out.

On a UZR (ultimate zone rating) end, Melendez has been 4.1 runs below average in the outfield. On an OAA (outs above average) end, he has been two outs below average. His DRS (defensive runs saved) has been the worst mark though of the major advanced defensive categories, as he is five runs below average in the outfield in general, including three runs below average in left field, where he has played the most outfield innings this season.

Considering DRS is heavily utilized in Gold Glove voting, Melendez’s lackluster numbers in the outfield and overall (24 runs below average, which includes a -19 mark at catcher) don’t bode well for Melendez’s outlook defensively in 2023 and beyond, whether it is in the outfield or anywhere in general.

His metrics, especially outfield ones, are interesting though because Melendez has the tools to succeed in a corner outfielder position in Kansas City.

If one takes a look at arm strength numbers via Statcast, Melendez averaged 93.2 MPH on throws from the outfield, which is second behind Nate Eaton (who’s posting a ridiculous 98.1 MPH mark).

Based on the data above, Melendez is actually better than not just Isbel and Edward Olivares, but also Michael A. Taylor, who won a Gold Glove in center field in 2021.

While the athleticism and arm strength certainly demonstrate Melendez’s potential in the outfield, his instincts tell a different story, according to Statcast metrics anyways.

Melendez demonstrates slightly above route-running in the outfield when it comes to getting fly balls. On the other hand, Statcast metrics rate him as below average in his reaction and burst. That is a big reason why he only has a 41.7 percent success rate on 2+ star plays in the outfield, which can be seen in the chart below (along with the exact reaction, burst, and route component numbers).

Of course, the Royals did him no favors by rotating him so frequently between catcher and the outfield in 2022, though some of that was due to Salvy being out for long periods of time with thumb issues. And hence, one has to wonder what Melendez could do in the outfield if given some adequate coaching at the position this offseason and in Spring Training.

It is not out of the realm of possibility to think that Melendez could turn into a Daulton Varsho type of player. Varsho went from a mediocre defensive catcher in 2020 and 2021 with the Arizona Diamondbacks to suddenly a Gold Glove-caliber outfielder in 2022 who also provides some solid production at the plate.

The Royals probably enjoy having Melendez’s defensive utility where they can plug him in as a backup to spell Salvy, while also utilizing him on both corners of the outfield. Salvy will be 33 years old next season, and his future behind the plate could be in question after an injury-plagued year this season. The ability of Melendez to fill in behind the plate and his familiarity with the pitching staff from his Minor League days certainly is a benefit to this Royals club, even if Melendez isn’t a catcher in the long term.

In addition, Melendez certainly isn’t a drain on the club defensively like Hunter Dozier, who serves a similar utility role between the corner outfield and infield positions, albeit less effectively. While Melendez is one of the Royals’ worst defensive players currently, his defensive numbers will look a lot better once he logs fewer innings behind the plate next season.

That said, the Royals probably need to pick a route with Melendez sooner rather than later, especially if they want him to become average to above-average with his glove anytime soon. And the outfield looks to be the quickest route to do so, with the upside being Melendez turning into a “Varsho 2.0” as soon as 2023.

Will that happen though?

I guess Royals fans will find out Melendez’s defensive future when Royals report for Spring Training in Surprise…

But a -5 DRS in the outfield is a lot easier to overcome than a -19 DRS at catcher in one year’s time.

Photo Credit: Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

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