What Could MJ Melendez’s Defensive Outlook Be in the Outfield for the Royals?

By all means, MJ Melendez had a solid rookie campaign, especially on the offensive end.

Melendez didn’t hit for a high average, as he only hit .217 in 129 games and 534 plate appearances in his rookie debut. However, he did hit 18 home runs, garnered 62 RBI, and posted a 99 wRC+, which is a lot more positive.

Furthermore, Melendez was hurt by some rough batted ball luck in 2022. He only had a .258 BABIP, which explains why his xWOBA of .332 was 22 points higher than his actual wOBA (.310). It is possible that with the change in shift rules, and some better batted-ball luck, Melendez could be a force at the plate in 2023, and we can see more outings like this:

There’s no question that Melendez can handle MLB pitching at the plate. The main question though for Royals fans is this:

What position he will play defensively in 2023?

Melendez primarily came up in the Royals system as a catcher, and it made sense with his athleticism and solid arm behind the plate. While his fielding and receiving skills have always been a question mark at the catching position in the Minors, his throwing strength has always been highly regarded by scouts, as evidenced by this scouting report from Baseball America back in 2022.

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” by Baseball America; 2022

While Melendez still showcased a decent arm behind the plate at the Major League level last season (he threw out 11 runners on 29 attempts), his defensive struggles were quite evident, much to the detriment of the Royals overall. Melendez ranked in the bottom first percentile in framing, according to Baseball Savant, and he also posted a -18 DRS at the catching position (which means that he was 18 runs below average).

It is possible that the Royals may explore moving Melendez to the outfield full-time in 2023. This is especially amplified by the fact that he played 311.2 innings in the outfield last season, and with the outfield spots being “open” as of now with the departures of Andrew Benintendi and Whit Merrifield last season.

Should the Royals continue to keep Melendez behind the plate, especially with Salvador Perez getting older and needing more time at the designated hitter position in 2023 and beyond?

Or will the Royals perhaps make Melendez their left fielder on Opening Day next season?

Let’s take a look at the outlook for Melendez between both positions, and what position would benefit Melendez and the Royals the most next season.


Rookie Adjustment or Sign of Long-Term Issues?

The Royals have long had an issue with catcher framing, so Melendez’s issues in this area are not necessarily a surprise.

That being said, it was a bit jarring to see Melendez be nearly four runs worse than Salvy, a notoriously bad framing catcher, in fewer opportunities behind the plate last season, which can be seen in the data below via Baseball Savant.

Not only did Melendez lag behind Salvy in catcher framing runs, but his strike rate was also 1.3 percent below Salvy’s, and 5.4 percent below league average as well. While framing isn’t everything, it certainly is not a promising characteristic of Melendez’s, especially considering the Royals’ pitching issues from 2018-2022 under former pitching coach Cal Eldred.

That said, it appears that a priority for new Royals manager Matt Quatraro and bench coach Paul Hoover appears to be improving the Royals’ framing at the Major League level (which is not surprising considering that Quatraro and Hoover were both former catchers).

In this area, it seems like Melendez may get the help that he needs to be an effective (or at least serviceable) catcher on the framing end behind the plate.

But what about his other defensive issues?

That is a more difficult problem, especially when Royals fans dive into the data from Royals catchers’ defensive metrics a season ago.

Even on a traditional metric side, Melendez was one of Kansas City’s worst defensive catchers last season. He not only had the lowest fielding percentage of all Royals catchers, but he led that group in errors, stolen bases allowed, passed balls, and wild pitches allowed.

Granted, some of those issues could be credited to “rookie mistakes”. However, being at the bottom of nearly every catching defensive category of a group that ranked last in DRS (defensive runs saved), according to Fangraphs, is not necessarily a good sign for Melendez’s defensive outlook going forward.

This is why moving Melendez to the outfielder sooner rather than later may be the way to go for this Kansas City organization.


Melendez = Daulton Varsho 2.0?

Right now, the Royals have open spots in the corner outfield positions, as centerfield should either go to Michael A. Taylor (who won a Gold Glove in 2021) or Drew Waters, who impressed in his brief rookie debut with the Royals at the end of the season. It would make sense for the Royals to slide Melendez into one of those spots, with left field being the most likely destination (he played his most innings in the outfield in left field last year).

And if the Royals need confirmation to make such a move, they simply need to look to Arizona and how they handled former catcher Daulton Varsho, who honestly was a Gold Glove snub, especially since he was the 6th best player last season on an Outs Above Average mark, according to Baseball Savant.

Varsho broke in with the Diamondbacks as a catcher. However, the Diamondbacks moved him to the outfield primarily in 2022 due to mixed defensive results behind the plate in 2021 (Varsho had a -6 DRS at catcher that year). Varsho only played 175 innings behind the plate last season after accumulating 319 innings in the catching position the previous season.

Now, Melendez certainly doesn’t have Varsho’s defensive instincts in the outfield just yet.

Varsho ranked in the 97th percentile in defensive jump a season ago, and actually had a catch percentage added of six percent, according to Savant. As for Melendez, his catch percentage added was minus three percent, which shows that he still has work to do this offseason and spring when it comes to reads and routes in the outfield.

And yet, Varsho started off modestly, as he saw a four percent increase in catch percentage added from his rookie season in 2020 to last year. With enough time and work, especially with special instructor Rusty Kuntz, it isn’t out of the question to think that Melendez could see similar gains in 2023, especially since Melendez’s athleticism is on par, if not slightly better, than Varsho’s.

Furthermore, Melendez is already ahead of Varsho on the offensive end, as one can see by this wOBA comparison chart, via Fangraphs.

On a wOBA end during their age 23 season, Melendez was 23 points better than Varsho. If Melendez can continue to progress offensively, there’s no question that Melendez could out-produce Varsho on a wOBA end in Melendez’s age 24 and 25 seasons. And that would be a nice building block for the Royals to have in the lineup for the next few seasons.

The only challenge for Melendez would be to catch up to Varsho on the defensive end, with Melendez hopefully showcasing similar defensive ability in the outfield with a (possible) move from the catching position next year.


What Are the Royals Planning with Melendez Defensively?

It’s hard to tell exactly what the Royals’ plans are with Melendez, especially since we are so early in the hot stove season.

That being said, there are two signs that the Royals may be looking to move Melendez to the outfield starting this season.

The first sign is the DFA of Sebastian Rivero and the addition of Freddy Fermin to the 40-man roster. Fermin is an unheralded prospect in the Kansas City system, but it was surprising to see the Royals add a third catcher to the 40-man roster for a second straight season.

If anything, that shows that the Royals may have a lack of faith in Melendez, and may be looking to Fermin, who’s known for his receiving and game calling in the Minors, to pick up the backup catcher role in Kansas City in 2023.

The good thing for the Royals is that Fermin is having an MVP-esque campaign in the Venezuelan Winter League, which makes his addition to the 40-man roster much more sensible than it was initially.

The second aspect that could signal the Royals’ desire to move Melendez to the outfield is the fact that the Royals do not seem to be engaged in any kind of hot stove talk when it comes to acquiring an outfielder this winter. Already, we have seen some outfielders on the move, with Hunter Renfroe being the latest example, going from Milwaukee to the Los Angeles Angels.

Whether it’s the trade or free agent market, the fact of the matter seems to be that the Royals will be “out” when it comes to any possible outfield acquisition possibilities. And that only makes the likelihood of Melendez being in the outfield by Opening Day higher.

And that is not a bad thing. Melendez has the athleticism and bat to be a productive corner outfielder for the Royals in 2023 and beyond.

It will just be interesting to see how much work Melendez and the Royals put in at the position this winter and in Spring Training…

Because a move to the outfield could make Melendez easily a 2.5 to 3.0 fWAR player next season, at the very least.

Photo Credit: George Kubas/Diamond Images via Getty Images

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