“Reporter Jottings”: Lopez Thriving With Italy; MJ in Three-Hole for Puerto Rico; Could Korean Catcher Thrive in Royals System?

This edition of the “Reporter Jottings” is going to have some international flair, which makes sense with the World Baseball Classic starting this week.

I am going to take a look at some Royals players in the WBC (specifically Nicky Lopez for team Italy and MJ Melendez for team Puerto Rico), and quickly examine a prep catcher for the Royals out of South Korea who could be a surprise in the Rookie Complex League in Arizona.

Nicky Excelling for Team Italy in WBC

To say that Nicky Lopez’s future in Kansas City is “hazy” would be putting it lightly.

Bobby Witt, Jr. seems entrenched to be the Royals’ Opening Day shortstop. Michael Massey is mashing this Spring in Cactus League play with three home runs and a .350 batting average in 20 at-bats. And Maikel Garcia is suddenly making his case to be a possible utility option for the Royals in 2023.

This leaves not a lot of options or opportunities for Nicky with the Royals.

And yet, despite his challenging playing time outlook for the 2023 season in Kansas City, that has not stopped Lopez from having an excellent stretch in the WBC thus far with Team Italy.

Through the first three games of the WBC, Lopez is tied for second (with Chinese Taipei’s Yu Chang) in hits with six. He is not only hitting .500, but he has collected five RBI and has not struck out once in 12 at-bats. Without a doubt, the former Creighton product has been looking more like his 2021 self, when he .300 and posted a career-best 105 wRC+.

In their opening game of the WBC against the favored Team Cuba, Lopez had a key single up the middle that pretty much clinched the victory for Team Italy.

While Lopez has been sensational with the bat in WBC play, he also has continued to display his stellar “Gold Glove”-caliber skills at shortstop as well. He made a sensational diving play against Team Panama which resulted in a big double play for Italy (though they ended up losing to Panama).

Currently, it seems unlikely that Italy will make it out of pool play, as they sit 1-2 after losses to Panama and Chinese Taipei. While Italy has one more game to go, it will be against the favored Netherlands (who were 2-0 until their loss today to Taipei), and losses to Taipei and Panama may hurt their chances if they are tied with them for second place.

Nonetheless, Lopez has built some much-needed momentum in the WBC to help him regroup in 2023 after a rough 2022 season that saw him regress from a 5.9 fWAR in 2021 to a 1.2 fWAR mark in 2022.

MJ Melendez Hitting Third for Team Puerto Rico

Melendez only has one MLB season under his belt, but that hasn’t stopped him from already gaining a key spot in the batting order on a Puerto Rico team loaded with MLB star talent.

In Saturday’s contest against Nicaragua (which Puerto Rico won 9-1), Puerto Rico manager Yadier Molina penciled in Melendez in the three-hole.

Melendez only went 1-for-5 in Puerto Rico’s eight-run opening game win. However, he didn’t strike out at all, and he did come up with a big two-RBI single that helped Puerto Rico pull away from Nicaragua early in the contest.

I am going to dive into his profile deeper in a post this week, but I really think Melendez is on the verge of having a massive season in 2023 with the Royals.

While he did hit 18 home runs in 129 games and 534 plate appearances, he only posted a wRC+ of 99, and he ended up generating a -0.2 fWAR, which was mostly weighed down by his poor defense in 2022 (according to Fangraphs’ Def, he was 17.5 runs below average). He also appears to have no clear position set for him this Spring (it seems like he will rotate between outfield and catcher, with the latter happening on days Salvador Perez needs a break).

There are a lot of factors though in Melendez’s favor that should help him in 2023 outperform what he produced in 2022, especially on a hitting end.

Even though Melendez didn’t hit for a high batting average, he did sport a 0.50 BB/K ratio, which shows that he has a patient eye at the plate, and can get on base, even when hits aren’t falling. Furthermore, speaking of hits, Melendez only had a BABIP of .258, which is extraordinarily low, especially for a hitter who had a barrel rate of 10.4 percent, average exit velocity of 90.7 MPH on batted balls, and hard-hit rate of 43.5 percent.

A big reason for Melendez’s low BABIP was the high shift rate against him in 2022. Opposing teams shifted against him 78.2 percent of the time, and he only posted a .278 wOBA against the shift, according to Baseball Savant.

Here’s an example of Melendez hitting the ball against the Rangers up the middle at 107.1 MPH. However, because of the shift (and it being tipped by pitcher Jon Gray), it ends up being an easy groundout.

On the flip side, against non-shifted defenses (which occurred 21.8 percent of the time), Melendez posted a .418 wOBA last season.

And thus, it’s likely with new shift rules that Melendez’s BABIP could go up, which in turn could help him be even more productive overall in 2023.

Let’s hope he continues to gain confidence at the plate (and in the outfield, where he played on Saturday) with Team Puerto Rico in WBC play.

19-year-old Korean Catcher Reports to Royals Camp

The Royals have not traditionally been active in the Asian market, whether it has been with pitchers or position players. In 2018, Dayton Moore signed 16-year-old Japanese pitcher Kaito Yuki and also signed Koren prep pitcher Woo-Young Jin in 2019. However, neither matriculated very far in the Royals system, and it appears that they are both back in their home countries, as of March 2023.

That said, it seems like JJ Picollo is trying to make a splash again in Korea, this time by signing 19-year-old catcher Um Hyung-chan, whom they acquired in the International Signing period this past winter. It appears that Um has reported to Minor League camp, and could be a candidate to be on the Royals’ Arizona Complex League roster once Minor League Spring Training concludes.

Um was one of the top prep catchers in South Korea, and it is surprising to see Um not opt to play in the KBO (South Korea’s main baseball league) first. While the KBO isn’t as competitive as the Nippon Professional Baseball league (NPB), it is the second-best league in Asia (better than the CPBL in Taiwan), and equivalent to roughly Double-A competition here in the States (maybe slightly better).

Nonetheless, It will be interesting to see if he can become the first Korean-born Royals prospect to make it to the Major Leagues. The Royals organization has done a solid job in terms of developing prep catchers, with Melendez and Carter Jensen being recent examples.

That being said, while Um does have the size and tools to be successful, it will be interesting to see how Um adjusts to the grind of the Minor League season, especially with this upcoming year being his first professional baseball experience in the United States.

A key difference for Um though is that his father, Um Jong-soo, played in the Braves organization with Myrtle Beach, and Um is proficient in English. So it won’t be as difficult a transition culturally for Um as it has been for other Korean-born players who made the transition to American Minor League baseball.

Um will be worth watching in the ACL in 2023, especially since he could also be competing for playing time with Colombian-born signing Juan Olmos, who also is expected to see some time in the Complex League in Arizona as well this season.

Photo Credit: Duane Burleson/Getty Images


3 thoughts on ““Reporter Jottings”: Lopez Thriving With Italy; MJ in Three-Hole for Puerto Rico; Could Korean Catcher Thrive in Royals System?

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