Will the Royals Shift MJ Melendez to the Outfield for the Remainder of the Season?

Though the Royals lost 4-3 in the series finale against the Angels, MJ Melendez had a solid game of sorts, as he hit his second home run of the year in the top of the first inning off of left-handed starter Reid Detmers.

Unfortunately, while Melendez’s home run was a positive step in the right direction for him after a slow start to the 2023 season, he got pulled early in the game, due to tightness in his lower back.

The Royals ended up keeping Melendez out of the lineup against Diamondbacks on Monday. However, Quatraro mentioned to the media in the pregame press conference that he and the Royals hoped to keep Melendez off the IL, though he still was experiencing tightness in his back, according to MLB.com Royals beat writer Anne Rogers.

The Royals ‘offense ranks 29th in batting average and OPS and 30th in OBP, as of Monday, so they need Melendez and his bat in the lineup, even though Melendez is only hitting .178 with a .624 OPS. While Melendez is striking out 34.1 percent of the time this year, he also has an average exit velocity of 96.2 MPH on batted balls, which is only 0.5 MPH behind Franmil Reyes, who leads the team in average batted ball exit velocity.

Kansas City needs that kind of raw power and pop, and it seemed like on Sunday, he was on his way to getting into a groove, prior to his random lower back injury.

Speaking of Reyes, the Royals activated him off the paternity list on Monday. That said, instead of optioning catcher Freddy Fermin back to Omaha, they opted to option Nate Eaton, who’s gotten off to a cold start to begin the season at the MLB level.

In 25 plate appearances, Eaton was hitting .040 with a wOBA of .036, according to Fangraphs. While Eaton offered versatility with the glove and speed on the basepaths, it was obvious that his bat needed some work and refinement in Triple-A.

That being said, with Fermin still up in Kansas City, Royals fans are wondering this:

Is Fermin going to be the primary backup for the remainder of the year? And if so, does that mean Melendez will be the Royals’ everyday right fielder as well?

Or is this just a temporary situation until Melendez is 100 percent?

Let’s take a look at Melendez’s situation, and why Fermin being the primary backup for the remainder of the 2023 season may not be the worst idea for this rebuilding Royals club.

MJ’s Outfield vs. Catcher Defense

Melendez’s catching defense was pretty rough, to say the least in 2022, especially on a framing end.

Last year, Melendez’s framing was 12 framing runs below average, and he only had a strike rate of 41.8 percent, which ranked 59th of the 60 qualified catchers in 2022, according to Baseball Savant.

To make matters worse, other areas of Melendez’s catching didn’t fare well in 2022 either. His blocking rated especially poorly in terms of blocking runs, as he was 6 catcher runs below average and 25 blocks below average as well, according to Savant.

As Royals fans can see though, his blocking has improved in 2023, as he is 1 block above average over 239 block opportunities. While that’s a small sample, it shows that Melendez put in a lot of work to improve his blocking, which was very inconsistent in his rookie campaign.

In addition, Melendez also has seen some gains in his framing in 2023, though, like his blocking, it is a limited sample.

Here is a look at the past two years from him on a framing end, and notice his improvement this year in those lower areas of the strike zone in terms of getting strikes, in comparison to a season ago.

Melendez has improved in zones 16, 17, 18, and 19, with considerable improvement in zone 18 (his strike percentage is 13.4 percent higher than a season ago). As a result, his overall strike rate is 3.4 percent higher than a season ago (though it hasn’t produced any positive catcher-framing runs thus far).

Therefore, there have been some positive developments in Melendez’s catching skills from a season ago. On the other hand, those improvements on the catching end haven’t been as impressive as his improvements defensively in the outfield this year.

This season Melendez has primarily played right field, and he has been worth one out above average, according to Savant. In addition to that OAA being three outs better than a season ago, he also improved catch percentage added (which is actual catch minus expected catch percentage) from -3 percent in 2022 to 2 percent in 2023.

A big area that Melendez has improved upon in the outfield is his jump. Here’s a look at his jump data, via Savant:

Notice that Melendez’s feet vs. average are nearly 1.2 better than his mark in 2022. Additionally, Melendez has improved his burst score slightly from a year ago and has maintained a solid route score as well.

The only regression from Melendez in this area was in his reaction score. However, that’s not too surprising considering he was below average in that category a year ago, and he is still learning in the outfield (he didn’t play in the outfield at all in the Minor Leagues).

The clip below is an example of Melendez still developing his instincts against the Angels, as he misreads a Mike Trout-hit line drive initially but is able to make the play due to his athleticism.

Melendez is far from a polished product in the outfield. However, he definitely is showing this year that he can handle the position adequately more in the long term in comparison to being behind the plate.

Fermin Deserves His Chance

I have talked about Fermin before on this blog back in Spring Training, but the same point remains:

He is a lot better than Royals fans may think for a 27-year-old catcher who has primarily played in the Minor Leagues.

Prior to his call-up to Kansas City, Fermin was hitting .293 with a .422 wOBA in 49 plate appearances in Omaha, according to Fangraphs. In addition to hitting three home runs and collecting 10 RBI with the Storm Chasers, he also produced a BB/K ratio of 1.00, highlighted by walk and K rates of 14.3 percent. That kind of disciplined approach is what the Royals need at this time, especially since they rank last in BB/K ratio as a squad with a 0.24 mark.

In his first start of the year, Fermin made the most of his start, as he went 1-for-3 and collected his first MLB hit in the Top of the Third inning off of Detmers.

Fermin has long been known for his work with pitchers in the Royals’ minor league system and in Spring Training, so he isn’t exactly a new name among those who follow Royals prospects. That said, his offense has come alive over the past two seasons, as he hit .270 last year in Omaha with 15 home runs in 87 games and 296 plate appearances.

Fermin definitely can fill a gap behind the plate for the Royals when Salvy needs a day off. And with Melendez’s back not 100 percent, it makes sense why the Royals opted to keep Fermin instead of Eaton.

Will We See Melendez Back Behind the Plate?

I am not totally ready to give up on MJ as a catcher just yet, especially since most of his value as a prospect came from being behind the plate. While his framing and blocking were concerns as a prospect, I do not think many prospect experts figured he would be as “bad” as he was in his rookie season.

On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine MJ being better than an average defensive catcher in the long term. And that’s an optimistic outlook. If anything, the odds are against him regarding being replacement level or above defensively behind the plate.

But in terms of his outfield defense? He has a special combination of athleticism and arm strength that could make him Alex Gordon-esque with a bit more power upside with the bat.

Am I saying MJ could be a perennial Gold Glove guy like Gordo? That may be a tall task, but Melendez certainly has the tools to at least partially live up to that projection.

As for Fermin, his plate discipline and contact skills at the plate are too good to ignore, especially for a backup catcher.

The only thing that the Royals will need to evaluate with Fermin is his framing and blocking. He has had good reports in both areas, but so did Sebastian Rivero, and he is no longer in the Royals organization.

Fermin definitely has more offensive upside than Rivero. If Fermin can be an average or above-average framer and pitch blocker though?

Well, Royals fans may see Fermin solidified as the primary backup catcher to Salvy sooner in 2023 than we think.

Photo Credit: Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images


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