Naturals' Melendez bounces back big at the plate

Catcher MJ Melendez struggled offensively in 2019, but he said he was able to experiment with some things without “that pressure to perform and put up results right away,” which has led to him leading all of Class AA with 20 home runs and 53 RBI for the Northwest Arkansas Naturals.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. Wampler)
Catcher MJ Melendez struggled offensively in 2019, but he said he was able to experiment with some things without “that pressure to perform and put up results right away,” which has led to him leading all of Class AA with 20 home runs and 53 RBI for the Northwest Arkansas Naturals. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. Wampler)

SPRINGDALE -- MJ Melendez's offensive struggles he endured in 2019 appear to be in the rear-view mirror.

Just ask pitchers in the Double-A Central this season.

The 22-year-old catcher leads all of Class Double-A with 20 home runs and 53 RBIs and hitting .278 through 64 games for the Northwest Arkansas Naturals. That's a far cry from his time at High-A Wilmington two years ago where he hit a paltry .163 with just nine homers and 54 RBIs in 110 games. He also struck out 165 times in 363 at-bats.

Melendez's star lost a little of its luster after he was taken in the second round of the 2017 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Kansas City Royals out of high school. He was rated as the No. 6 prospect by Baseball America in the Kansas City system in 2018, but slipped to 16th this year.

Melendez, who turned down a chance to go play college baseball for his father, Mervyl, at Florida International and signed for $2.1 million, went to work in the off-season. He made changes to his swing put in invaluable time at the Royals' alternate training site in Kansas City last summer when the pandemic shut down the minor league season.

"I had some things I had worked on in the off-season prior and going into spring training and I was able continue to work on some things at home during the covid," Melendez said. "When we got to the alternate site, I feel like I was able to put those things I worked on into a game-like setting.

"I was able to just experiment and see what worked and what didn't and not have that pressure to perform and put up results right away," Melendez said. "I really enjoyed it and I feel like that time at the alternate site really helped me because I was able to do things I wouldn't have been able to do in a normal season."

It may sound overly simple, but he was able to see the ball better by opening his stance slightly, Melendez said.

"I was very closed off, my back was turned toward the plate a lot," Melendez said. "I just opened myself up to see the ball with both eyes.

That change came from a conversation with Mike Tosar, the Royals special assignment hitting coordinator.

"It honestly gave me a little hope and positivity," Melendez said. "I mean, yeah, my swing could use a little fixing. But I feel like I'm striking out because I'm not seeing the ball. Physically, I felt like that was a big turning point for me."

This season has been a step in the right direction overall, but it's not been without challenges either. He endured a rocky stretch during the first couple of weeks in June, going 6-for-41 (.146) with just three home runs and 18 strikeouts in 11 games. But he regrouped and has hit .312 during the month of July thus far.

"It got pretty bad at one point, but to come back from that, I'm very proud of myself," Melendez said. "I was able to have a pretty decent week and build from that. I'm definitely pleased."

He's worked to become more patient and that's happened with his walk rate up and strikeout rate down. In addition, the power numbers are also back after hitting just nine homers in Wilmington after going for 19 a year earlier.

Melendez also worked hard to make sure he never took his offensive woes to the field with him behind the plate. He was considered the top high school catching prospect in the 2017 draft and possesses a cannon-like arm.

"I try to flip a switch, those are two completely separate parts of my game," Melendez said. "They have to be completely separate. It's not only for me, but it's my pitchers. I have to make sure they are on their 'A' game."

Naturals manager Scott Thorman, who has been with Melendez at lower levels in the minor leagues, believes his hard work is paying off on the field.

"It's a year of maturity," Thorman said. "It's 500 more at-bats. He's learning from it. MJ is tremendously talented behind the plate. MJ has grown up. He's gone from a 20-year-old to a 22-year-old man. He's got that confidence.

"The closer we get to the big leagues the more these guys start to smell it and really hunker down."

Melendez is working to maintain that balance between staying in the moment and also chasing his dreams of being in the Major Leagues.

"Obviously I'm trying to be where my feet are and do the best I can where I'm at," Melendez said. "But I know what my goals are and feel like I'm striving to get better no matter how well I'm doing. I have very high expectations for myself.

"My goal is to make the big leagues."

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At a glance

MJ MELENDEZ

Team Northwest Arkansas Naturals

Position Catcher

Height 6-1

Weight 190 pounds

Notable Has bounced back from a disappointing offensive season at Class A advanced Wilmington in 2019 with a big year for the Naturals in Double-A, currently hitting ,278 with 20 home runs and 53 RBIs. … Leads all of Double-A with 20 home runs and is second in all of the minor leagues and his 53 RBIs is tops in the Double-A Central. … Recently earned Double-A Central Player of the Week honors for the second time this season. … Rated as the No. 16 prospect in the Royals’ system by Baseball America. … Second-round pick and No. 52 overall by the Kansas City Royals in 2017 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. … Signed a $2.1 million signing bonus, well above the $1.3 million slot value out of high school from Palmetto Bay, Fla. … Had been committed to play college baseball at Florida International where his father, Mervyl was head coach.