Why MJ Melendez's father thinks KC Royals outfielder will 'prove them wrong' in 2024

Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Think of KC Royals catcher-turned-outfielder MJ Melendez's 2023 season on the field. You probably think of the plays he didn't make rather than the ones he did. Baseball is a game of failure, after all. Royals fans don't think of the 324 putouts he did have, but rather instances like the missed catch against the Tampa Bay Rays, resulting in baserunners when there should have been none.

But many people behind the scenes believed in Melendez's progression and future in the outfield. One of MJ's biggest supporters since day one has been his father, Mervyl Melendez. He has coached some of baseball's biggest talents, including shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. and MJ before the Royals drafted them. The Puerto Rico native left the coaching ranks after 26 years at the Division I level and now owns and operates Melendez Collegiate Advising. But he had a huge hand in MJ's first full offseason, preparing for the outfield.

Before transitioning to the outfield in 2023, MJ had primarily been a full-time catcher throughout his professional career and a significant part of his amateur baseball experience. Mervyl made it clear that MJ "never, ever played the outfield growing up." While MJ did spend some time as a middle infielder in Little League, he was primarily known as a catcher during that period. Considering the context, Mervyl called the reactions to MJ's first year in the outfield "overplayed".

"I have been coaching since I was 22 and have seen a lot of players transition from one place to another," Mervyl said. I have never had a catcher who has caught his entire career go into the outfield that was good right off the bat. It's just a difficult transition, especially when you do it at the highest level."

The KC Royals need notable improvements from MJ Melendez in 2024.

The offseason posed a crucial question for the Melendezs: How would MJ improve from September 2023 to March 2024? Mervyl said it "took a village," but the initial results are promising. To kickstart his progress, MJ underwent valuable outfield training from World Series-winning outfielder Alex Ochoa during the offseason. Then, Mervyl took over MJ's fielding work this offseason.

"The bulk of the work, we did here with just me and him," Mervyl said. "We working on routes and just the takeoff. He already knows how to catch a fly ball once he gets there, but his reaction time was lacking. That is why the analytical numbers were really bad because he took too long to read the ball. Luckily, I can hit a Fungo bat with the best of them."

Mervyl put that skill to use this offseason, working with MJ in the tepid Miami winter. Repetition is key to developing skills such as angles, jumps, and routes in baseball. He exposed MJ to various scenarios and leaned heavily on decades of baseball knowledge and coaching experience rather than solely relying on advanced metrics from MLB stadiums.

Those metrics did Melendez few favors in 2023. Baseball Savant ranked his arm strength among the top in MLB, with a 93rd percentile for arm strength and 84th percentile for arm value. Nevertheless, his subpar outfield jumps and routes led to a notable decrease in his Outs Above Average (OAA) to -11, placing him in the league's 2nd percentile. Under Mervyl's guidance, MJ's potential was nurtured during the offseason, marking a shift from the disappointing metrics of his debut season.

"[Baseball has] come to be a number system, and we all have to learn it," Mervyl said. "We have to know how to work with the numbers so that we can benefit the team in a greater way. The numbers are meant to help, not to hurt. But you also have to understand, as a baseball person, that some numbers are going to be skewed based on different analytical guidelines that are set forth by someone, by a human being saying,' Okay, this is good, this is bad', and are they always going to be right? No, but I think that as a baseball person, the front office of the Royals have done a really, really good job of seeing more than numbers and understanding the process as well."

So, how is that process going? As of four games into 2024, MJ's performance has been a mixed bag. He has made some routine plays, with one great one and another not-so-great play. This diving catch against the Minnesota Twins on March 30 kept the game scoreless while robbing Carlos Correa of a hit.

Meanwhile, in the same game, MJ took an imperfect route on a sharp flyball, resulting in a leadoff double. That hit turned into Royals pitcher James McArthur's lone earned run allowed and tied up the game late in Kauffman Stadium. Royals fans quickly focused on the ball getting behind MJ and bouncing against the outfield wall. However, based on Baseball Savant data, that ball had a .520 expected batting average and would have resulted in a home run in eight different ballparks. Although the situation didn't seem favorable, it would have been a remarkable feat for MJ to catch that ball.

The verdict is still pending on whether MJ is a permanent solution in left field. Mervyl said his son's willingness to move there from behind the plate stemmed from staying in the majors and helping his team out where he can, but MJ does need to show progress in the field and at the plate to do so in 2024. Mervyl firmly believes in his son's potential to advance further in his MLB career.

"He has a new strength coach that was amazing, at a new facility that really knows the game. He is mentally in a very, very, very good place," Mervyl said. "So you ask if I am excited about the season for him? Excited is an understatement...his confidence is higher, he is doing things the right way, and this front office has put together a championship contender. Excited is an understatement."

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