February 3, 2023

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Melendez has 'big day' at the plate, impressing at catcher

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PHOENIX — Over his first three weeks in the Major Leagues, MJ Melendez has received overwhelming praise from Royals pitchers and coaches for his skills behind the plate. The 23-year-old catcher has quickly settled in there during Salvador Perez’s absence.

Let’s not forget that Melendez can swing the bat pretty well, too.

On Tuesday night, Melendez went 2-for-4 with three RBIs and two runs scored in the Royals’ 8-6 loss to the D-backs at Chase Field. The club’s No. 1 prospect, per MLB Pipeline, belted an early two-run homer and added an RBI double for his third career multi-hit game, all of which have come over the past seven days.

Oh, and Tuesday’s two hits? Both came against D-backs right-hander Zac Gallen, one of the hottest pitchers in baseball who entered the night with a 1.14 ERA through his first seven starts.

“Big day, continues to show his power,” said manager Mike Matheny of Melendez. “He’s a dangerous hitter every time he walks in there.”

Melendez’s second-inning home run was a towering blast to right field, leaving his bat with a launch angle of 38 degrees and an exit velocity of 104.5 mph, per Statcast. The 0-1 cutter from Gallen ended up traveling a Statcast-projected 407 feet.

It was a great swing, but Melendez’s at-bat in the sixth may have been even more impressive. He worked Gallen to a full count before lofting a changeup to right field for a double that helped spark a three-run Kansas City rally.

With Perez on the injured list due to a left thumb sprain, Melendez has started behind the plate in seven of Kansas City’s past 10 games. He’s also been in the lineup at designated hitter twice during that span. Time on the field is exactly what Melendez wanted when he arrived to the Majors, no matter where it came.

“I love being able to take on new roles, whatever I can do to help the team and show what I can do,” Melendez said at the time of his promotion. “Wherever the team needs me, honestly.”

As Melendez continues to gain big league experience — he’s now up to 18 games — Matheny believes the backstop is getting more comfortable, which is leading to early positives.

“He’s starting to see some successes,” Matheny said. “That allows him to be free, to just go play the game and let his athleticism shine.”

His athleticism has shined when he’s been crouched behind the dish. Melendez has showcased his strong arm on throws and has been adept at blocking balls in the dirt. But he’s also been lauded for his pitch-calling ability, something that not all young catchers pick up early in their MLB careers.

Matheny, a catcher himself during his 13-year playing career, noted there are some key differences for backstops when it comes to calling games in the Majors. That’s because of the plethora of analytics now at a team’s disposal.

Catchers have access to charts that highlight which pitches should be thrown where in specific situations, as well as which ones to avoid. Those are sets of data generated from a compilation of statistics, video analysis, hitters’ tendencies and head-to-head matchups, as well as pitchers’ specific preferences.

Matheny has been impressed by Melendez’s ability to retain and recall all that information — much more than he was receiving in the Minors — which goes nicely with his ideal skill set behind the plate.

“Everything we were hoping to see, we’ve seen,” Matheny said.

Melendez has made fans out of the pitchers he’s worked with, too.

“I feel like we have a good connection,” said right-hander Jonathan Heasley, who allowed three runs in five innings on Tuesday.

Major League game-planning isn’t the only thing Melendez is experiencing for the first time. Another? A big league skid. The Royals have lost a season-high six games in a row, and they just finished a stretch of 19 games in 17 days with a 6-13 mark.

Even with bright spots such as Melendez’s arrival, Kansas City is struggling to put together complete games. So Wednesday’s off-day — which will be followed by four games in Minnesota and three in Cleveland — is coming at a good time, as the Royals have blown a lead in each of their three most recent defeats.

“It’s hard to have three tougher ones than these [last] three in a row,” Matheny said.

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