After considerable hype surrounding him because of his lofty numbers in the minors at an offensively challenged position, MJ Melendez exploded on the scene in 2022, hitting 18 home runs, 21 doubles, three triples, and driving in 62 runners. Beyond that, he spent a good chunk of the year at the top of the order, and despite a subpar .217 batting average, a 12.4 percent walk rate pushed his OBP to .313. There were highs and lows in his rookie season, and Melendez is now routinely seen inside the top 10 catchers in many preseason fantasy baseball rankings, and easily within the top 10 at the position in all fantasy baseball mock drafts, including the first one we did here at Fantasy Alarm. Is Melendez a fantasy baseball catcher worth investing in in 2023, and can he build upon his 2022 season to emerge as a fantasy baseball breakout candidate in 2023? Let’s examine.
2023 MLB Fantasy Baseball Player Spotlight
MJ Melendez, Kansas City Royals
At first glance, there’s a lot to like about Melendez’s season. His Statcast page was littered with red, highlighted by his 81st percentile and 92nd percentile marks in his average exit velocity and walk rate respectively. He plays in a home park that isn’t great for left-handed power, and while he still slugged 18 home runs, his xHR mark was 21. Additionally, his .332 xwOBA was eighth-best amongst qualified catchers.
Ideally, he would cut into that 24.5 percent strikeout rate he posted last year, but there should be plenty of reason for optimism there. Overall, if we look at his rookie season as a whole, the trendline is going in a positive direction, after a concerning mid-season spike.
After a rough July in terms of strikeouts, Melendez posted a 23.3 percent strikeout rate from August 1 to the end of the season, and while I’m not ready to call him proficient against breaking pitches yet, slight improvements here are worth noting.
Ignore the fastball and offspeed lines here, and focus on breaking pitches. The overall trendline is positive, and for a young hitter to make pretty rapid adjustments like this is really, really encouraging. If you like Baseball Savant’s put away metric, after a 25+ percent put away rate for breaking pitches against Melendez in May, June, July, and August, it was just 9.5 percent in September. Specifically when behind in the count, the same thing applies, in that Melendez was better in staying in the zone, and avoiding the swings-and-misses out of the zone.
There’s still work to be done, and this is just one facet of Melendez’s game that needs cleaning up to eat into his strikeout rate. Melendez is likely to be a 20+ K% in the majors, even in the peak of his career, but the closer he can get to 20 percent, compared to the mid-to-upper twenties will be imperative to raising his fantasy floor.
Beyond the improvements in his plate discipline and general excitement about his batted ball profile, what else is there to like about Melendez in 2023? Well, have you heard about the new shift rules? Well, Melendez, a pull-heavy lefty, was shifted against nearly 80 percent of the time last season, and the results are eye-poppingly good, especially with the new rules going into play for this season.
He should see a few more hits fall his way with the new shift rules, so an increased batting average seems likely for Melendez in 2023. That notion is corroborated by our projections for Melendez, which point to a monster season for the sophomore backstop: How does a .250 average with 24 HR, 80 R, 75 RBI, and seven stolen bases sound?
If I’m being honest, our projections are a bit bullish on Melendez, but that sort of stat line seems to be at the ceiling for Melendez, notably in terms of his batting average and stolen bases. The power is legit, and 24 round-trippers is very realistic, and he’ll need some help from the rest of the Kansas City lineup for his counting stats. He’ll catch, play the outfield, and DH for the Royals this season, so health-willing, he could play darn near everyday for Kansas City, and that volume behind the dish is immensely valuable in fantasy.
He’s no stranger to ball four, so those leagues that value OBP may be interested in bumping up Melendez a bit in their ranks, but overall, I believe Melendez represents a better value than teammate Salvador Perez, in terms of production per dollar/draft capital spent. Melendez’s current draft price is justifiable, and if he slips outside of the top eight or nine catchers in your draft, pounce all over the value your league mates have just given your team.
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