Welcome to part three of I don’t know how many. Here are the links to the ones I’ve written already:
I’ve gotta be completely honest with you guys, I was stunned that Melendez won this poll. I don’t even disagree with him winning! I was just surprised to see how many people picked an individual’s walk rate over two potential big league pieces and a potential center fielder of the future. I think all four of those options present similarly positive outcomes, it’s just funny cool to see Royals fans rallying around a potential star and the growth he has made in his approach from the minor leagues.
Before we get too into the weeds about Melendez specifically, I just want to be very clear about why walks are so important when discussing a hitter’s potential. According to Baseball Savant, there are currently 584 pitchers in the big leagues that have thrown at least 250 pitches this season. The median Strike% of those 584 pitchers is 48%. That means over half of MLB pitchers throw the ball in the strike zone less than half the time. It also suggests that any hitter swinging more than 48% of the time is probably swinging too often. Pitchers don’t want to throw good hitters pitches that are easier to hit over the fence. Pitchers WILL walk you if you let them (see: Santana, Carlos). Hitters like Salvador Perez who refuse to walk are inherently swinging at far too many “pitcher’s pitches.” Now, some of hitters can get away with it, but most cannot.
The ability to work a walk is not inherently just about the act of walking. It’s what walking suggests about the rest of your plate appearances. It suggests that the hitter is being selective in looking for pitches that they can do real damage with and isn’t going to chase bad pitches that increase their likelihood of making an out on a bad pitch. The free base is just a convenient byproduct of not swinging at bad pitches.
Okay. Let’s get into MJ now.
There are currently 263 hitters in MLB with at least 300 PA this season. MJ ranks…
- 20th in BB%
- 74th in Swing%
- 59th in Chase%
Melendez doesn’t just not chase bad pitches very often, he just outright doesn’t swing very often. He leads the Royals in all three of those aforementioned categories and he ranks 4th, 11th, and 8th, respectively, among rookies. His phenomenal plate discipline is not just a welcome addition to the top of the Royals lineup, it’s also a fantastic improvement from where Melendez was early in his professional career.
In Low-A in 2018, Melendez’ walk rate was 9.1%. In High-A in 2019, it increased to 10.5%. Glancing quickly back at some other players from that 2018 season, most of the guys that have appeared in the big leagues have similar walk rates as they did in Low-A, or they’ve gotten worse:
- Jazz Chisolm: 8.8% -> 7.4%
- Alex Kiriloff: 8.5% -> 4.9%
- Oneil Cruz: 7.7% -> 6.8%
- Jose Miranda: 5.9% -> 5.7%
- Vidal Brujan: 11.1% -> 6.7%
The best examples of a player improving on their walk rate from Low-A to MLB?
- MJ Melendez: 9.1% -> 12.3%
- Nick Pratto: 8.4% -> 10.4%
- Drew Waters: 5.8% -> 11.3%
Granted, it’s not a bunch of huge sample sizes, but the three Royals I listed are pretty obvious outliers from the rest of the group. I would encourage you to head over to FanGraphs and look at the list for yourself if you’d like. I don’t think I left anyone off that played in Low-A in 2018 and is currently playing a semi-significant amount of Major League Baseball.
The improvement that Melendez has made to his approach through the years is remarkable. I’ll throw Pratto and Waters in that group too once we get a bigger sample for them. I just think we’ve seen enough from Melendez this year that it’s safe to say this his who he’s going to be. A highly disciplined hitter with a great eye, phenomenal approach, and enough power to hit you 25+ home runs eventually, especially if he plays more outfield than catcher.
MJ’s walk rate is particularly important because his swing will probably never allow him to be a high batting average guy. He’s a big, powerful kid with a lot of loft in his swing. That’s exactly the way he should be. It’s just never going to lend itself towards a bunch of singles and thus a higher batting average. Melendez’ on-base value is going to come from his ability to draw a ton of walks, something he’s shown a knack for early in his big league career. Even if he only ever hits .240 on a regular basis, a 12% BB% should keep his OBP around .340 which can make him a 130+ wRC+ hitter when he starts hitting more home runs. That would put him up there with Vinnie Pasquantino as the best pure hitters on the team.
Obviously Melendez’ walk rate is important for MJ in and of itself, but I think the overall improvement shows signs of real, tangible change in the way the Royals are coaching up these young hitters. We’ve seen it with MJ, Nick Pratto, Drew Waters, Vinnie Pasquantino, and even Nate Eaton to some extent, who is walking 7.5% of his big league plate appearances after walking in just 6.9% of his plate appearances at AA. This is a welcome sign for an organization that never preached patience like this in the past.
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