Royals’ MJ Melendez questioned everything. It molded him into a home run champ

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Kansas City Royals minor-league catcher MJ Melendez remembers clearly when he found himself in an emotional tailspin in 2019.

Melendez knew his parents would be watching the livestream of the game against the Red Sox’s High-Class A team in Virginia, and after his third or fourth strikeout he went into the visiting clubhouse at Salem Memorial Ballpark in Virginia and sent his father, Mervyl, a text message — something he never did during a game.

“I’ve done everything the right way,” Melendez recalled thinking. “I live the right way. Why am I going through this? Why am I getting constantly embarrassed like this? It’s not fair. Just questioning, questioning, questioning.

“Obviously nobody has the answers to that. I sent him a picture and I was crying. It was an emotional moment. It’s one I’ll never forget. That’s when I felt baseball was at the lowest of lows for me.”

Those tears of anguish paved Melendez’s path to becoming last season’s home run king in Minor League Baseball. The 23-year-old left-handed hitting former second-round draft pick launched 41 homers last season.

Yes, Melendez and the Royals player development staff put in long hours and mechanical adjustments. He also became a better student of hitting with a more refined approach at the plate. He detailed those strides several times last season.

But in a recent interview with The Star, Melendez spoke candidly about how a gut-wrenching stretch of struggle and failure also played a pivotal part of a journey that led to him blasting the most homers in a minor-league season since 2014.

“That was definitely a hard point in my career, but, nonetheless, without it I don’t know if I would be in the position I am right now and I don’t know if I would’ve had the same season I had this past season in 2021,” Melendez said.

This is a 2020 photo of MJ Melendez of the Kansas City Royals baseball team. This image reflects the Kansas City Royals active roster as of Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020, when this image was taken. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
This is a 2020 photo of MJ Melendez of the Kansas City Royals baseball team. This image reflects the Kansas City Royals active roster as of Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020, when this image was taken. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

A family passion

Mervyl Melendez repeatedly landed on the phrase “heartbroken” as he vivid recalled the day he received the mid-game text message from his son and saw the tears in his eyes.

“When you see someone that you’re extremely close to, that you’ve seen grow and you’ve had many good times, much laughter, many moments with, and you see him struggle and be that upset, your heart is broken,” he said. “That’s why I remember it. I remember us praying.”

Now in his sixth year as the head baseball coach at Florida International University in Miami, Melendez has cherished and enjoyed a shared passion for baseball with his two sons.

Baseball has been in the family’s genes for more than a generation. A native of Puerto Rico, he grew up playing the game starting at age 4. His father taught him the game and coached him just as he later did with his boys.

After a collegiate career that included having been selected to the first-ever Black College All-America Team as a senior at Bethune-Cookman in 1996, Mervyl Melendez started coaching full-time at age 22.

While he never pushed his sons towards the game, his wife, Aixa, regularly brought their sons to games.

At the age of 3 or 4, a young MJ Melendez become so captivated by the sound of “pop” of the ball against the catcher’s mitt that he’d squat in front of the television with a baseball cap turned around with bill up on top of his head as though he had a catcher’s mask on. He’d smack a Fisher-Price glove against the floor to simulate the popping sound.

The love affair and his competitive fire for the game only grew through travel ball, high school and into the minors.

Melendez had been viewed as one of the organization’s top prospects after a stellar 2018 season that included a South Atlantic League championship for Low-A Lexington, All-Star honors and a 19-homer season for himself.

A year later, Melendez felt like the walls were closing in on him as he batted .163 and struck out at nearly a 40-percent clip.

“The message was, ‘Hey son, just keep doing your thing. Forget about the past. Forget about yesterday. Forget about the last at-bat. Just keep moving on, keep going. In the offseason, we’re going to help you with what you need to do better,’” Mervyl Melendez said.

“He just needed a pickup at those times. He didn’t need someone to tell him what he was doing wrong. He just needed someone to tell him things will get better eventually.”

Top catcher prospect M.J. Melendez participated in the Kansas City Royals spring training 2.0 at Kauffman Stadium Monday, July 6, 2020.
Top catcher prospect M.J. Melendez participated in the Kansas City Royals spring training 2.0 at Kauffman Stadium Monday, July 6, 2020.

A test of his faith

Mervyl and MJ Melendez prayed, not for success but rather for the wisdom and strength to deal with the inner turmoil he’d experienced.

Their Christian faith plays a big part in the Melendez family’s story. After all, Mervyl met his wife at a church event in Orlando when he was 13.

“I’m a firm believer that nothing really happens by coincidence,” Mervyl Melendez said. “He had to go through a season like that to be able to learn, get better and deal with some of the failures he was able to deal with and move on.”

MJ Melendez always remembered that he was playing a game and that nothing on the field was a life and death situation. At the same time, he’d always taken the game seriously and displayed an intensity even at a young age.

Being a high draft pick, he started putting pressure on himself. He expected to perform better and he knew in his mind that others expected it too. The frustration continued to mount.

Despite warnings to ignore what others are saying, Melendez admits he couldn’t help internalize some of the criticism.

He’d put in the work and he actually had his best defensive season as a professional in 2019, but he knew offensive statistics were what seemingly everyone would see and judge him upon. A .163/.260/.311 slash line wasn’t good enough, nor were the 165 strikeouts he racked up.

“You have your family that you talk to every single day, but at the end of the day you’re still going through it alone,” he said. “You’re the one that’s in the locker room. You’re the one that’s in the field. You’re the one that, unfortunately at that point in time, was walking back to the dugout. You don’t have anybody holding your hand as you walk back to the dugout for the fourth time after a strikeout.”

Melendez credits to his teammates and coaches on the 2019 team at High-A Wilmington for keeping him from going into an even deeper downward spiral and allowing his father’s message to sink in.

They provided daily reassurance and compassion as well as the jokes or pranks that served as distractions from his struggles.

“The little things put all together lift you up,” Melendez said.

Kansas City Royals MJ Melendez on Sunday, February 17, 2019 in Surprise, AZ.
Kansas City Royals MJ Melendez on Sunday, February 17, 2019 in Surprise, AZ.

The fruits of the struggle

MJ Melendez, regularly writes Bible verses on the wrist tape of his catching hand, described struggles as necessary the same way rain is required for crops to grow.

The struggles built maturity and forced him into the realization that he couldn’t let one bad day turn into something bigger in his mind.

The shortcomings of several Royals top prospects in 2019, including Melendez, also prompted the Royals to revamp their player development system, including the way they coached hitters.

Mervyl Melendez lauds the work senior director of player development/hitting performance Alec Zumwalt and coaches Drew Saylor, Keoni DeRenne and Mike Tosar did with his son — pointing to the staff changes as further evidence that everything happens for a reason.

MJ Melendez slashed .288/.386/.625 and launched 41 home runs in 123 games between Double-A (28) and Triple-A (13) in 2021. He was the first player since 2016 to hit 40 homers or more in a single minor-league season and the 14th player to do so since 1990.

He also became the first primary catcher with 40 homers or more in the minors since Todd Greene hit 40 in 1995.

Melendez had an even better statistical season in some regards than the Royals’ top prospect and Minor League Player of the Year Bobby Witt Jr. Melendez registered a higher OPS (1.011 to .936), and a lower strikeout rate while hitting more home runs (41 to 33), and collected more RBIs (103 to 97).

This offseason, the Royals added Melendez to the 40-man roster and he jumped up to the No. 42 overall prospect in the minors per the newest Baseball America rankings.

Looking forward

MJ Melendez hasn’t been allowed to have contact with the Royals staff since early December, when the MLB lockout started. Typically, he’d spend a portion of his offseason working on catching drills with Royals bench coach Pedro Grifol as well as hitting drills with Tosar. Both Grifol and Tosar make their offseason homes in the Miami area.

As a member of the Royals 40-man roster, the organization is barred from having contact with him during the lockout.

So Melendez has spent this winter working out with his younger brother, Jayden, at FIU. Jayden, also a catcher, is preparing for his freshman season playing for his dad. MJ Melendez also held his annual youth camp in December at FIU, the proceeds going to a designated charity each season. This year, it benefited the South Florida-based One More Child.

Melendez feels like the past few years working with the various members of the Royals hitting staff as well as Grifol and Tosar in the offseason have helped him get to a point where he knows what he needs to do on his own to stay sharp.

He unfortunately had a small taste of that for 10 days of COVID-19 isolation at the start of last spring training.

Melendez had to hit into and throw into a net, run sprints, workout and train alone in an empty field just outside the Surprise Stadium complex during in Arizona. It also put him behind everyone else in spring camp and meant most of his exploits were, once healthy, limited to the back fields.

The success he eventually enjoyed last season has only added to his hunger to get to the big leagues. He hopes to make that a reality this year.

Late last season, the Royals played him at third base at Triple-A. The idea behind trying him at different positions being that it might help him get into the major-league lineup that includes an entrenched All-Star catcher and franchise cornerstone in Salvador Perez.

Melendez said he took it as a “compliment” for the Royals to try to find different ways to get him on the field.

“If I get an opportunity at any position, I want to be there to try to help the team win,” Melendez said. “Whatever I need to do, I’m excited, ready and willing to do.”

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