KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Yasmani Grandal answered the question without having to say a word. His wide eyes and raised brows said a lot about the first impression that Kansas City Royals rookie MJ Melendez made on him.
From one catcher to another, Grandal could not heap enough praise on the 23-year-old Melendez.
"I'd heard about him before," Grandal told Bally Sports in a recent conversation at Kauffman Stadium. "I think he's got a bright future ahead of him."
A second-round pick in 2017 who ascended to top 30-40 overall prospect status this year after leading the minor leagues with 41 home runs in 2021, Melendez is getting the bulk of time behind the plate for Kansas City right now with star catcher Salvador Perez sidelined because of a thumb injury. Of course, who was catching for the Royals piqued the curiosity of Grandal, a two-time All-Star catcher who is in his third season with the Chicago White Sox.
"It's funny because when I was doing a scouting report on these guys and building my plan on how I wanted to attack on the offensive side, I got drawn to whoever was behind the plate — just because it wasn't Salvy," Grandal said.
Against the White Sox this past week, Melendez connected for his first two home runs in the major leagues, pulling one 425 feet to right field before going 428 feet to the opposite field in the next game. In his first 59 plate appearances, the Royals’ top prospect after Bobby Witt Jr. had four extra-base hits, five walks and a slash line of .241/.305/.407. Melendez is starting to produce in the majors like the player who posted a .288/.386/.625 line with 75 walks and all those homers in 124 games between Double-A and Triple-A last year.
"Not everybody hits 40 homers in the minors," Grandal said. "You can see the bat is there. On the left side, that's pretty hard to find.
"He seems to have power to all fields. He doesn't appear to feel like he's always got to pull the ball. As far as bat-to-ball skills, it seems like it's going to be one of his best assets. And now you're adding power to that?"
It's also hard to find a player who can get right-hander Zack Greinke to gush in detail. Melendez caught Greinke for the first time last Wednesday and made another strong first impression, this time with a likely Hall of Fame pitcher.
"He framed it really good, and he called some pitches that weren't on the scouting report," Greinke said. "It was impressive, as a young guy, that he was confident enough to say something.”
Melendez said Greinke was referring to two moments in particular that came in the fifth inning to shut down a White Sox rally. With the bases loaded and one out, Yoan Moncada struck out when Greinke used a "back-foot slider," Melendez said. With a full count on the next batter, Luis Robert went down on a changeup. Greinke executed the pitches, but he did so using the suggested tactics of Melendez — who had logged about 50 innings behind the plate in his entire big-league career to that point. The Royals regained the lead an inning later and Chicago never crossed home plate again.
Grandal said it was an auspicious sign of Melendez's early development on defense.
"That's great. It’s just him having a good feel," said Grandal, who has caught nearly 7,400 career innings since 2012. “A lot of catchers, especially in today's game, get into the numbers, and they get so in tune with numbers that they just forget about the feel and what it is that they're seeing when they're playing. So the fact that he was able to make a quick adjustment within an AB and suggest a different pitch — that worked? — it's huge. Especially with a guy like Greinke (who) knows exactly what he wants to do."
Melendez explained that he was just putting his pitcher in the best position to succeed.
"I felt like those were good pitches to call, not just pitches that avoided the strike zone," Melendez said. "He threw them with confidence and trusted them."
Getting out of the jam and Melendez getting the appreciation from Greinke made him swell with pride.
"Man, it makes me feel amazing to be able to do that with what type of pitcher that he is," Melendez said. "It makes me really happy and just gives me more confidence."
‘Can easily become an All-Star’
Standing 6-foot-1 and a trim 190 pounds, Melendez is not a hulking presence at bat or behind the plate like Perez. His athleticism allows him to do things that a lot of other catchers cannot.
"There's a few things you want to see," Grandal said. "How well he can move from the crouch. How well he can move side to side behind the plate. Flexibility and mobility is huge. He's got a good sense of what he wants to do with his pitchers. And from there on, if they also have a bat, they're going to catch. I’ve liked what I've seen."
So, is he a better hitter or catcher? Melendez can't pick one, saying he learned to love playing both sides of the ball from his dad, Mervyl Sr., who grew up in Puerto Rico and is the head coach at Florida International. The best catchers have to love doing it all.
"If you're a catcher, being able to separate offense from defense is one of the most important things," Melendez said. "If you're having a poor day at the plate, if you're feeling frustrated, you need to be able to flip the switch pretty easily. You realize you'll struggle at the plate sometimes, but your defense can't ever waver. Realize: You're working for not just yourself, but for your pitcher to help get through the game.
"You also need to have good energy behind the plate. Being a leader, everybody is looking at you — the fielders, the pitcher. If they see that you're down, it makes them down as well. Just keep bringing the energy and playing hard."
Right-hander Collin Snider could see Melendez's qualities from the early times they spent together in the minor leagues. Both players helped two Royals teams in the low minors win championships.
"His ability to call a game and catch a game, even at 19 years old, was impressive," Snider said. "We went through the process together and there was a big learning curve for me, which he made easier to deal with. He was always in tune with what pitchers were thinking about. He could pick up on different cues. For me, with the movement I have on my pitches, it's important to have a catcher set up where I want the ball to start and not where it finishes. But it's different for different pitchers, and MJ is prepared for them too.
"Catchers definitely have a lot on their plate."
Snider also said that Melendez, years ago, already threw like a big-league catcher. Not just with brute strength but with nuance, like on back picks. Melendez is fast and sneaky back there.
Grandal said he might see a little bit of himself in Melendez at the plate, but he was "never as fast" as him throwing the ball. The 33-year-old veteran views Melendez as a player with a wide range of abilities that few others have.
"Obviously as a young guy, he still needs to work on a few things," said Grandal, seemingly pointing it out because he didn't want to seem too effusive with his praise for Melendez. "But he's very well developed, and it seems like he's super athletic. With what he can do, he can easily become an All-Star — if not more than that. For now, we'll keep the projection at All-Star, but the overall package is tremendous.”
Melendez mostly grew up in the Daytona Beach, Fla. area, but he did have to move twice as a kid — including before his senior year of high school — when his father changed coaching jobs. As it would be for many teenagers, moving was a seismic event and really hard. But it also helped to shape Melendez's personality in a positive way, he said.
As a catcher, typically the center of activity on a baseball team, Melendez's social development was essential to being the best player he could.
"I feel like it broke me out of my shell," Melendez said. "I was more of a shy person before, and it helped me be outgoing. I'm glad it happened."
So are the Royals, who have groomed Melendez to be a key piece of what they want to accomplish in the near future. Kansas City is starting to have some developmental breakthroughs among their young players, like with Witt and Melendez among position players, and with Snider, Daniel Lynch and Brady Singer on the mound. If the front office can continue to build around those successes and others, the Royals can succeed like the teams Melendez played for in the minors in Lexington, Ky. and Wilmington, Del.
Even with so much going for him, Melendez can't be 100% sure how the future will unfold. While he's nearly 10 years Melendez's senior and currently injured, Perez remains one of the biggest stars in baseball — and a 40-plus home-run hitter — at Melendez's position. Not everyone hits 40 homers in the majors, either, to borrow Grandal's point about Melendez. Perez won't be a free agent until 2026.
What if Salvy plays forever? Or at least into the foreseeable forever?
Obviously aware of Perez's status, the Royals have tinkered with playing Melendez at other positions in the minors, giving him starts at third base in 2021 and in right field earlier this season. Those aren't his best positions and probably not his preferred ones, but he's not worrying about it right now.
"I feel I can be able to play anywhere that's asked of me," Melendez said. "It's not something that really bothers me because I can try to help the team no matter where it is on the field."
There's that catcher's attitude again. It will carry Melendez as far as his talent will let him.