Loud start to AFL nothing new for D-backs slugger Melendez

October 16th, 2023

If you’ve heard any noise in the Salt River Fields area recently, it’s likely been Ivan Melendez bopping.

The D-backs’ No. 8 prospect has been off to a loud start in the Arizona Fall League, at least in terms of quality of contact through his first two weeks with Salt River.

Melendez’s 109.8 mph homer on Oct. 11 ranks as the third-hardest-hit ball measured by Statcast in the AFL to this point. Eleven of the 19 balls put in play by the right-handed slugger have exceeded 95 mph, and while that’s still a small sample, his 57.9 percent hard-hit rate would be better than any D-backs Major Leaguer’s in 2023. Evan Longoria led the way at 51.8 percent.

As the 2022 Golden Spikes Award winner, Melendez set a Division I BBCOR-era record with 32 homers in his final season at Texas, and that translated quickly to the pro side. He finished with 30 dingers in 2023 between High-A and Double-A, setting the Hillsboro franchise record with 18 before moving up to the Texas League in mid-July. While left ankle tendonitis cut his regular season short in early September, Melendez was still only one of two Minor Leaguers to finish with 30 or more homers in fewer than 100 games; Cardinals first baseman Luken Baker was the other.

But for all the hype surrounding his slugging ability, Melendez tries to think beyond swinging for the fences and high exit velos.

“I don't really think of it as like, ‘Oh, I'm a power guy,’” Melendez said. “I just know that I have some size and some strength behind my swing, so I could get away with a little bit more than some guys. But I just try to keep it simple. I just try to tap the ball just because that's what I’ve been told by my coaches from the past: ‘You don't [have] to do too much. Just tap the ball.’ You know, find that sweet spot and catch it like Barry Bonds says.”

Putting the bat on the ball in that way has been easier said than done in the early stages of the former Longhorn legend’s career.

Melendez struck out 34.3 percent of the time in the Minors this summer, and entering the AFL’s Week 3, he has 12 punchouts in 42 plate appearances (28.6 percent) -- a K rate that has held his slash line back to .229/.357/.400 despite the hard contact. His defense also remains a work in progress as he gets work at both third and first with the Rafters this fall.

The first full season is traditionally about setting a foundation in pro ball, and Melendez will try to use the rest of the Fall League to make that foundation as solid as possible. But at the same time, he could do a lot worse than starting with 30-plus homers on the pro resume already.

“It was definitely a rocky road,” he said. “Definitely some ups. Definitely some lows. Definitely some wins, some learning experiences. But I would say overall looking back, I feel like it was pretty good.”

D-backs hitters in the Fall League

A.J. Vukovich, OF/3B (No. 10): The 2020 fourth-rounder has shown the potential for above-average power over his first three seasons and set a new career high with 24 homers between Double-A and Triple-A this season. He also added 20 stolen bases, making him one of two D-backs 20-20 Minor Leaguers alongside Jordan Lawlar. After playing some first and third during the regular season, Vukovich has stuck to the grass in the AFL and has played all three spots through the first two weeks.

Caleb Roberts, C/1B/OF: Roberts was named a Texas League end-of-season All-Star after hitting .278/.382/.523 with 17 homers and 11 steals in 97 games, but 16 of those 17 homers came in Double-A Amarillo home games. An assignment to the Fall League may give a more accurate assessment of the status of his bat away from the Sod Poodles’ launching pad. Roberts has moved between catcher, first and left field with Salt River.

D-backs pitchers in the Fall League

Blake Walston, LHP (No. 27): There have been high hopes for the 6-foot-5 southpaw since he was taken 26th overall in 2019, but Walston hit somewhat of a roadblock in 2023 when his strikeout (104) and walk (93) totals were nearly equal over 30 starts for Triple-A Reno this season. He continued to show a four-pitch mix with a low-90s fastball, mid-80s slider, mid-80s changeup and mid-70s curveball, and while he will be Rule 5-eligible this winter, Walston is still only 22, so he has time to add to his stuff, particularly his fastball velocity. The left-hander’s 149 1/3 innings were a career high during the regular season, so it may not be a long AFL stay for Walston.

Christian Montes De Oca, RHP: The 6-foot-5 right-hander worked 61 Double-A innings during the regular season, posting a 4.28 ERA with 55 strikeouts and 26 walks in that span. He’s topped out at 97.6 mph with his fastball in the Fall League entering Week 3 and has generally been in the mid-90s with the pitch. He’s a classic two-pitch reliever too with a mid-80s slider that he can lean on against righties.

Austin Pope, RHP: The 24-year-old right-hander struck out 29.3 percent of his batters faced over 66 2/3 innings at Double-A and Triple-A. After throwing his 93-95 mph fastball almost two-thirds of the time with Reno, Pope has upped the usage on his 79-81 mph curveball but still uses his mid-80s slider as his primary breaking ball. The 2019 15th-rounder will be Rule 5-eligible for a second straight offseason this winter.

Jake Rice, LHP: The 26-year-old left-hander had 58 strikeouts in 42 Double-A innings in 2023 but also walked 34 in that time, leading to a 7.50 ERA. (The Amarillo conditions did him no favors either.) Six of Rice’s seven swing-and-misses in early AFL play have come off his 83-84 mph slider that stands out more for its vertical drop than horizontal action. His fastball only shows average velocity in the 91-93 mph range.

Carlos Meza, LHP: Meza broke above the Single-A level for the first time in 2023 to mixed results -- 5.98 ERA, 1.69 WHIP, 68 strikeouts in 52 2/3 innings as a reliever at High-A and Double-A. The 22-year-old has proven this fall he can generate whiffs with a 92-94 mph fastball and 79-81 mph curveball, and he’ll also toss in a mid-80s changeup to righties. But he likely needs a strong fall to be considered for this year’s Rule 5 Draft in his second offseason of eligibility.