In Their Own Words: One-On-One With 2017 Prospect MJ Melendez
After spending nearly all his high school playing days at St. James High School in Montgomery, Alabama, MJ Melendez has transitioned to the “Sunshine State” of Florida for his senior season, attending powerhouse Westminster Christian School, just south of Miami.
The move to Florida was precipitated by MJ’s father, Mervyl, accepting the head coaching position at Florida International University, bringing along an outstanding coaching resume with previous stops at Bethune-Cookman (his alma mater) for 12 seasons, winning 379 games, and onto Alabama State, where he compiled a 158-117 record. Mervyl is in his first season with the FIU Panthers.
MJ has created his own path, recognized universally as perhaps the best defensive catcher in the 2017 class and of recent memory with his arm strength and overall defensive capabilities behind the plate.
His video at Baseball Factory’s Futures East Showcase in 2015 has become legend, showing off his super quick transfer, pop times as low as 1.75 to second and overall arm strength with on-target throws from his knees that had life through the bag, all of which make him an exciting prospect to follow at the next level.
I recently spoke with MJ about his transition from Alabama to Florida, how excited he is to potentially play for his father at Florida International and his memories of being an Under Armour All-American last year.
Matt Lund: You’re probably the best defensive catcher in this 2017 class and in recent memory…when you hear that being placed upon you, what do you think of receiving that kind of respect?
MJ Melendez: It’s a really humbling thing to be told. Makes me want to work even harder to become the best that I can. I really appreciate it and hopefully I will continue to get even better as I work harder.
ML: Your Dad Mervyl, is now the head coach at Florida International… how has the move from Alabama to Florida gone for you so far?
MM: It’s been amazing. I love the new school (Westminster Christian School in Palmetto Bay, FL), the program and coaches, the baseball, the weather. I love all of it.
ML: Tell me about how you’re fitting in at Westminster Christian and have you seen a difference in competition level from Alabama to Florida?
MM: I am fitting in great here, everyone is extremely welcoming. It was easy to fit in and get to know everyone and start playing. The competition down here is amazing. We’ve played a lot of the top teams already in the country, our schedule has been hard. We’ve played McCarthy, American Heritage, Trinity Christian and some others.
ML: How have you developed a relationship with each pitcher and your staff overall since you have come to Westminster Christian?
MM: It’s been great, I think I have really helped a couple of our pitchers. I know our No. 1, Dylan Cloonan, didn’t get to play last year due to injury and has come back this year. We worked in the Fall on some bullpens and saw how we needed to work with the way he pitched, so we started that early in the year and it’s progressed ever since. We also have a freshman, Jamar Fairweather, who’s been up to 91 this year on the mound. He’s a trooper man. He’s gonna be really good. Spots his pitches, tons of confidence on the mound. We have a reliever, Sam Fernandez that isn’t a hard thrower, but throws a good slider for a strike to go with his two-seam fastball. Setting up hitters and getting ground balls is key with him. You would think he’d lead the team in getting ground balls, but he’s actually one of our strikeout leaders, just because of his really good command of his slider.
ML: Are you bilingual and has that helped you with your staff now and for the future?
MM: Yes sir, I am, but yes and no, honestly. The no part, because, surprisingly not a lot of players on the team speak Spanish. Cloonan doesn’t speak Spanish and neither does the freshman I mentioned, so there’s not really a strong need to. But if we played a team that is trying to pick up signs or send a sign to their team in Spanish while they’re on base, I can pick up on that and understand it. There’s maybe three in total that can speak Spanish on our team, which is funny because we’re in Miami.
ML: You shifted your commitment to Florida International once your Dad became head coach there … was it a tough decision making the switch? Did you request a formal campus visit?
MM: It was super easy, just kind of happened because my Dad is there. I’ve always wanted to play for my Dad, no matter where he was, whether it was at Alabama State or now at FIU. I would have committed to play baseball wherever he was. But it made it even easier being in Miami. Great school, big campus, great baseball program and facility. If I happen to play for my Dad and go there, it’ll be awesome.
ML: What’s your planned major at FIU?
MM: I have a couple things in mind. Either Sports Management or I may look into something to do with Physical Therapy and Physiology.
ML: We already know how good you are defensively behind the plate, but you also have the natural intangibles that go along with it: maturity, high baseball IQ. You seem to be a natural leader that other good players want to be around, play with.. What makes you, in your opinion, a good leader back there? Is this something that is natural to you?
MM: I think it’s the fact of wanting everyone around me to get better. I want my pitchers to be the best they can be. I want to push everyone to be their best, work hard, stay focused and really just wanting everyone to know what to do in certain situations. On the field, I am communicating, keeping everyone positive. Having my pitchers be confident and throw the pitch that they want, so I talk to them, get a feel for what they like and I let them know, “if you’re feeling something, and I call a pitch different, and you’re really feeling that pitch, then you shake me off and throw it”, because they have to have confidence in me with pitch calling or blocking a pitch in the dirt as I have to have the same confidence in them in throwing the pitch. I feel like that’s helped me become a great leader on the field.
ML: Are you allowed to call your own pitches at Westminster right now?
MM: Yes, I am allowed to call my own pitches. I’ve been calling pitches since I was 13 years old. It’s something that’s become a big part of my game that some people may or may not notice. It’s awesome to learn at a young age how to figure out hitters swings, setting up hitters and find holes in their swings.
ML: Who’s the toughest hitter that you’ve had to get out from a catching perspective?
MM: Brice Turang, the middle infielder from California. Every time I call pitches against him, it’s been a struggle because he can hit every pitch. Just when you think you have him and you’ve set him up, he gets a base knock whether it’s a line shot he barrels up, or something off the end of the bat where he finds a way to put the bat on the ball, he’s tough.
ML: Back in January, you posted a video on your Twitter where you’re working out in the weight room and you go from a seated position to jumping up on plyo boxes with weights on top which is impressive. I saw that you worked out with Jo Adell in Atlanta? Tell me about what was going on in that video and your relationship with Adell?
MM: Well first off with Jo, we have gotten really close and become really good friends. We stay in contact and have the same advisor and happened to be in Atlanta that same weekend. We worked out, hit together, trained, did some yoga and body work massages done. Just working out and being around him is awesome. He’s super athletic kid, smart, loves the game and has the passion of wanting to get better like I do, so being able to know someone like that and being good friends with him is amazing.
That day, we had finished our warmup and that was part of our routine… we had done some one-legged squats on the boxes, and then one-legged jump squats on the boxes and part of the rotation was doing the jumps. We started off with just the platform, then we did a set with the one 45. Me and Jo love to push each other and we’re competitive, so we’re like, “alright, let’s see if we can get two 45’s on there…” and that’s how we started. That was real fun to do.
ML: Over the last six months, it seems like the switch has turned on and the power is beginning to develop… is that a result of the workouts you have been doing, or something different in your plate approach?
MM: I think it’s me filling into my body. I’ve always been a smaller kid who hit his growth spurt late. I’ve always had a good frame but still stayed kind of thin. This past summer when I played and especially at All-America, I weighed 170 pounds. In the Fall when I moved, I stayed at 170 which was good to keep my weight up. My main goal was to get stronger and work on functional body movements and got up to 185 which is where I wanted to be for the season, so I reached my goal. I’m at 185 right now and still working on my core and body movements, so I think that’s really helped me with my power and making good contact.
ML: Your arm strength is incredible as we know… have you always had that kind of cannon for an arm? What are you doing to keep that consistent?
MM: know I’ve always had an above-average arm even though I was smaller than my peers and the teams we played against. I started playing football in Alabama during 7th grade and became starting QB for the middle school team in 8th grade. My freshman and sophomore year, I played quarterback and became starter on varsity during sophomore year. I think I first noticed my arm getting really strong during the fall portion of my freshman and sophomore years when I would throw a football every single day. I would take a short break from baseball and hit every day but not throw a baseball. I think just throwing the football made my arm stronger because that’s when I noticed the big jumps in velocity for my arm, so I would say that’s something I recommend and still do in the Fall. I throw every day just to work on arm strength and also do bands to keep my arm healthy.
ML: Let’s go back to last summer in Chicago being an All-American. What was that experience like for you?
MM: I thought it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. Everything was first class, from the hotel, the food, Playstation games, playing ping pong and talking to all the great players and even better people. None of the players were big headed… they are all trying to get better. The staff was great, all of what you guys had setup with MLB Network and getting the Under Armour gear was awesome. Going to the Boys & Girls Club was amazing and it’s something that I will never forget.
ML: Finally, you have done some other Baseball Factory events, outside of All-America last year. What separates Baseball Factory from other organizations?
MM: I loved where Futures East was held (in Jupiter, FL), a really good spot to bring talent together. The video that went viral on your website, really put my skills out there, which I appreciated. Everything about you guys is great, the way it is run and organized. You get the evaluation after which is valuable. Watching the videos are great, I know Baseball America gets the videos from you guys, so that helped me get exposed, and I loved it.