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Diamondbacks top prospect Ivan Melendez talks May success, playing under Ronnie Gajownik and more

Jesse Friedman Avatar
June 15, 2023

After a slow start to his professional career from last July to this April, Diamondbacks 2022 second-round pick Ivan Melendez broke through in May, slashing .310/.385/.667 with seven homers, nine doubles and 20 RBI. He was awarded the organization’s Minor League Player of the Month Award.

With a cumulative .273/.368/.580 slash line this season, Melendez is starting to look like the player the D-backs hoped he would be when they selected him 43rd overall last year: a middle-of-the-order thumper who takes walks and plays adequate defense at the infield corners.

I had the chance to catch up with Melendez to discuss what unlocked his breakout month, what adjustments he is still looking to make and much more.

Without further ado, here is that conversation. It has been lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.

 Ivan Melendez is interviewed by Lauren Gardner of MLB Network after he was selected by the Arizona Diamondbacks as the 43rd pick of the MLB draft at XBox Plaza at LA Live.
Ivan Melendez is interviewed by Lauren Gardner of MLB Network after he was selected by the Arizona Diamondbacks as the 43rd pick of the MLB draft.. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports)

Let’s start out with the month of May. It was pretty impressive across the board from a numbers standpoint, and led to you winning the Diamondbacks’ organizational Player of the Month Award for May. Congratulations on that. What do you feel was the biggest contributing factor for you?

Melendez: First off, thank you. Second off, I started my season pretty slow. Couldn’t get a hit for like the first two weeks, and then I took a fastball to the face. So, I was out probably about a month or so. I just felt like my attitude going to the ballpark every day was, like, I need to get things going. Like, I’ve got to turn something around quick. And I didn’t want to be satisfied with a good game, two good games, three good games because of how big of a hole I was in. I just felt like I had to bring it every single day, and I guess time flew by. Before you know it, a month goes by and, you know, we’re playing every day.

Can you identify any specific swing changes or anything you did mechanically that might have unlocked that new level of success?

Melendez: I think my timing. I didn’t really have a full spring training because I was dealing with some hand problems. So, I didn’t really get as many ABs as everybody who broke camp on time. I was late, swinging under. I had a big leg kick, so my leg was in the air for quite some time. I couldn’t recognize the pitch. I couldn’t see it as early. Now, I’m just kind of toe tapping and not really having a big leg kick. It’s been helping me see the ball a lot better.

It would be an understatement to say you had a successful final year at the University of Texas, putting up historic numbers and winning the Golden Spikes Award. What has it been like going from that environment to professional baseball?

Melendez: That season I had — sometimes I still surprise myself. Like, how did I do that? It just seems kind of random.

When I first started pro ball, I started off struggling in Low-A. I was just kind of pressing. I felt like I had to do too much. I was, you know, a high draft pick. A bunch of people knew my name, who I was. And so I felt like every game, every at-bat, I had to get a hit or try to hit a homer. That’s just not how I want to go about things mentally. When I was at my best, I was just doing it stress-free, just playing the game. I felt like I was trying to force things. So, I got into the mode of, I wouldn’t say not caring as much, but, you know, just relax, take a step back and play the game. Just compete pitch by pitch and at-bat by at-bat.

I know you played primarily first base in college, but you have split time at first base and third base since entering the D-backs’ system. How have you felt over at third?

Melendez: Last year, when I first started playing third, I felt like the speed of the game was so fast. It had been like two years since I was at third base because in college at Texas, I was at first base. Power Five programs, you know, they have their starters and that’s what they play. Now, in the minor leagues, we’re alternating because it’s more about development and trying to prep guys for the big leagues in the future.

Talking to [Diamondbacks farm director Josh Barfield], he said that it’s just going to help me later down the road, just adding versatility. The higher you go up in the minor leagues, the way you perform is how you hit. If you hit and you can play different positions, then it’s really good for your future and your career.

What has it been like working with Josh Barfield?

Melendez: It’s been good. I really like him as a person, how they’re running things front-office wise and this organization, just how they treated me during spring training and giving me priority in practice and at-bats and all that. It seems like they’re really pushing me to get better. I really appreciate that. And just keeping it real and honest, what they want out of you. I think that’s a great part. But, at the end of the day, I just take it day by day and try to do my job, and come to the ballpark and win and compete every pitch.

Looking at your numbers, I noticed that you have been hit by a pitch 17 times this year in only 250 plate appearances or so. That’s almost 10 percent of the time, which is kind of a lot. What do you attribute that to and could that be an asset for you in a way?

Melendez: I wouldn’t want to say asset. I would just say it’s more like they’re trying to pitch in and, you know, balls kind of ran away from them and they hit me. I doubt it’s intentional. But, when I was in Low-A, I got hit probably 10 times that first month I played just because guys are throwing hard and balls are going all over the place. I’ve never seen so many guys get hit in the head and all kinds of things.

So, I don’t think it’s intentional. I don’t think it’s part of my game. I don’t think I’m on the plate. I feel like I’m off a little bit. But I know sometimes they’re gonna try to throw in and try to break my bat, and sometimes it runs away. So that’s probably why the number is so high.

In Hillsboro, you have the opportunity to play under manager Ronnie Gajownik, who made history this year by becoming the first woman to manage in High-A. What has it been like doing your job under her leadership every day?

Melendez: I love it. She knows a lot about the game. She does batting practice. She hits fungo. I don’t really see a difference or anything. It’s amazing what she’s doing and how she’s running the team and the energy she brings every day. When she throws out the lineup the night before, she sends a little message that’s motivational. I like that a lot. She’s been good so far for us.

Do you have any specific stories that stand out about your relationship with her, maybe one of those motivational messages that you mentioned?

Melendez: She’s just really funny. Sometimes, she throws out some jokes that you don’t get. When I came back from getting hit in the face, I went 0-for-4 with like two punch outs. My second day back, she was like, “Hey guys, it’s Ivan’s opening night” — like, cracking jokes because I guess I wasn’t there yesterday, I didn’t do much. Her humor is pretty funny. People have to get to know her to see her humor.

Moving forward, it seems like cutting down on some of the swing-and-miss could be a big point of emphasis for you. What conversations have you had about that with hitting coaches, and what do you think could be the key for you to accomplish that?

Melendez: Yeah, I think we all know that’s, I wouldn’t want to say a problem, but I do need to cut down on that. I’m not trying to do that. It’s just hard to hit that ball. But a lot of the hitting coaches say they’re not really too worried about it because, when I do put the bat on ball, damage is going to be made and runs will be driven in. So, they’re not too worried about it as long as I’m staying aggressive. Maybe shorten up with two strikes, you know, try to put the ball in play. But I’m trying.

I don’t know if it’s, like, sometimes I struggle or I’m trying to get out of it myself. I don’t want to think about it because that’s what causes it. But yeah, definitely moving forward, cutting down on the strikeouts because, if I put the ball in play, I’m gonna hit the ball hard. You know, usually on the barrel, I hit the ball 100-plus miles an hour. So, if I could just learn how to put the ball in play with two strikes a little bit better, I think my numbers and helping the team win, everything will just go up.

It turns out hitting a baseball is pretty hard. Obviously, there are plenty of hitters in the majors who strike out a lot but are still some of the best in the game. Speaking of guys in the big leagues, is there anyone at the big league level that you fashion your game after or whose swing you try to imitate?

Melendez: I really like a combo of Mike Trout and Nolan Arenado. I know they’re kind of different, but I like Arenado when he hits off-speed. I like how he keeps his length in his swing and he sticks his head through. I know it looks kind of funny, but the result you want to get is what he does on on off-speed. And just Mike Trout, his bat speed is electric, and he’s been doing it since the day he stepped foot in the big leagues. I try to see how he goes about his at-bats and his routine and everything. I watch all those videos.

Growing up, probably Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez. I loved how they wanted to do damage in every count, whether it was 0-0 or whether they had two strikes on them. They were trying to do damage. They weren’t just trying to put the ball in play.

Last thing for you: If you had to give your Mount Rushmore of current major league hitters — you’ve got four guys — who would they be?

Melendez: Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Manny Machado and Mike Trout.

Diamondbacks fans love you already, the fact that you said Paul Goldschmidt.

Melendez: I watched Paul a lot when I was like 12 through 14 because I played a bunch of travel ball out in Phoenix.

There you go. Thanks you so much for your time today, Ivan. I really appreciate it.

Melendez: Thank you for having me.

Watch the full interview with Ivan Melendez on YouTube, or in audio format here.

Follow Jesse Friedman on Twitter

Top photo: Hillsboro Hops

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