2022 College Player of the Year: Ivan Melendez

Image credit: Ivan Melendez

There are myriad reasons why Texas first baseman Ivan Melendez’s 2022 season shouldn’t have happened the way it did, beginning with the fact that it’s unreasonable to expect any player, no matter how talented, to do what he did. 

It certainly wasn’t the expectation upon his arrival in Austin. 

“I can just look back and see him hanging out in our dugout, a little insecure and just hoping that he fits into the program and that he can be a contributor,” Texas coach David Pierce said. “I never saw this coming.”

This, as it turns out, is arguably the best offensive season any player has had since college baseball switched to the current BBCOR bats for the 2011 season. 

Melendez hit .387/.508/.863 with 32 home runs and 94 RBIs. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound righthanded hitter won the triple crown in the Big 12 Conference and was the runaway leader in homers and RBIs nationally. 

He is also our pick for College Player of the Year.

When you start to talk about the early indications Melendez showed that he could be a special player, the conversation begins with his game-changing power. 

“You started seeing signs of it once we got into (his first) spring. And his power is different,” Pierce said. “You have guys who have 5 o’clock power (in batting practice) and the game starts at 6:30. He’s not a five o’clock guy. He’s a gamer. 

“And there’s guys who have that power that doesn’t equate in the game—and he has game power. He has the knack of staying through the baseball as well as anybody (we’ve) had.”

Melendez’s numbers are eye-popping, but so is his consistency. After a 3-for-5 game against Texas State on March 9, his average jumped from .298 to .327 and it never again dipped below .300. In fact, his average was actually above .400 from April 24 until June 11. For much of that time, it looked like he might challenge for the national triple crown. 

Melendez had a really nice year in 2021, hitting .319/.438/.603 with 13 homers and 51 RBIs, but this season was something on an entirely different level.

“Definitely the experience,” Melendez said of what allowed for his improvement. “I’m a year older. I had a whole year under my belt. Just preparing in the offseason, doing my two-a-day training: lifting at night, hitting in the morning.”

The other prominent reason why Melendez’s standout season could just as easily not have happened is that he had options after last season. 

The Marlins drafted Melendez in the 16th round in 2021. Often, a player in his position will sign in that spot. 

It’s not that the typical signing bonus for a 16th-round pick is expected to entice a player to sign. It’s more that Melendez looked like a player who didn’t have much else to prove and that his potential was fairly tapped out.

The perception was that he was a power-dependent hitter with little defensive value and not very much else to offer. What was one more season in Austin going to do to improve his lot?

Melendez felt that wasn’t the case. He had a lot to prove, had parts of his game that he wanted to showcase and a desire to win a bunch more games with a veteran Texas team that had a chance to be special. 

“I wanted another chance at playoff baseball,” Melendez said. “Playing in the College World Series is just an unbelievable experience. I think just getting a taste of that made me want to come back. This is where I’m wanted. This is where I’m getting better as a baseball player.”

Melendez was right to bet on his team coming through. He found himself back in Omaha this season, but the improvements individually have been noticeable as well. 

Maybe he was a pretty straightforward power hitter in his first season in Austin in 2021 after transferring from Odessa (Texas) JC. But this season, the 22-year-old redshirt junior showed he was a complete hitter. 

He hit near .400, which speaks loudly, but after having nearly twice as many strikeouts as walks last season, he had more walks (52) than strikeouts (48) this time around. He hits the ball to all fields with authority, and crucially, he’s willing to put in the work to be someone who’s not just bullying balls over the fence.

Make no mistake—he can still do that. Take the home run he hit in the first inning of the third game of the Greenville Super Regional against East Carolina, when he connected with a two-seam fastball bearing down under his hands, hit it closer to the trademark than the barrel on the bat and muscled it out to left-center field.

The perception of Melendez before this season might have been that his game was centered around power and nothing else, that shouldn’t be the way people think about him anymore. 

“I think he’s just so good at his everyday batting practice, where he stays in the middle of the field,” Pierce said. “He doesn’t hit many home runs in batting practice, and if he does, it’s more to the right side of the field. 

“So that tells me that he’s continuing to work on his swing and allowing the ball to get deep and get a good look at the ball, and I think that’s so critical for a good hitter.”

Melendez also came back to prove that he can play a position. His value as a prospect is never going to be tied to what he can do defensively, but he’s shown this season that he’s a better athlete than one might imagine, and that he’s someone a major league organization can at least feel comfortable sending out as a first baseman. 

“He’s much more athletic than people understand, because they just think of him as a hitter,” Pierce said. “But his feet are light. He’s got a good arm. I think the biggest question mark this year is just getting him over at first base and (him) understanding the position of all the different plays, the movement, the alignment. 

“Those were the keys. I think he can play third base in pro baseball as well.”

When you talk about Melendez’s season, you have to reach for historic comparisons. That’s just how good it’s been. 

His home run total is the highest for any college player during the BBCOR bat era, a mark previously held by Kris Bryant and his 31 home runs for San Diego in 2013. And when Pierce reaches for examples of seasons that remind him of this one for Melendez, he reaches for the heavy hitters. 

Anthony Rendon tore it up (at Rice). I think he hit 26 home runs one year (in a College Player of the Year 2010 season) and was just the talk of the town and was unbelievable,” Pierce said.

”And Kody Clemens in 2018, which I thought was at the time one of the best offensive years ever in the history of Texas. Ivan has surpassed both of those guys.”

At this point, no one is second-guessing Melendez coming back to Austin. The Texas offense rolled into Omaha, where the team was ousted by Texas A&M, as one of the best units in all of college baseball, thanks in no small part to others taking center stage when opposing pitching staffs have attempted to work around Melendez. 

And Melendez himself has done everything he possibly can to prove that he’s more than a slugger with few facets to his game who was worth no more than a late-round flier. 

His return to Texas was a bet on team success, and it paid off as the Longhorns made a deep postseason run. It was also a bet on him being able to better his prospect status. With the draft looming, he looks poised to cash in once again, figuratively and literally. 

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