PHOENIX — Arizona Fall League fans witnessed a plethora of young sluggers compete at the Home Run Derby last Saturday.
One athlete who stood out was Ivan Melendez, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ No. 8 prospect who showcased his impressive power by smashing 14 home runs in the first two rounds, before losing in the tiebreaker round. He posted the best exit velocity (114 MPH) and tied for the longest home run (465 feet) — feats he consistently pulled off when he played for the University of Texas from 2021-22.
However, fans at Sloan Park didn’t get to experience the aptly-nicknamed “Hispanic Titanic” rounding the bases to Céline Dion’s tune “My Heart Will Go On” — a viral moment Longhorn fans routinely enjoyed during his two-season collegiate career. It’s a sappy song that often trails Melendez whenever he’s on the baseball diamond, but it’s hardly the only trait that makes him so compelling.
Melendez’s journey to become the nation’s most powerful slugger and one of the Diamondbacks’ top prospects came with challenges. His story is one of hard work, dedication and overcoming adversity.
Melendez was a three-year baseball player at Coronado High School in El Paso, Texas. Following his graduation in 2018, Melendez received no offers to play collegiately for a major university and instead took the junior college route at Odessa College.
His mindset was simple: Make a strong enough impression to attract the top baseball programs in the country.
“Being a JUCO guy, it’s kind of like your last stand,” Melendez said. “Either you’re going to continue your career or you’re not, just because it’s a two-year university.”
Melendez, an infielder, posted gaudy numbers during his two years with the Wranglers. He batted over .400 as a freshman and smashed 17 home runs to earn third-team NJCAA Division I All-American honors. While his sophomore campaign was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Melendez hit an additional four home runs in 79 at-bats.
“I put up the numbers, and it was kind of like, ‘Do we believe it?’ because it was junior college competition,” said Melendez, who needed to go over the top to promote himself to potential teams. “I had to go to some showcases and summer ball to get seen more.”
Melendez caught the attention of Texas and committed ahead of the 2021 season. It took little time for him to make an impression. He said Texas assistant coach Philip Miller gave him the nickname “Hispanic Titanic” during his first semester in Austin.
“It was me and, you know, another pitcher that were the only Hispanics, and I was doing well,” Melendez said. “I guess they found one that suited me well, you know, 6-2, 230 [pounds]. I had a couple home runs and went viral on Twitter.”
The “Hispanic Titanic” was an instant X-factor for the Longhorns, who had the best record in the Big 12, and Melendez led the team with a .319 batting average and .603 slugging percentage.
He opted to return to the Longhorns for another season, despite being drafted by the Miami Marlins in the 16th round of the 2021 MLB Draft.
His second season would be one of the most dominant in Texas history. Melendez hit a record 32 home runs to surpass four-time MLB All-Star Kris Bryant’s 31 home runs with the University of San Diego in 2013.
Melendez credits his improved play to former five-time MLB All-Star Troy Tulowitzki, who is Texas’ director of player development.
“I feel like he kept it so real with me,” Melendez said. “Whatever I was struggling on, he broke it down with me. Whether it was in the hotel lobby or in his office after practice breaking down film from different swings, or just timing or working in the cage.”
Tulowitzki’s connections helped Melendez even more. Tulowitzki put Melendez on FaceTime with eight-time All-Star Nolan Arenado and three-time All-Star Josh Donaldson, who both helped polish his game.
“I think just having guys like that in your corner is super great,” Melendez said of his relationship with both players. “(They) have seen all kinds of levels of baseball. They have played with all kinds of Hall of Fame guys.”
Melendez received numerous awards for his record-breaking 2022 campaign.
He took home Big 12 Player of the Year honors and became the first Texas Longhorn to win the Golden Spike Award — awarded to the best amateur baseball player in the United States. Melendez became the third Longhorn to win the Dick Howser Trophy, which is given to the top college baseball player of the year. Lastly, he received the Collegiate Baseball Player of the Year award from College Baseball America.
Melendez’s decision to return to Austin paid dividends in the 2022 MLB Draft. The Arizona Diamondbacks selected him in the second round, 43rd overall, with his family in attendance.
“It was super important (for my family to be there) just because they were always there throughout my career and everything,” Melendez said. “They saw every game since I was a little kid, from (age) 4 to my college career, they didn’t miss a beat. I feel like having them in my corner was very big. Obviously, they took me to every tournament, they paid their hard-earned money for me to play showcase ball and different tournaments.”
Melendez said it was especially important for his father Raul to be there on draft night. He was the biggest inspiration to pick up the bat.
“I think he just saw that God-given ability to hit and throw,” Melendez said of his father’s belief in him. “I always wanted to play other sports. I grew up playing football and basketball, but he tried pushing me in the direction of baseball.
“He spent his hard-earned money for me to play tournament ball and showcase ball out there.”
Similar to the beginning of his baseball career, Melendez battled adversity in his short MiLB career.
In his first full season in the Diamondbacks organization, Melendez suffered a few freak injuries that caused him to miss games.
Seven games into his High-A career with the Hillsboro Hilltops, Melendez was hit in the face by a pitch from Eugene Emeralds’ Carson Ragsdale. He also suffered a left ankle injury in early September 2023 that sidelined him for the rest of the season.
“He’s such a great kid. He’s such a hard worker,” Salt River Rafters manager Javier Colina said of Melendez’s ability to battle adversity. “At the same time, he was doing rehab with the minor leagues here in the complex rookie league. I know he’s going to perform.”
Colina, an assistant coach with the Double-A Amarillo Sod Poodles during the 2023 season, watched Melendez grow from mid-July to September. The stretch highlighted Melendez’s other-worldly power, despite missing a month of the season due to injuries. He hit 30 home runs in 96 games for the Hilltops and Sod Poodles.
Melendez spent the last month of the 2023 season rehabbing in Arizona, before joining eight Diamondbacks prospects in the Arizona Fall League, where MLB’s future stars compete against each other.
“(He’s a) really cool guy. He’s a good guy to be a teammate with,” said Diamondbacks prospect A.J. Vukovich, who also played with Melendez on the Sod Poodles. “He works hard and loves the game, so I have a lot of positive things to say about him. I’ve had a lot of fun experiences with him already.”
In addition to the AFL Home Run Derby, Melendez competed in the “Fall Stars” game, where he continued to showcase his impressive power among the league’s best players.
The “Hispanic Titanic” has an opportunity to make his MLB debut by the 2024 season, when, if all goes as planned, Diamondbacks fans could hear Celine Dion’s song echoing throughout Chase Field.