The meteoric rise of Aztecs RHP Troy Melton

Credit: SDSU Athletics

Credit: SDSU Athletics

Baseball America recently released their mid-season top 300 prospects for the 2021 MLB draft.

Among their ten biggest risers was SDSU’s, Troy Melton. He jumped 123 spots to land at number 77 on their list, suggesting Melton is a potential second-round selection. Baseball America’s ranking mirrors the accolades Melton has received throughout the year. He was named to the preseason watch list for the Golden Spikes Award annually given to the top college player in the country. He was also named the preseason Mountain West Pitcher of the Year.

Melton’s inclusion among the elite amateur talent in the country is surprising for one important reason. He has not pitched very much. “(Last Saturday was) his eleventh career start.” SDSU Head Coach Mark Martinez said at a press conference this week before Melton’s Saturday start against Nevada. “Being a third-year guy, that’s kind of unusual for being a guy that talented. He’s done a really nice job of learning his role, kind of what he can do and cannot do. Each outing is a learning opportunity for him.”

Melton’s meteoric rise from an under-the-radar recruit to one of the top pitching prospects in baseball is nothing short of remarkable. Who is Troy Melton, and how did this rise begin? His journey begins back in high school behind the dish.

Melton was a catcher most of his high school career. His Perfect Game profile, in fact, lists him as the 203rd best catching prospect in the 2018 class. That all changed at a skills event, Melton attended.

“I was recruited as a pitcher,” Melton explained in an interview with the East Village Times before the season. “It was super weird. Going into my senior year, I had a few innings in my lifetime pitching. I had one inning as a little kid and in high school had like six innings. I pitched a little my junior year. I got recruited at a bullpen I throw in 2017 going into my senior year. Then, I got recruited as a pitcher, and they said you’re going to be a pitcher when you get here (to SDSU).”

“I said, ‘Cool, I’ll take that,’ Melton continued with a smile. “I’ve been a pitcher since.”

Good coaching is a skill too often taken for granted. For coach Martinez and his staff to recognize Melton’s potential on the mound is impressive. They recognized – what the rest of the country now sees – in a rising senior in high school who only had seven innings on the mound in his life. When Melton toed the rubber Saturday, he was a polished, near-professional pitcher. That summer bullpen session four years ago must have looked much different.

Melton arrived on campus in 2018 as a project, a perfect candidate to redshirt. Instead, dedicating himself full time to pitching for the first time in his life, Melton earned his way into the bullpen as a true freshman for the 2019 season. Melton’s first inning as an Aztec was still just the 67th competitive inning thrown in his life!

The outing soon turned sour. “My freshman year in the fall, I did pretty well for myself.” Melton reflected. “I grew a lot as a pitcher. When the season started, I got hurt in the first game. I had a lat strain, pretty much dealt with it the whole year. I got it my third batter ever in college ball.” Melton only pitched 2.2 innings as a freshman.

The next stop in his journey: Anchorage, Alaska. Finally healthy at the end of the season, the coaches set up an opportunity for him to play for the Anchorage Pilots in the Alaska Baseball League. Across 45.2 innings, Melton boasted a 2.36 ERA and 38 strikeouts. One of the highlights of his time with the Pilots was facing his teammate and current roommate, Jaden Fein. Fein played for the Pilot’s rival, the Peninsula Oilers. Melton held Fein hitless in five at-bats.

“Alaska for me was an extended rehab,” Melton said. “It allowed me to pitch again and get the feeling (of pitching healthy). I pitched the full year there. I pitched like 50 innings or something like that. It was super cool. It was a good experience. … It was an opportunity to be healthy and get back on the mound and get some confidence back for sure.”

Arriving back on campus in the fall of 2019, Melton pitched his way into the three-man rotation. It quickly became clear the quality pitcher he is. Thrown to the wolves against recent National Champions Coastal Carolina and Oregon State, the nation discovered Melton was a hunter. In those two games – both wins – Melton threw 11 innings, struck out 14, allowed six hits, and gave up zero runs. Though the season was cut short, the secret was out. The next great SDSU pitcher had arrived!

Despite only having 25 collegiate innings to his name coming into 2021, the eyes of the baseball world descended on SDSU. At his season-opening start against a 14-7 win over crosstown rival USD, two sections in Tony Gwynn Stadium were filled with scouts from every team in baseball. Each time he raised his right arm, scouts raised their radar guns. They chart every move, analyze every pitch, and hang on every word. The increased attention has not fazed the Newport Beach native.

“Honestly, I really don’t think about it too much,” Melton responded when asked how deals with increased scrutiny. “It kind of is what it is. There’s nothing I can do to control their (the scouts) opinion of me or what I do in front of them. Honestly, all of it is up to is me pitching well and putting us in positions to win.”

“If I do that,” Melton continued with a shrug, “everything else will take care of itself. Like I said, I don’t really try to think about that eyeballs are on me all the time or that (scouts) are wanting me to do something. It’s just not my focus, not really my goal either. I’m just trying to make sure we can do as good as we can this year.”

The next step in Melton’s journey – the 2021 season – is underway. Melton has been uneven on the year, which should be expected from someone still so new to his trade. At times he has looked like a pitcher who just passed double-digit starts for his career. Other times he has looked underrated as the No. 77 draft prospect. Three times he has pitched seven complete innings, but three times he failed to make it five.

True to form after a seven-inning performance last week, Melton only pitched 3.1 innings Saturday. He left with the base loaded up 4-2. Brian Leonhardt recorded two outs without surrendering a run in relief. Melton was credited with giving up two runs. He had three walks and three strikeouts. The outing raised Melton’s ERA to 4.10 on the year.

“What we saw last weekend (against New Mexico) is some growth,” Martinez said. “He located his fastball, which is paramount, and he threw strikes with his off-speed stuff. That’s where the growth has started. He still has a long ways to go.”

SDSU Athletics

“He didn’t benefit from having (pitched last spring and summer). Some of the marquee guys who have come through here like a (Stephen) Strasburg, and those types of guys have had those opportunities leading into their junior year. He hasn’t had that, so this is kind of like his sophomore year. …”

“Each week, each outing is a growth opportunity for him, and that’s what we saw this weekend. He’s kind of made some adjustments. Throwing his secondary pitches for strikes. He pitched really well up in the zone, which he’s done really well in the past. We hope that continues because he’s really, really good.”

None of his ups and downs have deterred the scouts who continue to flock to see him. 41 scouts were in attendance for Saturday’s start. For many, it was their first time seeing Melton live. Major league teams cycle through their scouts to allow as many evaluators as possible to see a player in person. When Melton exited the game, half of the scouts left the stadium.

“He’s big, he’s strong, and he throws hard.” An anonymous scout said when asked what makes Melton attractive to MLB teams. “It is simple. He’s young. He’s in the zone, and he has a slider.” His lack of pitching experience is not at all concerning.

The Aztecs’ coaching staff has, nonetheless, found a unique way to quicken Melton’s learning curve. Following the second series of the season, Martinez moved Melton out of the role the ace of the staff traditionally occupies. Instead of opening the series, Melton starts the second game. In Mountain West play, Melton takes the mound for the back half of the weekly doubleheader mandated by the conference.

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Starting game two allows Melton to scout in real-time how game one starter, Mikey Paredes, attacked the opposition. Melton has the intelligence and ability to chart how Paredes pitched, adapt it to his repertoire, get on the same page with catcher Wyatt Hendrie, and perform the modified game plan with only forty-five minutes between games.  This remarkable ability allows Melton to have extra time to maximize his growth as a pitcher.

A catcher most of his life, Melton transitioned to the mound fully only a few years ago. From a summer workout to the baseball diamonds in Alaska and soon to pitching in an Instructional League somewhere in the minor leagues, Melton’s meteoric rise has been amazing.

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