Rojas emerging as Marlins' most formidable bat

Despite loss, shortstop's first homer boosts strong numbers vs. Nats

July 4th, 2019

WASHINGTON -- Don Mattingly remembers the of 2014 -- a rookie out of Venezuela looking to simply break into the league with the Dodgers. Mattingly was in his fourth season as a big league skipper and Rojas was in his first as a player, looking to stay above water as long as possible.

At the time, Rojas was almost exclusively a backup defensive replacement, and he showed his defense was there enough -- “That’s never been in question,” Mattingly reaffirmed Wednesday -- to remain on a postseason roster. But the offense … the offense needed work.

Rojas posted a .181/.242/.221 slash line in 162 plate appearances with Los Angeles during his inaugural season, hitting one home run and tallying nine RBIs. Flash forward five years, and Mattingly has seen Rojas bloom into the most dependable hitter in the Marlins' lineup -- fortified once again after he notched Miami’s only RBIs, including his first homer on the year, in Thursday’s 5-2 loss to the Nationals at Nationals Park.

“He just became a better and better hitter over time,” Mattingly said Wednesday -- a day before Washington swept Miami. “There’s been a lot of hard work in there. I know Miggy is a guy that has always been a good defender. … But the at-bats are self-made for me.

“It’s really good to see. It’s really fun to watch a guy like that and be able to see his whole career. Kind of had a label of not being able to hit. Turned himself into a really, really good hitter.”

Mattingly was less pleased about Thursday’s Independence Day performance as a whole, however -- the Marlins stranded 13 runners and dropped to 1-9 against the Nationals this season.

“This game here is very similar to a lot of our games,” Mattingly said. “We get some guys out there, we score a couple runs, we don't get a big hit, we don't get a big out, we pitch OK and we lose."

But Rojas has continued to make himself a silver lining in an otherwise down season. Career progressions like his are not atypical. When the pressure is on as a rookie -- just trying to maintain a high level and stay on a roster -- at-bats with pitches faster than you’ve ever seen do not lend themselves to comfort situations.

“I didn’t know who I was as a hitter,” Rojas said. “It takes a lot of reps [at] the plate. You need to know the league, you need to know the pitchers. When you have the opportunity to face these guys over and over, you have a better sense of what you’re doing at the plate. For me, it’s the mature part of spending time in the league and getting to know the pitchers, getting to know what they’re trying to do to you and making adjustments.”

Now, as Miami's everyday leadoff hitter, Rojas has made his 2014 offensive numbers seem like a mere blip on the radar. He’s hit over .240 each year since. In ‘19, he’s got a .296/.355/.375 slash line with a .730 OPS.

Rojas’ numbers against the Nationals are even more impressive. Through Thursday, Rojas was batting .404/.444/.596 with a 1.040 OPS in 47 at-bats against the Nats in 2019 -- numbers far better than those he’s posted against all others team he’s faced this year. He knocked six hits in the previous series vs. Washington, and he added two RBIs on Thursday.

The first run, a Statcast-projected 411-foot shot to left on the fifth pitch of the game, was Rojas' first homer of the season. The second -- an RBI on a rare fielder’s choice to center -- extended his torrent season against Washington.

“I feel like the potential to hit homers can happen from one day to another,” Rojas said. “But at the same time, that takes the pressure away from your head that you don’t have a homer or whatever.”

It’s not like Rojas changed much physically -- he was listed at his current height and weight of 5-foot-11, 195 pounds in 2014, too. But mentally -- and mechanically -- he’s changed drastically.

Rojas' 12.5 percent strikeout rate ranks eighth among qualified hitters in the National League. His contact and batting average on balls in play are both within the NL’s top 15, according to FanGraphs. He’s whiffing on pitches a tad more often than in past years (17.7 percent, as opposed to 15.9 percent overall), but he’s still far below the MLB average of 24.2 percent, per Statcast.

“It’s not like I’m getting stronger or I’m getting better,” Rojas said. “It’s just making adjustments throughout the years.”

“At the end, he's a great hitter,” Nationals starter Anibal Sanchez said. “He's patient. … He knows what he's doing at home plate right now, and hopefully he keeps [going] like that."

With a 5-2 deficit and the bases loaded in the eighth, Rojas had the chance to bring his team back into Thursday’s game. But his 95.9-mph liner was snared by , ending the inning and preventing him from turning it into a career day. Similar batted balls to that one have an expected batting average of .590.

“It's the difference between winning and losing, to be honest with you,” Mattingly said of missed chances like Rojas’. “You don't get big hits, they do. You don't make big outs, they do. You lose. It's pretty much as simple as that."