'Born to be a center fielder': How Rojas became an elite defender

September 20th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Todd Zolecki’s Phillies Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

 could have been a shortstop.

The center fielder was one until he had appendicitis as a 16-year-old. He had surgery, then spent the next five to six months recovering. Rojas was told if he wanted to sign with a team in the coming months, he would have a better chance if he moved to the outfield.

Rojas said OK.

“A few days after, I started catching fly balls in the outfield, a scout saw me and he told me I looked pretty good out there,” he said.

The Phillies signed him in January 2018 for $10,000.

Almost six years later, Rojas, 23, is one of baseball’s best defenders. The eye test says it. The metrics confirm it. He is 40th in innings played (327) in center field, but 15th in Outs Above Average (six). He is tied for second in success rate added at five percent, meaning he has made five percentage points more plays than an average center fielder given those opportunities.

Rojas is 14th in baseball among all defenders at any position with 14 Defensive Runs Saved, according to FanGraphs. Shane Victorino is the only Phillies outfielder to have more DRS in a season. He had 15 in 2007, but he also played over 600 innings more than Rojas.

So how does Rojas do it? It isn’t just speed, although he is fast. He is 27th out of 568 players in sprint speed (29.4 feet per second). It isn’t just his jumps, although his jumps are ridiculous. He would rank second out of 115 outfielders (three feet gained vs. MLB average).

Rojas told MLB.com the three most important things that have made him a Gold Glove-caliber defender:

1. The Work
“If you don’t put in the work, you’re not going to get anything done,” Rojas said. “I always work during BP. I like doing BP every day, even if it’s a small group, to do my daily routine.”

The center fielder said he learned how to work from Phillies’ Minor League outfield coordinator Andy Abad.

“He was born to be a center fielder, but he takes pride in his work,” Abad said. “One thing we pride ourselves on is our power shagging during BP. Coaches can’t simulate the game. The closest thing to a game is BP. He took it to a whole other level. We mandated one [BP] group. He’d be out there shagging and diving all over the place for two groups. We almost had to tell him to pump the brakes. It’s a long season. But his goal was, ‘I’ve got to get to the big leagues.’”

2. Locked In
“You have to take that preparation into the game and stay locked in,” Rojas said. “Every single pitch you have to stay locked in. You can’t take any pitch for granted.”

Rojas said he is constantly analyzing the situation around him. Are there runners on base? If so, how many? Where are they? Who are they? Can they run? He looks to see where his corner outfielders are. Are they close? Have they shifted toward the lines? How far is the wall behind him?

“Then I get ready,” he said. “I wait for the pitcher to move and when he starts toward home, I’m 100 percent ready.”

Rojas wears one of the team’s five PitchCom receivers in his cap. It tells him what the pitcher is throwing and where. It helps his pre-pitch setup. For example, if it is a right-handed batter and the pitcher is going to throw a fastball away, he might begin his first movement toward the right-field line. But not always.

“It depends on the hitter,” Rojas said. “We study that. The coaches are here for that, to help me. We talk about it. Even here in BP, I was just talking to [first-base coach] Paco [Figueroa] about the hitters. It depends, you know?”

Abad smiled when he heard that.

“When you’ve run those scenarios through your head, you’ve slowed the game down,” Abad said. “We talk about the good ones slowing the game down.”

3. Make the Play
“In my mind, my mindset is, the only way I don’t catch the ball is if it’s a home run,” Rojas said. “They’re going to have to hit a homer for me not to catch it.”

Brandon Marsh sees that mindset whenever he plays next to Rojas in left field.

“Have you seen a ball drop?” Marsh said, laughing. “He’s a true, pure center fielder. It’s a blessing just to have him on the team and watch him every night. The dude can play. We like to feel invincible out there no matter what, but when I’m playing next to him in left field, I feel super comfortable. I feel like our routes complement each other. I feel like he knows what I can get to. I know what he can get to. I know how to stay in my lane with him and let him just go be a gazelle out there.

“If [Zack] Wheeler is pitching and a right-hander is up, if he’s shaded to the right-center gap, I know I have to cover left-center a little more. I’ll go get those when I need to. But pretty much Rojas got it, man.”