Is Josh Rojas A Good Hitter?

Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

For all the excitement about the present upside in the MLB player pool, it seems there are still a couple of guys that slip in relatively under the radar. Probably the most intriguing among that subset of players would be Josh Rojas. You're probably thinking, "Rojas? He's guaranteed to play something close to full time; why is he under the radar?". It's more about what Josh represents.

As a guy that's lacking in raw power, lacking in speed, and clearly lacking in defense at his primary position, he has been much more valuable by WAR than you'd expect based on those facts. Between having exceptional pitch recognition, a strong sense of timing, and well above average bat control (I don't think anyone would argue too heavily against those assertions after the 3 HR game at Wrigley), he's able to get himself in a fairly favorable position to get a ball in play to a favorable part of the ballpark (with his bat control giving the option to extend counts with fouls).

He represents one of modern baseball's older questions; how valuable is a "skills" heavy profile when the only carrying physical trait is bat control? Even then, I'd argue bat control is a more "intuitive" element than a physical one (bat speed would be considered a physical component of a swing, which isn't necessarily connected with control). Obviously, that would be heavily reliant on the approach, but what was Rojas's approach?

We know that there was a team wide focus on extending counts, and that usually involved taking pitches to get to deeper counts, so let's take a peek at some of Rojas's numbers that are indicative of some of those elements (here's his FG link, and here's his BS link; formatting data on phones is hard, so let's look at some well formatted data instead).

It's simple enough to look at the: drop in Swing%, the drop in SwStr%, and the increase in Contact% (both inside and outside the zone) on FG; or the: drop in Swing%, the drop in Whiff%, and the increases in Zone/Chase-Contact% on BS and say, "There it is! He was waiting on pitches that he could handle better!", but it's not that simple in reality. If we look closer, on FG (and BS, in parentheses):

  • -his O-Swing% dropped 1.9% (and Chase% dropped 1.3%)
  • -his Z-Swing% increased 1.3% (Zone Swing% dropped 0.4%)
  • -(Meatball Swing% increased by 6.2%)

So despite decreasing the overall rate of swings, most of those "losses" were outside of the strike zone (and he made more contact on all swings; fouls). Even though Rojas saw a higher rate of pitches per PA than most everyone on the roster, that doesn't actually seem to be for the exact same reason that Perdomo saw a large number of pitches.

Both guys have very similar collections of "skills" and "sense" (Pavin kind of falls in that same grouping; where they certifiably have pitch recognition and bat control, but also certifiably lack power), but Perdomo has the clearly superior raw tools in most instances.

Why is Rojas so much better then? Maybe it has something to do with another recent organizational focus of pulling hard hit fly balls? Let's take a look at the Batted Ball data on the FG and BS player page data for clues/suggestions (sorry you have to go back to the link; again BS will be in parentheses).

  • -his GB% dropped 7.7% (and dropped 5.7%)
  • -his LD% dropped 0.6% (and dropped 1.4%)
  • -his FB% increased 7.4% (and increased 5.4%)
  • -his IFFB% increased 3.7% (and PU% increased 1.7%)

Adding an increase in LA of 3.5° and it's pretty safe to say that he was doing a solid job of getting the ball in the air (although extra IFFBs are not ideal), was he pulling the ball, though? (You know the drill with the parentheses, or you could just take my word; I have no reason to lie about easily accessible tables).

  • -his Pull% dropped 4.6% (and dropped 3.7%)
  • -his Cent% dropped 3.0% (and dropped 2.9%)
  • -his Oppo% increased 7.6% (and increased 6.2%)

Anybody that did look at the table doesn't need me to explain; one look at those data sets and the instant conclusion is a Center field or "All Fields" approach. It's not exactly in line with the hitting philosophy that's been preached, but let's roll with it and see if he was at least doing the hard hitting (even if not the pulling).

Note that there will be some points with only parenthetical values shown; this is due to BS classifying differently and going more in-depth. We've come this far, so might as well be consistent.

  • -Soft% increased 2.1%
  • -Med% dropped 2.7%
  • -Hard% increased 0.6%
  • -(Weak% increased 1.1%)
  • -(Topped% dropped 4.3%)
  • -(Under% increased 4.3%)
  • -(Flare/Burner% dropped 0.9%)
  • -(Solid% increased 0.2%)
  • -(Barrel% dropped 0.3%)
  • -(Sweet Spot% dropped 7.2%)
  • -(Hard Hit% increased 5.0%; which is % of BBE at 95 mph+)
  • -(xwOBACON dropped .019)
  • -(Barrels/PA remained static at 3.1)
  • -(Average EV increased 0.6 mph)
  • -(Max EV increased 4.5 mph over '21)

Okay. There's a lot going on there; a lot that looks not so promising at first glance, and a lot that looks promising during that same take. The increases for: Soft%, Weak%, and Under% are not exactly desirable, and the drops in: Barrel%, Sweet Spot%, and xwOBACON, are not exactly positive developments. The Under% is easy to reconcile considering his increases in IFFB%, PU%, and LA (and the overall increased focus on elevating batted balls), and I wouldn't consider the three listed drops as overly concerning between the increases of: Hard%, Hard Hit%, Avg EV, and Max EV.

Plus, his Barrels/PA remained static, which indicated some degree of success in spite of BBE occurring more frequently; this is evidenced most in his reduced K% while maintaining his BB%, meaning even with a slightly diminished xwOBACON he would have a theoretically higher xwOBA due to BB/K improvements. Okay, now we're getting somewhere.

All those data points suggest more frequent contact and better EV numbers if not the LA grouping for them to be consistently classified as Barrels or Solid contact. Note that I haven't addressed the increases in Soft% and Weak% yet, and that can be done with one word. Bunts; last I checked bunts are batted balls that are generally weak contact, and almost always on the ground.

There is the potential that the offensive utilization of bunts can distort the Batted Ball sample (and thus the percentage breakdowns of all samples). And using more bunts means more distortion; Rojas used bunts in that manner with some regularity. We'll talk about that another time, but I'd like to consider the picture painted of an "all fields elevated line drive hitter" with exceptional plate discipline that happened to increase his rate of BBEs at 95+ mph, but his Sweet Spot% dropped. His ISO actually dropped; where was the Slug?

The answer to that likely lies in his hitting approach, and instead of looking at BS Run Values by Pitch Type (you can; he really only seemed to struggle with horizontal break) we're going to look at FG Batted Ball splits for his 57 PA (30 AB) of 3-1 counts (because they're traditionally fastball counts; these can be accessed through the Splits tab on the FG Player Page).

In 3-1 counts he actually had his: lowest Pull% in any count (3-2 was the only other within 1%), second highest Oppo% (behind only 3-2), second highest GB% (behind only 3-2), and his lowest Hard% (no other count was even close). 3-1 was easily his lowest ISO count (with 3-2 again in second), and with all of that? He had a .429 BABIP in those situations (and a .345 BABIP in 3-2).

He was definitely hitting where he was pitched (and where fielders weren't; no doubt the 100% bunt hit success rate in both counts contributed heavily in the small samples). So if we make an educated assumption that he was more likely to hit fastballs the other way with a degree of frequency and also consider the "all fields" hitting approach, is it reasonable to also assume that his intended swing timing was not meant to pull everything with authority (which requires multiple windows of timing dependant on pitch type) but was instead meant to sit back long enough to hit fastballs to the opposite field and hit secondaries to Pull/Center fields (which is one timing window being varied dependant on pitch type)?

That's the old hitting approach that everybody's Little League coach taught them (with maybe a little bit of convention thrown out the window), but everything is easier said than done in the Major Leagues. Sometimes players just can't optimize their tools enough to make it as a viable bench player, let alone a viable MLB starter. However, what traits might indicate that a player is capable of optimizing that fundamentally sound Little League approach to be viable in MLB?

I'd argue that anyone with strong enough pitch recognition and sound enough mechanics to get to that timing window is a decent bet, and players with more exceptional pitch recognition, particularly keen senses of timing (we're talking within milliseconds; kind of like people that play fighting games professionally, but with far greater athleticism), and/or far greater power/speed than average might be able to compensate for deficiencies in bat control to limited degrees regarding a sustainable high BABIP approach.

Which players in the system might be of particular note IF the player development team has a reliable way of addressing timing concerns? We've already seen a variety of swing tweaks, many of which seem intent on "simplifying" the swing mechanics to allow for greater time to identify/react to pitches and/or get their upper and lower halves in sync (in some cases even adding a clear timing mechanism), so who might everybody find interesting personally?

That's been a ton of words shed on Rojas's offense (and approaches in general), to functionally say that I have confidence in the ability of his approach to allow him to outperform his xwOBA consistently (particularly in a ballpark beneficial for balls in play). Not much needs to be said about his baserunning, and not much can be added about his defense (although I do have hopes that Ahmed can give him a little more slack to work with than Perdomo and/or working with Longo helps him out). All of that being said, I would like to make commentary on his playtime.

Rojas isn't in a platoon at 3B because of his offense; sure, he was worse against LHP last season, but he also still ran a .333 OBP and 92 wRC+. That's more than serviceable, and as such we shouldn't be surprised if he gets some decent run time at 2B against LHP (which allows Ketel to DH) and beat his projections. Why do I say that?

Remember last Spring Training when Rojas had the oblique injury and didn't make it to Opening Day? That fortunately got the DBacks an extra season of control, due to there being no Active Roster in effect when he was put on the IL (thus not accruing service time). He still hit 510 PA despite missing the beginning of the season, so his projected play time may or may not be low for '23 (better defense would mean more PAs).

This wasn't quite as in-depth as I wanted to go (I kid, I kid), but I hope anybody reading appreciates it and by extension appreciates Josh more (if that's even possible). In no scout's wildest dreams would they have ever thought that a player with Rojas's tools/pedigree would have a realistic shot at being a 4+ WAR player (if he can clean up his defense at 3B, I do believe he has a shot); yet here we fortunately are, largely due to Josh's unwavering confidence and aggressive play style. Here's to that confidence and here's to hoping that we see many more using their fundamentals just as aggressively.