By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, July 7 (Yonhap) -- KT Wiz outfielder Mel Rojas Jr. has been one of the most dangerous sluggers so far this season in South Korean baseball. Yes, he hits with prodigious power. Yes, he also hits for average. And yes, he gets on base at an impressive rate.
But more importantly, Rojas Jr. is a man with a plan.
This is his fourth season in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), and his third full season after joining the Wiz in the middle of 2017. Few foreign hitters last that long in the KBO because their weaknesses can get exposed quickly in this relatively small, 10-team league, and because teams often keep them on a short leash and don't give them much of a runway to make midseason adjustments. Any sign of an extended slump, they're shown the door.
So how has Rojas Jr. been able to sustain his success?
"I don't go out there just to see the ball and hit the ball. Whoever tells you that, that's not a good hitter," Rojas Jr. told Yonhap News Agency in a phone interview on Monday from Gwangju, 330 kilometers south of Seoul, where the Wiz are scheduled to play the Kia Tigers in a three-game series starting Tuesday.
"You've got to have the plan. Every single time you go up there, you have to have the plan," he added. "You can't just go out to the plate and see the ball and hit the ball. (The pitchers) don't make very many mistakes."
Whatever that plan may be from one at-bat to the next, it clearly has worked for Rojas Jr.
Heading into Tuesday's action, Rojas Jr. was leading the league with 19 home runs in 53 games, a .720 slugging percentage, 47 runs scored, 154 total bases, and an on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) of 1.146. He was tied with Jose Miguel Fernandez of the Doosan Bears for the KBO lead in hits with 80.
In other major categories, Rojas Jr. ranked second in batting average (.374), tied for third in doubles (17), tied for second in RBIs (48), fourth in on-base percentage (.426) and second in multihit games (25). Say what you will about the Triple Crown in this age of advanced metrics, with batting average and RBIs not being regarded with the same respect as before. But Rojas is a threat to win the Triple Crown this year as the league leader in batting average, home runs and RBIs. Only two players have done so in the KBO.
And it takes more than just natural talent to post these gaudy numbers.
"The secret is that while (the pitchers) are trying to figure me out, I've already figured them out," he said. "That's something I do every day. I am doing my own work. I check how they pitch to me. I also see how they pitch to other guys that are similar to me."
This is surely an outstanding season, but it's not as though he's been a slouch in the past. In 2018, his first full season, Rojas Jr. launched 43 home runs and drove in 114 runs, while batting .305/.388/.590 and stealing 18 bases. He was robbed of a Golden Glove in the outfield. Then voters came to their senses and gave him the prize in 2019, when he put up a .322/.381/.530 line with 24 home runs and 104 RBIs in a season defined by the leaguewide stumbling of offensive numbers due to a de-juiced ball.
Rojas Jr., a former third round pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates, also attributed his early season success to better plate coverage.
"I've worked on some mechanics, so I could get to inside pitches and hit them better," he said. "That way, I can cover more of the plate. I used to be really good with outside pitches. Now, I am hitting inside pitches better. So I have more coverage. That has been my main focus."
He's been crushing virtually every type of pitch in every location. According to the U.S.-based data and analytics firm Sports Info Solutions, Rojas Jr. is batting .325 on inside pitches, .338 on outside pitches and .500 on pitches in the middle. He has seen six types of pitches so far -- fastballs, splitters, curveballs, sliders, changeups and cutters -- and he has batted at least .321 against all of them.
Rojas Jr. added that starting the season in May this year, as opposed to the colder month of March in past years, has contributed to his strong early numbers. Because of the coronavirus outbreak, Opening Day was pushed from March 28 to May 5 this year.
Last season, Rojas Jr. batted only .200 with zero home runs in 30 at-bats in March and then batted .298 in April. He improved that to .360 in May and .366 in June.
This year, Rojas Jr. was shot out of a cannon in May, batting .409 with six home runs. He then exploded for 11 home runs in June while batting .347 and slugging .743.
"I am not a fan of the cold weather," he said. "Definitely, starting in the warm weather has helped."
Rojas Jr. is a switch hitter who has been successful on both sides of the plate this season. On May 23, he homered from the right side and the left side in the same game for the third time in his career.
He has made it look easy, but Rojas Jr. said it's far from so.
"Honestly, It's very hard being a switch hitter because you've got to work double," he said. "Most of the time, when you feel good from one side, you don't feel good from the other side, and vice versa. It's very hard feeling good from both sides. I've done a much better job this year, feeling great from both sides."
Because there are far more right-handed pitchers than left-handers in the KBO, switch hitters can go a long stretch without facing a southpaw. Case in point: Rojas Jr. played five straight games, from June 19 to 25, batting entirely from the left side of the plate, before facing NC Dinos' left-handed starter Koo Chang-mo in the second game of a doubleheader on June 25.
There are times when he has to bat from both sides in the same game, and Rojas Jr. said, "I wish I could do that every day."
Now in his fourth year in South Korea, Rojas Jr. enjoys a certain comfort level on and off the field, so much so that he has turned down offers to go back to the United States -- where he'd reached as high as Triple-A -- to stay in the KBO. That those offers weren't guaranteed major league deals also convinced Rojas Jr. that he'd be better off staying.
He won't complain about the money here either. After playing the half of the 2017 season on US$400,000, Rojas Jr. re-signed for $1 million for the 2018 season. He got a $600,000 raise for the following year. This year, he's making $1.5 million.
The name may give it away: Rojas Jr. does have a father named Mel Rojas, a former major league pitcher who appeared in 525 games for five different teams over a 10-year career. His best season came in 1996, when he recorded a career-high 36 saves with a 3.22 ERA for the Montreal Expos. He retired with a 34-31 record and 126 saves with a 3.82 ERA.
The senior Rojas, a native of the Dominican Republic, is a nephew of Felipe Alou, Jesus Alou and Matty Alou, all members of the royal Dominican baseball family. Rojas Jr. is a second cousin of Moises Alou, Felipe's son and a six-time big league All-Star.
The junior said his father has helped him so much along the way that "It's almost like cheating."
"It's been a blessing to have him," he said. "It's been great to come from a baseball family."
And Rojas Jr. himself welcomed a new member to his own family last fall, with a boy named Mel Crew Alexander Rojas III, or simply Crew. He'll turn nine months next week, a bundle of joy that has given his father a new source of motivation. When Rojas Jr. hit his 100th career KBO home run on June 25, he wore cleats with the name of his son printed in both English and Korean on them.
"I think about giving my best every day for the fans, my teammates, the team and also my son," he said. "I want him to be proud of me."
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