Johan Rojas' glove should give him enough margin for error for the Opening Day job

Even though he has had a tough start to his season, Rojas is already one of the best defenders in the league and should be on the Opening Day roster.
Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Johan Rojas should make the Opening Day roster because of his defense
Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Johan Rojas should make the Opening Day roster because of his defense / Elsa/GettyImages
facebooktwitterreddit

Last October, the magic around Johan Rojas seemed to flutter away.

After 59 regular season games and countless incredible plays and moments, the rookie entered the postseason as the Phillies' No. 1 option in Centerfield. However, in just 13 games, the question marks reappeared.

Over the course of his 45 postseason plate appearances, Rojas collected only four hits and struck out 15 times, leading to a .093/.113/.273 slash line. The Dominican Republic native came to the plate in several huge spots with opportunities to do damage and failed, leading to a dilemma among fans and coaches: is Rojas' defensive prowess enough to earn his role in the squad for 2024?

Rojas' 2023 regular season points toward future success

While he struggled mightily in the postseason, the young righty excelled in many facets of the game through July, August, and September.

Rojas finished the 2023 season hitting over .300, an impressive mark for any hitter, especially a rookie. While his expected batting average was much lower at .246, his plus-plus speed and base running will allow him added chances at hits and extra bases throughout his career, much like his teammate Trea Turner, who has finished with an xBA equal or lower than his actual batting average in seven of his nine professional seasons.

The major factor hurting the 23-year-old's offensive game was his approach to offspeed pitches. Rojas' numbers were drastically different against fastballs compared to offspeed pitches, with a 0.57 drop in xBA and a strikeout percentage of over 45 percent against both the curveball and slider.

When he was quickly catapulted into a huge role for the Phillies in the postseason, he was exposed by the offspeed, and the short time and high stakes made it incredibly difficult to make adjustments on the fly.

With one of the best hitting coaches in Kevin Long and an offseason filled with Rojas training highlight films, there is definitely work going into the obvious weakness in his offensive game. From all accounts, the former international free agent has worked relentlessly on his approach from the offensive side, working on his bunting, adding size and power, and constructing a more bulletproof plan at the plate.

Is the Gold Glove defense worthy of a starting spot in itself?

Rojas' calling card since his first game in the majors has been his outstanding defensive play. In 2023, he collected 15 defensive runs saved, 15th in the league behind the overall leader, Daulton Varsho, who had 29 DRS.

Varsho played in 158 games (1,280 innings), while Rojas played 57 games (392 innings). If the Phillies center fielder played a full 162, it would equal out to 42.6 DRS over the course of the year, close to a 50 percent increase over Varsho's top mark.

Rojas is a different animal in the outfield.

He ranked in the 95th percentile for outs above average, 94th percentile for arm strength, and even the 92nd percentile for all MLB players in sprint speed. Rojas' closing speed and range are as valuable, if not more valuable, than a player who can get an extra hit or two a series.

The value added just on the defensive side of the ball is what kept him in the lineup during his rough stretch late in the 2023 season. Even when Rojas was struggling at the plate, he was making run- and game-saving catches that collectively stifled several rallies and contributed by taking runs directly off the scoreboard.

Elite athleticism and defensive ability have not always been strengths of this Phillies team, but Rojas in center field transforms that unit and allows flexibility in the corner spots.

What are the Phillies' other alternatives in center field?

On the other end of the Rojas debate is Cristian Pache, a very similar player to Rojas in most facets of the game.

Pache, 25, is a few years older than Rojas but was once one of the most highly respected prospects — he was Atlanta's No. 1 prospect in 2020 and 2021. His 70-grade arm and 80-grade defense align similarly to Rojas' skillset while hitting from the right side of the plate.

In spring training this year, Pache has looked very good, squaring up a ton of baseballs and collecting multiple hits over 100 mph exit velocity. The former Braves and Oakland Athletics prospect showed there was still promise in his bat at the beginning of last season, hitting .327 with a .957 OPS before the All-Star break.

With Brandon Marsh returning to action on Wednesday, it's still unclear whether he will be available to begin the season. If Marsh is out for Opening Day, we'll likely see both Rojas and Pache on the Opening Day roster. Barring any injuries, though, one will likely not make the cut.

While Pache is no slouch in center field defensively, Rojas' elite ability in the outfield gives him an edge to make the team out of camp.

A close comparison would be long-time Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier, a lifetime .249 hitter, who has made an 11-year career off his defensive ability. The Rays and now the Blue Jays find his defense so valuable that they work with the subpar bat in the lineup. Kiermaier's top mark for DRS in a season is 38. In Rojas' first season, prorated for a complete year had him tracking 40+ DRS.

Rojas has had a rough start to his season, hitting .152 in 33 spring training at-bats, but according to MLB.com's Todd Zolecki, Rob Thomson is looking at more than just the results of his plate appearances.

It's unlikely that the 23-year-old will eclipse the .300 batting average mark as he did in his rookie campaign, but it's even more unlikely that his defense will take a step back. It would make sense to start him in Triple-A to get more at-bats against lesser competition to grow his ability, but the defense is too good to miss out on for a team with World Series aspirations.

manual