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40 in 40: Josh Rojas is 30 years old

old dog, new tricks

Texas Rangers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

I understand if you’re not a Josh Rojas enjoyer.

For one, he came to us in a slightly cursed way. As one of the three fringe players from the Diamondbacks the M’s got from beloved reliever Paul Sewald, Rojas was always going to have a hard time picking up fans.

In his 3.5-ish years as a major leaguer, Rojas has only flirted with being league average. In his career-best year, 2021, he posted a 110 wRC+ with 2.7 fWAR. And in 2023, that peak of “yeah, I guess he’s on ok major leaguer” seemed far behind him. In his 59 games before the trade, he gave the Diamondbacks a 62 wRC+ and hit 0 home runs. In his age 29 season, it seemed like it was time for Josh to re-evaluate how much he actually likes baseball.

Atlanta Braves v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

And then. July 31st. The trade.

In August, Rojas posted a wRC+ of 119, not astronomical, but it certainly justifies being an everyday player. While he hit 0 dingers in the first half of 2023, he hit 3 in August alone (2 away and 1 one at T-Mo). It suddenly seemed like Josh Rojas remembered how to play baseball.

There was some regression in September and October (86 wRC+ and only 1 dinger), But that was still good enough for a 104 wRC+ post-trade. During Jerry Dipoto’s reign, we have seen a lot of fringe utility second basemen. Like a lot of them. And not many have posted a triple digit wRC+ for the M’s. I don’t want to bust out a “chills” or anything for a league-average bat. But, folks, Jerry may be cooking.

So what’s going on here? What’s caused this sudden turnaround from Bad to Alright, besides pulling a reverse Paul Atreides and going from the desert to the ocean? A couple things jump out.

First, launch angle. Here’s Josh’s rolling average LA (50 PAs). Try to spot the date of the trade.

Baseball Savant

Do you see it?

Baseball Savant

I bet you did. You’re pretty clever.

But wow! He sure did start putting the ball in the air. Before the trade, Rojas was putting 42.1% of his batted balls on the ground. After? 37.2% For fly balls it’s even more dramatic. He jumped up from 33.6% (ranked 222nd min. 300 PA) to 41.5% (ranked 85th min. 300 PA). In addition, he suddenly started pulling the ball 50% of the time. For most of his career, Rojas has been a scatter-hit kind of guy, hitting to any part of the field as often as any other. Until the trade, when his Pull% jumped from 34.7% to 50.5%. The hitting staff has transformed him. Rebuilt him in a new image.

The image of another Mariner, as it turns out. Here is another 2023 Mariner’s batted ball data compared to Rojas’. Josh is in grey. Try to guess who the other guy is.

Fangraphs

Did you get it? It’s Eugenio Suarez. Sure it’s not an exact match. Rojas certainly doesn’t have Eugenio’s strength (yet), but the elevation and spray data is eerily similar. It’s actually kind of funny. The M’s picked up Rojas from Arizona, fundamentally altered his batted balls to become more like Eugenio, and then gave Eugenio to Arizona. Baseball’s weird.

It’s important to stress how much of a change this actually was for Rojas. Here’s the same table with just Rojas pre and post-trade. Pay special attention to the spray angles. This is an intentional alchemical transformation.

Fangraphs

But there is one aspect in which Suarez and Rojas fundamentally differ. Plate Discipline.

Rojas has always been pretty conservative at the plate. His Swing% has been a few points below league average every year he’s been a major leaguer. And that didn’t change when he came to the great grey north. In fact, he got better. His O-Swing% dropped 4% (30.8% to 26.6%) and his Z-Swing% went up by 2 (62.5% to 64.4%).

So what’s driving these changes? Are there any differences in the pitches that Josh decided to swing at pre and post-trade? Well, yes.

Rojas loves to hit the inside fastball. That’s where he does the most damage. Here’s a heatmap of his Swing% from 2023, up until the trade.

Fangraphs

He loves to swing at the inside pitch. Thing is, he doesn’t get many of ‘em.

Fangraphs

But he knows he likes the inside pitch, so he sees it, his eyes light up, and sometimes he’ll chase out of the zone. So the M’s hitting staff sat him down and said, “Hey Josh. Pitchers sure do throw you a lot of stuff down the heart of the plate. Have you tried hitting those?” And Josh said “Woah, I’ll give it a shot.”

Fangraphs

And now he’s swinging at middle-middle pitches. But he’s pulling the ball more than ever, and doing more damage because of it.

By combining his stellar swing decisions with a new “elevate the ball” philosophy, Rojas completely turned his 2023 season around. And yes, I can hear the sirens of the Sample Size Police now. We’re talking about just two months of baseball here, certainly not long enough to draw any sweeping conclusions.

But this is a guy entering his age 30 season, who suddenly changed the way he plays baseball. In the last two months of 2023 he started hitting fly balls and dingers at a rate he hasn’t done since he was tearing up the minors in 2019. The upside is there, folks.

And even if he doesn’t start mashing taters like its nothing, he’s still projected to have a 92 wRC+ in 2024. Combined with his 90th percentile OAA, Rojas seems like Dipoto’s fringe 2B with the most right to be there.

And who knows? He may surprise ya.

Texas Rangers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images