Wednesday, June 12, 2024

KBO’s most dangerous leadoff hitter foresees even greater potential ahead

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KT Wiz outfielder Mel Rojas Jr. runs after hitting a two-run home run during a game with Doosan Bears in Jamsil bseball stadium, Seoul, May 28. Yonhap

It all started out as a joke from his coaching staff earlier in the season.

Mel Rojas Jr. of the KT Wiz, one of the premier sluggers in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), started the 2024 campaign batting in the No. 3 spot. That is where he had spent most of his MVP-winning 2020 season during his first tour of duty with the Wiz.

And Rojas, back in the KBO this year after a spell in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball, was hitting just fine from where he was, putting himself among the KBO leaders in home runs, RBIs and on-base plus slugging (OPS).

Wiz manager Lee Kang-chul and his staff started joking around with Rojas and asked him if he would bat second.

And they really did put Rojas in that spot in April, and he played five straight games there before returning to the No. 3 hole.

The staff also joked about putting Rojas in the leadoff spot. Even in this day and age of advanced statistics that have altered the way lineups are constructed, putting a home run hitter like Rojas up top is unusual.

But as injuries began piling up, manager Lee put his jokes into action. Rojas hit from the leadoff spot for the first time on May 12. The Wiz moved him around for the next few days after May 12, but he has been penciled in as the leadoff man every game since May 19.

And the way Rojas has been swinging the bat since then, the Wiz probably should have made the switch earlier.

In 10 games from the leadoff spot, Rojas is batting a robust .390/.468/.659 with two homers and 11 RBIs. He has hit safely in all 10 games, and the Wiz have won seven of them.

“I always told them I didn’t care. I could hit from any spot in the lineup,” Rojas told Yonhap News Agency on Tuesday, before making his seventh straight start in the leadoff spot against the Doosan Bears at Jamsil Baseball Stadium in Seoul. “I would just do my job from wherever they put me in the lineup. I don’t have a problem.”

KT Wiz outfielder Mel Rojas Jr. runs after hitting a two-run home run during a game with Doosan Bears in Jamsil bseball stadium, Seoul, May 28. Yonhap

KT Wiz outfielder Mel Rojas Jr. runs after hitting a two-run home run during a game with Doosan Bears in Jamsil bseball stadium, Seoul, May 28. Yonhap

Rojas said he is no stranger to hitting from the top of the lineup. From Low-A to Double-A, he led off more often than not while he was in the Pittsburgh Pirates system.

Rojas is tied for third in the KBO with 13 home runs. Though only two of those home runs came from the leadoff spot — including one Tuesday about two hours after this interview, during a 12-3 beatdown of the Bears — Rojas said he is “obviously still trying to hit home runs from the leadoff spot.”

But Rojas also understands he has to do more than just hit dingers.

“To me, the most important thing, which I’ve been doing all year, is to take really good at-bats and try to get on base for Baek-ho,” Rojas said of Kang Baek-ho, who leads the KBO with 15 home runs and 50 RBIs. Whether Rojas batted third, cleanup or leadoff, he has been hitting in front of Kang all season.

“He’s having an MVP season. I’m sure that’s part of the reason why (the manager) put me in the leadoff spot so I can get on base for Baek-ho,” Rojas continued. “He’s driving in all the runs. I’ve got to give him a lot of credit.”

Rojas said he wasn’t sure how long he would remain in the leadoff spot. When everyone is healthy, the Wiz would ideally put Rojas further down in the lineup to give him more RBI opportunities. But for the time being, they may not want to mess with success.

“I could lead off all year,” Rojas said. “I feel like I’m not where I want to be yet. Once I get there, the better I like what I am doing, the less pitches I’m going to get to hit. So that means a lot of walks and maybe a lot of RBIs for Baek-ho. I’m just trying to fight until I get a good pitch to hit. If not, then I’ll just go to first base.”

And once he is on base, Rojas said he will look to steal, so he’d be in scoring position for Kang and others behind him in the lineup.

He swiped 18 bags in 2018 but was also caught 13 times. So far this year, Rojas has only attempted one steal and was unsuccessful.

“I’m always ready to steal. I’m sure that’s not on the manager’s plan because he wants to save me as much as possible. Stealing business is too risky but I don’t have a problem,” Rojas said. “I would like for him to send me every once in a while. That way, the next guy behind me or even Baek-ho, when I’m on base, they get more fastballs.”

KT Wiz outfielder Mel Rojas Jr. hits a two-run home run during a game with Doosan Bears in Jamsil bseball stadium, Seoul, May 28. Yonhap

KT Wiz outfielder Mel Rojas Jr. hits a two-run home run during a game with Doosan Bears in Jamsil bseball stadium, Seoul, May 28. Yonhap

Aside from steals, many hitters would love to have the offensive numbers Rojas has put up this season.

He is second overall with 42 runs, second with 17 doubles, tied for third with 13 home runs, and tied for fifth with 41 RBIs. He is also second with 41 walks, has the second-highest slugging percentage with .581, and the third-highest on-base percentage with .427.

That gives him an OPS of 1.008, the second-highest mark in the league behind Yonathan Perlaza of the Hanwha Eagles (1.029).

However, Rojas said he hasn’t even been at his best this season. That’s a scary thought for opposing pitchers.

“I know myself better than anybody. I know I’ve had really good games but I’ve had really bad games,” he said. “I’ve been getting my hits and, every once in a while, home runs. But I feel like I can do much better than what I’ve been doing. But also, you’ve got to give credit to the pitchers. They’re really painting the corners.”

Though he may not be entirely satisfied with his performance, Rojas has still been at the forefront of the Wiz’s recent resurgence. They have won four straight games to improve to 24-28-1 (wins-losses-ties). They are just a game back of the SSG Landers, losers of seven straight, for sixth place. And the three teams above the Landers — the NC Dinos, the Samsung Lions and the Bears — have dropped at least three straight games.

Last year, the Wiz were in last place in June but finished in second place in the regular season before advancing to the Korean Series, where they lost to the LG Twins in five games.

Rojas wasn’t around for that run last year but he is getting a taste of what it’s like to keep moving up the standings as the season wears on.

“It’s just a matter of focus and being prepared. Come prepare ourselves for the games and I feel like it’s in our hands how far we want to make it,” he said. “We have a really good team and good players, Unfortunately, a lot of guys have been injured. That has cost us a lot of games. But it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. And obviously, KT has proved that for the past three or four years.” (Yonhap)



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