Air Rojas

Miguel Rojas wants you to be a good person.

Miguel Rojas has been an exceptional defender, and fans outside of Miami have started to take notice. Rojas was one of three finalists for the NL shortstop Gold Glove Award in 2020. He didn’t set out to replicate the iconic Jumpman logo when he turned that double play last season, but that moment captured what Marlins fans see on a regular basis.

 

Coincidentally, Rojas was wearing a pair of Jordan cleats that day. The sneakerhead soon began collaborating with Stadium Custom Kicks to customize a few pairs of cleats for the season. MLB.com’s Christina De Nicola talked with the veteran infielder who highlighted the first pair he created. It was his “Air Rojas” logo on the shoes’ tongue with the following quote on the inside: it’s more important to be a good person before you can be a good player.

It might be the team he plays on or the fact that there are so many exciting young players around the league, but I feel like Miguel Rojas gets overlooked. His calming presence on the field and ability to lead inside the clubhouse aren’t things we can measure, so l also wanted to explore what we can. I watch the Marlins quite often and there seemed to be a shift in Rojas’ game where he went from a versatile defender to adding a more well-rounded offensive component.

We’ll look at his career in two parts — 2014-2018 and 2019-present — and how a meeting with Marlins leadership may have helped propel his career on the field and accentuated the message that it’s more important to be a good person before you can be a good player.

 

2014-2018

 

Through the 2018 season, Rojas had spent five years in the big leagues — his first with the Los Angeles Dodgers and the latter four with the Marlins. He didn’t have a defined role and his offense was lackluster; versatility around the infield was what he provided to his teams. Over his first five seasons, Rojas mostly appeared at shortstop (291 times) but also made more than 70 appearances at each of first, second, and third base.

The graphic below displays the defensive metric UZR broken down by position for Rojas’ early seasons, as well as the cumulative defensive metric used in FanGraphs’ version of WAR, DEF. Before diving into Rojas’ numbers, here is a brief overview of what these statistics are and why they matter.

  • The basic idea of UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) is to quantify how many runs the defender saved (or gave up) based on the plays he did (or did not) make. To do this for an infielder like Rojas, UZR considers the player’s ability to turn double-plays, their range, and errors. UZR combines these different aspects of defense into a value measured in runs and allows you to compare different players at that position.
  • While UZR can easily show how much better one third baseman is than the average third baseman, it doesn’t allow you to compare him to players at other positions. DEF (Defensive Runs Above Average) combines UZR with a positional adjustment to help simplify comparisons across positions. Now you can compare that first baseman to players around the diamond.
  • As a note: these metrics aren’t perfect. The small sample sizes we’re looking at for Rojas here means we should keep two things in mind: (1) the values are small because the more playing time a defender has gives him more opportunities to add to his rating, and (2) it would be unfair and inaccurate to conclude that a handful of games at each position during a short amount of time makes him the most talented defender on his team. We aren’t placing too much weight on the early statistics. They are just a guide to show his versatility. With that in mind, check out the graphic below.

 

Data Visualization by @Kollauf on Twitter

 

Rojas’ UZR from season to season is the top plot, broken up by position. The average fielder will have a UZR of 0 — his defense does not save or allow extra runs. That’s where Rojas hovers when playing first and third base (light and dark blue, respectively). Those aren’t his primary positions but the team is getting, at worst, league-average defense at the hot corners. When he’s at second base, Rojas holds his own and can add a smidge more value than the average second baseman. Shortstop is clearly where Rojas excels, but he never had the opportunity to play there consistently early in his career with players like Hanley Ramirez, Adeiny Hechavarría, and JT Riddle getting the starting role.

The value a multi-position defender brings can extend beyond the statistics we currently have. With the 2014 Dodgers, Rojas was able to come off the bench and fill in for starters like Ramirez, Juan Uribe, and Justin Turner. Over the next few years, the Marlins were able to plug Rojas wherever they needed around the infield and know they were getting a solid defender. At times, there were stretches where Rojas assumed more consistent roles when other players went down.

In 2016, Rojas played second base when Dee Strange-Gordon was suspended for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. In 2017, Rojas started the season at third base when veteran Martín Prado was absent with an injury. By late 2017, Rojas stepped into the everyday shortstop role when JT Riddle required season-ending surgery.

Once Rojas got the opportunity to play shortstop every day, his defense did not disappoint. When looking at the four most recent seasons (2018-2021), Rojas’ 22.5 UZR is fourth-highest among shortstops despite having logged much fewer innings. If you simplify the number down to the average season, Rojas would bring more value to the shortstop position than everyone not named Andrelton Simmons. Again, it would be unfair to hand Rojas the Gold Glove Award based solely on this small sample; however, Rojas is providing the Marlins with great defense at the most important infield position and that should be celebrated.

 

2019-Present

 

By the end of the 2018 season, the Marlins new ownership group had gutted the team. One familiar face remained: Miguel Rojas. Fans saw him slide right into the starting shortstop role in 2019, but it wasn’t until later that they were privy to the conversations happening with Rojas, manager Don Mattingly, and then-president of baseball operations Michael Hill. The Miami Herald’s Jordan McPherson reported last fall that much of the conversation focused on the direction of the club’s future. Rojas vocalized his trust in the new Derek Jeter-led ownership and reiterated that he wanted to be in Miami. The Marlins felt the same way, wanting the infielder to step into a leadership role and help guide the franchise in the right direction. Miggy Ro didn’t just step up; he commanded our attention when he was on the field but, even more impressively, reminded us that who we are as people means so much more than what we do.

When Rojas bought into what the Marlins were doing, he appreciated that the team was buying into him too. He wanted to take on a bigger role in the clubhouse and speaking with Mattingly and Hill gave him the confidence to do so, he told The Miami Herald. Rojas stepped up both in and out of the clubhouse. When he became the team’s representative for the MLB Players Association, he told McPherson:

I just want to be that guy, that leader by example and the guy they feel comfortable around. I want everybody who steps in this clubhouse to feel comfortable and to be themselves. If you’re a good guy and they feel comfortable around you, you’ll probably do good things on the field.

Looking back, this transition seems to have helped Rojas himself. He’s talked about wanting to become a more complete player, and for him, that meant improving in the batter’s box. He’s still not feared by opposing pitchers, but he’s made adjustments that have translated into increased production. The graphic below displays the three points I want to touch on: contact rate, batted ball quality, and chase rate.

 

Data Visualization by @Kollauf on Twitter

 

One thing Rojas has continued to excel at is making contact. Even with a slight decrease over time, his contact rate is still well above league average which hovers around 77% depending on the season. Like you would imagine, keeping contact rate high limits strikeouts. Year after year, his strikeout rate is one of the best in baseball. Additionally, Rojas has cut down on chasing pitches out of the strike zone. This has translated into a few more walks, especially in 2020.

One of the big changes Rojas has made is in the type of contact he’s making. Early on in his career, he was a groundball machine. Nearly 70% of all batted balls his rookie year were hit on the ground and although he improved moving forward, less than half of his batted balls got off the ground. Since the beginning of 2019, Rojas has improved: 55% of balls in play are either line drives or fly balls. Along with hitting more balls in the air, he’s hitting the ball harder too: 30.6% HardHit% now compared to 23.8% in 2014-2018.

What was once underwhelming production — a .255 batting average and .644 OPS — has turned into much-improved production. Since 2019, Rojas holds a .282 batting average and a .745 OPS. He’s hit more extra-base hits in fewer chances and is stealing more bases than ever at 32 years old, proving to be a very effective leadoff hitter for the Marlins.

 

Miguel Rojas Off the Field

 

But none of this matters if you aren’t a good person. I know some people can separate the achievements from the athlete or the art from the artist; I am not one of those people. Who you are, what you do, and how you treat those around you is what matters.

As someone who had the misfortune of being born into Marlins fandom, I’ve dedicated much of my youth and young adult years cheering for a team that consistently tears my heart to shreds. When I didn’t have much to hope for on the field, I got to watch players who at their core were good people — Juan Pierre and Curtis Granderson come to mind then, Pablo López and Miguel Rojas now.

It’s been a joy to watch Rojas take the field every day, which is why a conversation he had on The Chris Rose Rotation earlier this season hit me really hard. Rojas and five other players rotate to share the co-host role. About a month from the trade deadline, Chris Rose asked Rojas if he’s thought about the possibility of getting traded. While he acknowledged that a trade could happen, he tries not to give it much thought because he has a job to do with his current teammates, and getting swept up in trade rumors takes his focus off the team and adds to the pressures of the game. Furthermore, and this was what got my attention, he said:

If the Miami Marlins think the best way for them to get better is to trade me, go ahead and do it because I want the best for the Miami Marlins. I love this organization so much. … I want the best for this organization and I want this organization to be a championship one. And if they’re getting better just getting rid of me so that they can get more guys, more prospects, and that’s going to put them in the position to be a championship organization, I would do that.

As much as I didn’t want to entertain the possibility of the Marlins trading Rojas, I couldn’t listen to his words and feel anything but respect for him. He’s reiterated time and time again that he wants to remain a Marlin for the rest of his career and bring a World Series to Miami, but you can tell the love he has goes beyond his own career aspirations. This is Rojas living out the belief that a good person is more important than a good ballplayer.

Beyond being a leader in the clubhouse and for the organization, Rojas has made it a point to get involved to serve the South Florida community. He’s been present at many community food distributions during the holidays, visits local elementary schools to encourage and inspire students, and donates supplies to underserved communities. During the collapse of the building in Surfside earlier this year, Rojas joined his manager at the on-site memorial and later hosted a pair of siblings who lost their parent in the collapse at a game to bring them a few hours of hope during the difficult time.

He received the Miami Marlins’ nominations for the 2020 and 2021 Roberto Clemente Award, given to the players who exemplify the characters of The Great One: extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy, and positive contributions, both on and off the field. The Marlins have also recognized Rojas with the 2017 and 2019 Charlie Hough Good Guy Awards and the 2018 Jeff Conine Mr. Marlin Award.

 

What’s next for Miggy Ro?

 

When I wrote about Drew Robinson earlier this season, I mentioned the positive ripple effect he’s going to have on so many people. The circumstances are a bit different here, but I see Rojas cultivating his own ripple effect. Miggy Ro has been training during the off-seasons with the other Miggy — Miguel Cabrera. This year, Rojas decided to mentor a local prospect and reached out to 19-year-old Victor Mesa Jr., MLB.com’s Christina De Nicola reported. Via a Zoom interview, Rojas told her:

I take big pride in trying to keep helping our organization’s players to get better every single year, every single time. If you give that knowledge to one guy, that’s going to go a long way, because that guy is going to take it over to his teammates, whatever league he’s going to play [in]. … I think if I can plant the seed in one guy, that’s going to go a long way in the organization, because they’re going to see how we are building.

I love a web gem as much as the next person, but the thing I enjoy the most when watching Rojas are the little things: going to the mound and talking to his pitcher after a lengthy at-bat that ended in a walk, calling over his double-play partner after noticing a bit of miscommunication, and watching him interact with his teammates between pitches. The Jumpman double play is cool, but it means nothing if we can’t celebrate the player doing it. In this case, we can. Miggy Ro knows you have to be a good person before you can be a good player.

 

Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire | Feature Image by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)
Data Visualizations by @Kollauf on Twitter

Nicole Cahill

Nicole Cahill is a freelance writer who focuses on mental health and sports. She recently founded a nonprofit that helps youth athletes living with mental health challenges. When she's not fighting stigma or exploring Baseball Savant visuals, you can find Nicole enjoying a cup of coffee and a good book. Portfolio: NicoleCahill.com.

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