Mel Rojas Jr.’s 2020 Season Could Become One of the Greats

In the third inning of ESPN’s broadcast of a tilt between the KT Wiz and the Kia Tigers on Wednesday, Karl Ravech and Eduardo Perez welcomed on former 10-year major leaguer Mel Rojas. The timing worked out well — the fourth batter of the inning was his son, Mel Rojas Jr. 로하스, who stepped to the plate with runners at second and third and one out in a 1-1 game.

“He’s smart,” Mel Sr. said. “He knows he’s not getting a good pitch to hit. He’s patient.” The son proved the father right, fouling off two strikes while taking three balls. With the count full, Perez asked the elder Mel what he would throw his son in this situation, with first base open and two outs. “Split,” he responded. “… I would not throw it for a strike.”

Indeed, he got the splitter from Tigers pitcher Min-woo Lee 이민우, but the pitch hung, crossing the plate at the knees. The younger Rojas flicked his bat effortlessly through the zone, slapping a base hit to center that plated two runs. On the broadcast, his father hardly budged. Two innings later — with his father now off-screen but presumably still watching — Rojas came through with a runner in scoring position again, hitting another two-out RBI single to help push the Wiz to a 7-4 victory.

No one in the KBO is more dependable than Rojas with men on base right now, because there is simply no one hitting better in general. He’s within striking distance of the standard triple crown (third in batting average, first in RBI, first in homers), as well as the triple slash crown (fourth in OBP, first in slugging). In fact, across the board, there is no one having kind of season at the plate that Rojas is.

Mel Rojas Jr. KBO Ranks, 2020
Metric Value Rank
BA .374 3rd
OBP .426 4th
SLG .707 1st
OPS 1.133 1st
HR 19 1st
RBI 52 1st
ISO .333 1st
wRC+ 189 1st

The next-closest wRC+ to him is 167, 22 points behind, and the next-best slugging percentage is .624. In the opening weeks of the KBO season, there were multiple hitters who got off to fast starts, such as Jose Miguel Fernandez 페르난데스 of the Doosan Bears and Roberto Ramos 라모스 of the LG Twins. When the sample size is small and some statistics are particularly gaudy — Fernandez was batting over .400 for quite a while, for instance — it’s difficult to tell not only who is going to lose their pace, but also by how much. As the games and plate appearances have mounted, though, Rojas has only put more and more space between him and the pack.

It’s tough to say Rojas has sneaked up on anyone with this year’s performance. He first joined the Wiz about mid-way through the 2017 season, and immediately looked comfortable, hitting .301/.351/.560 with 18 homers in 83 games, good for a 125 wRC+. The following year, he came up just one home run short of the league lead, bashing 43 dingers and slashing .305/.388/.590 with a 139 wRC+. His raw totals took a hit as offense league-wide was brought back to earth last season, but his .322/.381/.530 line and 24 homers actually amounted to his best league-adjusted offensive season yet, clocking in with a 148 wRC+.

It’s an impressive run for a player who never got a shot to click in the majors while he was Stateside. After being drafted by the Pirates in the third round in 2010, he was sent straight to Low-A, where he walked a decent amount but showed no power. Pittsburgh continued to move him up methodically despite below-average offensive returns until 2014, when his offensive potential finally became apparent. As a 24-year-old, he hit .303/.379/.446 in 53 games at Double-A, then slashed .277/.363/.405 in 77 games at Triple-A that same year. The following year, however, he couldn’t recreate that same success, bouncing between Double-A and Triple-A again. He was picked up by Atlanta in 2016 and had another strong showing at Triple-A (.270/.349/.491 in 64 games), but still never got the call to join the big league squad.

It wasn’t much longer before the Wiz came calling, and Rojas hasn’t looked back since. Of all players who have had at least 1,000 plate appearances in the KBO from 2017-20, Rojas’ 146 wRC+ ranks sixth, and his .581 slugging percentage ranks second. And as evidenced by his offensive progress year-to-year, he’s only getting better, which is an awfully scary thought considering his current numbers already place him among the greatest KBO hitting seasons of all-time.

Best KBO Offensive Seasons, 2002-20
Player Year AVG OBP SLG OPS BB% K% wRC+
Eric Thames 테임즈 2015 .381 .497 .790 1.288 17.3% 15.3% 216
Jeong-soo Shim 심정수 2003 .335 .478 .720 1.197 20.6% 10.5% 208
Seung-yeop Lee 이승엽 2002 .321 .436 .689 1.125 14.4% 17.7% 197
Taekyun Kim 김태균 2012 .363 .474 .536 1.010 15.8% 13.5% 191
Seung-yeop Lee 이승엽 2003 .301 .428 .699 1.127 16.9% 14.9% 190
Mel Rojas Jr. 2020 .374 .426 .707 1.133 8.2% 21.3% 189
Jung Ho Kang 강정호 2014 .356 .459 .739 1.198 13.6% 21.2% 189
Dae-Ho Lee 이대호 2010 .364 .444 .667 1.111 11.1% 13.9% 188
Dae-Ho Lee 이대호 2007 .335 .453 .600 1.053 15.8% 10.7% 187
Cliff Brumbaugh 2004 .343 .468 .608 1.076 19.2% 13.3% 187

Since Rojas has played less than half as many games as anyone else on this list, however, the question now becomes whether he has the tools to continue playing at this level. He has a few things working against him. He doesn’t walk nearly as often as anyone else on this list, which is going to hurt his on-base numbers if his sky-high batting average ever comes down. That appears likely, given his strikeout rate (11th-highest in the KBO) and BABIP (.421, second-highest in the league), which leave him more vulnerable to future regression than the other players on this list — not that saying “Sorry, you might not have one of the 10 best KBO seasons of the 21st century” should take much away from how great he is.

The one thing Rojas has in his corner is power, which is the biggest surprise of all, considering it’s the one thing he always seemed to lack in the U.S. In the first six seasons of his pro career, he had an 8.5% walk rate and 20.4% strikeout rate — fairly decent plate discipline numbers. He also showed he could hit for a decent average at the upper levels. Before 2016, though, he had never posted an ISO better than .144, and had hit a total of just 28 homers in his first six pro seasons.

His size, listed at 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, certainly didn’t make it out of the question that he could hit the ball hard. He’d just never actually shown it. KBO pitchers wish that were still the case. Instead, Rojas’ current pace has him on track to bump right up against the 50-homer threshold, a mark that only ByungHo Park 박병호 (who did it twice) has reached since 2003.

Rojas has a long way to go toward accomplishing one of the great offensive seasons in the KBO’s history, but even if some of those vulnerabilities eventually catch up with him a bit, he could still have an opportunity to carry his team into the postseason. The Wiz currently sit in seventh place, but are just two and a half games back of fifth place, which gets the final playoff spot. They wouldn’t be so close without their lineup, which has scored 5.87 runs per game — third-most in the KBO — to offset a pitching staff that has allowed 5.67 runs per game, which is also third-most in the KBO. The precocious 20-year-old Baek-ho Kang 강백호 (.316/.394/.605, 152 wRC+), outfielder Jung-dae Bae 배정대 (.335/.397/.524), and veteran second baseman Kyung-su Park 박경수 (.301/.389/.481, 127 wRC+) provide a good amount of thump as well, but getting a bubble team like this into the playoffs could require a legitimate superstar effort. That’s exactly what Rojas is doing.

We hoped you liked reading Mel Rojas Jr.’s 2020 Season Could Become One of the Greats by Tony Wolfe!

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Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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Spa City
Member
Spa City

Why does the KBO limit “foreign” players on each KBO team?

If they want the best on-field product, they would never limit the pool of eligible players.

KBO is a private business – not a charity designed to create jobs for South Korean citizens. So please don’t try to claim they are doing this for noble reasons.

Take the blinders off. KBO limits foreign players because there is a racism problem in South Korea. Limiting “foreign” players helps them keep the on-field product mostly Asian, so Korean fans can watch players who look like them.

I think fans are convincing themselves it is a good thing for KBO to limit foreignness so they don’t need to confront the underlying problem. Limiting foreign players helps KBO market their product to a racist audience.

If Mel Rojas, Jr. is this good by comparison… how many minor leaguers could go over there and elevate the level of play? Probably hundreds of them. But KBO wants the players to look like the fans. That is what MLB did when they excluded black players. MLB wanted white fans, so they made sure players looked like the racist fans.

I know my POV is a minority POV. And I know as a black man I tend to see racism where white people might not. I also know that just because I think something does not mean I am 100% objectively right. But I feel strongly about this. And I hope we can have civil discussions about it.

Peter
Member
Member
Peter

I think you may be right, and it’s certainly worth discussing. One thing I would want to keep in mind is that Korea is so so much more homogenous than the US has ever been. Having a preference for one’s own compatriots isn’t racist per se. To compare apples to apples we’d have to look at the KBO’s attitude towards ethnically diverse Korean citizens, though I suspect (and this cycles back to my point) that there are very few.

trpetersen
Member
Member
trpetersen

It isn’t a limit on ethnic Koreans, its a limit on Korean citizens, and a good chunk of baseball leagues across the world have them. Italy, France, Netherlands etc. also have rules capping the number of international players.

The point is to also GROW local talent and grow the sport of baseball in the country and not just let every team go out and spend a lot of money on talent.

This also exists in soccer and basketball by the way and the MLS is a perfect example. The goal is to give opportunities to american players and grow the game domestically while also putting on a show.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MLS_International_Roster_Slots

si.or.no
Member
Member
si.or.no

I’m going to approach this assuming the best of intentions from you (and that you’re not just trolling with an anon account).

> KBO limits foreign players because there is a racism problem in South Korea. Limiting “foreign” players helps them keep the on-field product mostly Asian, so Korean fans can watch players who look like them.

So, I think the argument you’re trying to make is actually against xenophobia (fear of foreigners — a Korean-American would face the same challenges in the KBO despite looking like the fans). And not that I think that’s it’s the best thing, but discriminating by country/nationality is built into the structure of many world governments (see: tariffs, visas, import taxes, immigration limits, wars, covid travel-restrictions, etc.).

There are many smarter people than me out there who have written about this, but as I understand it, restrictions based on which passport a person holds are viewed differently from restrictions based on ethnicity.

Spa City
Member
Spa City

Thank you for assuming my intentions are pure. I also assume yours are pure.

I have maintained my fangraphs profile for 6 years, and while most internet accounts are anonymous, I certainly am not just trying to be a jerk with a random account. I have been a participant on this site a long time.

I view KBO as hiding racism behind a veneer of an effort to build baseball in Korea. I do not believe their cover story.

I think a good way to build interest for baseball in Korea is to have the very best talent in the KBO – regardless what country the players are from.

I also think the explanation that KBO’s rule focuses on citizenship, not race, is a thin cover for racism. South Korea’s population is 96% Asian. So it gives them a cover to ensure the players on the field are mostly Korean.

I do not think citizenship or race should matter. If KBO was trying to put the best product on the field, why limit the player pool at all?

I think KBO is focused on making money, and I have no problem with that.

But I think they believe their fans are racists who will pay more $ to watch players who look like them. And I think that is ignorant, racist, and hurtful. I hope Korean fans would be fair and want the best players to get opportunities to play, regardless where they were born.

But, again, I am only voicing my opinion. And I know my opinion is inherently skewed by my personal experiences and biases.

But let me ask this – would you be surprised if in 5 years, public opinion shifts and people start really asking for a better explanation of the “citizenship” rule in KBO?

EK
Member
EK

NPB has citizenship rule. they prohibit to use only 4 players in their major league, even they have 2nd biggest baseball league in world.
Even your neighbour country, Mexico, has citizenship rule. as I know,

Oh, KBO/NPB does not have “citizenship” rule. Even though your race is “black or white”, if you graduate school in Korea/Japan and attend draft, you could be accepted as “domestic” player.

NPB has african origin player “Aduwa Makoto” and KBO has chinese origin player “Kwon Ju”

Asians are different from 50’s Americans who thinks Different Skin Coloured people should not be in the same bus or same baseball field. OK?

NatsFan37
Member
NatsFan37

Bruh, you have no idea what ur talking about. There are black, Korean citizens and they would not count as “foreign” if they played on a KBO team. Black people are not the only ones who face racism, and if you aren’t sure what you’re saying just don’t make up some BS about what you THINK is racism, but is NOT.

Spa City
Member
Spa City

Bruh, South Korea is one of the most homogenous populations in the world. Over 96% of South Korean citizens are ethnically Korean.

You have never met me. You have no idea about my education, experience or intelligence. But you attack me because you think a different thing than I do about this issue. Why?

I think KBO is doing an injustice to their fans and to baseball players. I think by limiting foreign players KBO is trying to make sure most player are ethic Koreans. I think they do this because they think Korean fans want to watch Korean people play ball. I also think KBO is wrong to do what they are doing.

Does it bother you, bruh, that I think those things? It does not bother me that you think I am wrong.

Why get angry at me because I think differently than you. No need to spread hate over a difference of opinion.

NatsFan37
Member
NatsFan37

Bruh

NatsFan37
Member
NatsFan37

I feel like you’re just trolling with this account, to talk about something other than baseball.

TKDC
Member
Member
TKDC

It’s a brand. They are doing it for money. Why do college football teams have to be made up from amateurs? Why can’t Johnny Manziel go back to Texas A&M and try to win another Heisman. These college teams do not have the best (non-NFL) talent. Why don’t we want to put the best talent on the field? As usual it is easy to point back to money.

Is the KBO rule xenophobic? Perhaps, but the range of what entertainment could be considered xenophobic is very wide. America’s Got Talent. American Idol. These entertainment shows are purposefully mostly exclusionary of foreign voices and talents. Is that wrong? Is it more or less wrong than the KBO? Should they make a product that values meritocracy at the expense of commercial viability? It’s not my money that would be flushed down the toilet, so it’s hard for me to argue that they should.

And one more point. The KBO is basically a disadvantaged league with disadvantaged players. I think you could almost liken them to HBCUs. Would it be fine for whites to overrun the student body population at Howard or Morehouse?

NatsFan37
Member
NatsFan37

Look how downvoted your comment is and tell me that it’s a “correct” POV and so many people disagree.

EK
Member
EK

KBO limits foreign players not only for American or African… Japanese, chinese or even indians aren’t allowed for KBO. “Race” and “Nationality” is far different.