The Miguel Rojas bandwagon might be more two-door-coupe-sized than luxury SUV, but it gained one prominent passenger when the Dodgers shortstop sent a 103-mph laser over the left-field wall at Angel Stadium on March 27, an indication his surgically repaired right wrist was strong enough to regain his 2020-to-2021 form at the plate.
“He’s gonna be in the talk for MVP of our team this year,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said that night after his club’s second-to-last exhibition game. “His bat-to-ball skills, what he can do defensively … his play at shortstop is as good as I’ve seen.”
A prophet, Roberts is not. Rojas, acquired in a trade from Miami in January, has provided solid and sometimes superb defense in place of the injured Gavin Lux. He showed that again against the Houston Astros on Sunday, when he made a sliding, back-hand stop of Kyle Tucker’s 102-mph grounder and long throw to first base in the sixth inning.
But three months into his first season with the Dodgers, the 34-year-old veteran has done minimal damage with the bat.
Rojas enters Tuesday night’s game against the Colorado Rockies with a .228 average, .546 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, no homers, seven doubles and six RBIs in 52 games. He has an OPS-plus of 49, meaning he is 51% worse offensively than the average major league player.
“The wrist has been good — it has nothing to do with the performance,” Rojas said. “After the spring I had, I felt like I would be an impactful offensive player, and that’s what I still believe. But the way I was in spring training, I haven’t shown that so far this year.”
Rojas injured his right hand on a slide into third base in the first game after the All-Star break last July and hit .230 with a .557 OPS and no homers in his final 58 games. He underwent surgery to remove cartilage from the wrist in October and had a second procedure in January to remove a bone growth from the wrist.
Rojas was acquired to play a utility role this season but took over as starting shortstop after Lux suffered a season-ending knee injury in late February.
A strong spring — Rojas hit .283 with an .831 OPS, two homers, three doubles and seven RBIs in 18 games — fueled hope that Rojas would produce more as he did in 2020 and 2021, when he hit a combined .273 with a .749 OPS, 13 homers, 40 doubles and 68 RBIs in 172 games.
“For me, it’s a way different feeling — I can trust my [top] hand that when I hit the ball on the barrel, the ball is going to do that,” Rojas said after that late-spring homer against Angels left-hander Tyler Anderson. “Last year, I was doing that, and the ball was caught by the left fielder.”
But Rojas was slowed by groin and hamstring injuries in April and got off to a brutal start, hitting .125 with a .379 OPS, one double and no RBIs in 12 games through May 1. He’s been better in 28 games since May 16, batting .263 with a .610 OPS, five doubles and five RBIs, but still not as good as he or the Dodgers thought he’d be.
“I haven’t been able to find my swing on the inner part of the plate, where I’ve been pretty good throughout my career,” Rojas said. “I’m a pull hitter, but right now, I’m not able to get the barrel of the bat to the inside pitch, and I’m hitting a lot of popups to right field and hard ground balls to second base.”
Rojas’ average exit velocity of 88.1 mph and hard-hit rate of 34.8% are career highs, but so is his 38.3% chase rate, a considerable jump from his 30.6% career average.
There have been signs of encouragement during the past two weeks — Rojas had three straight multi-hit games against the Chicago White Sox and San Francisco Giants on June 14 to 16 and sparked a two-run rally with a one-out double to left field in the eighth inning of last Tuesday night’s 2-0 win over the Angels in Anaheim.
“For me, the defense has been incredible and consistent,” Roberts said over the weekend. “But this last month, the bat-to-ball, the hits, keeping the line moving — this guy has always been a person who can move the baseball, doesn’t punch out, can hit with two strikes. So this is more in line with what we expected when we acquired him.”
Rojas, a Gold Glove Award finalist with the Miami Marlins in 2022, refuses to allow his struggles at the plate to bleed into the field. He has committed only four errors and is tied for fifth among shortstops who have played 350 innings or more with five defensive runs saved, according to Fangraphs.
“I’m not going to let myself be a liability on defense,” he said. “I’m here to provide a really good defensive shortstop, to be a guy who can be a pillar in the infield.”
Rojas knows he will never be an Alex Rodriguez-like offensive force as a shortstop, but he believes he is capable of hitting .275 with a .750 OPS, 10 to 15 homers and 60 RBIs.
“I don’t need to be a superstar offensively in this lineup, but I want to match my defense with offense,” Rojas said. “I want to be a complete player. I don’t want to be the guy they put in just for defense, or whose bat is taken away later in the game, but if you’re not producing, you’re going to be replaced. I’m not gonna hit 30 to 40 homers and drive in 100 runs, but I know I’m capable of more.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.