KT MVP returns after 4 years, fails in Japan

Mel Rojas Jr. is back in the KBO after a four-year absence, and he’s already starting to exude an MVP presence in an exhibition game.

Rojas started in left field as the No. 5 hitter in the lineup against Hanwha in Daejeon on March 15, and hit a two-run shot to center field in the first inning and a two-run shot to right field in the seventh inning. Led the team with three home runs in six exhibition games.

He alternated between batting left and right. In the first inning, facing Hanwha left-hander Ricardo Sanchez, Rojas lifted a six-pitch, 149-kilometer fastball over the center field backscreen. It traveled 125 meters. In the seventh inning, Rojas batted left against Hanwha right-handed reliever Kim Kyu-yeon, and launched a six-seam 147-kilometer fastball over the right-center field wall for a three-run home run.

Rojas, who previously played in the KBO for four years until 2020 after joining KT in June 2017 as an alternate foreign-base hitter, had four multi-homer games from the left side of the plate as a switch-hitter, two of which were back-to-back home runs. In his first game back in the KBO after a four-year absence, Rojas announced his return to the league with a left-handed multi-homer game. After the game, Rojas said, “I’m getting in better shape for the regular season. Today (Aug. 15), I hit a home run to left and right with good at-bat timing, which gives me confidence and makes me feel good,” Rojas said.

The bat didn’t come out of the gate in the early stages of the exhibition games.

After going 1-for-9 in the first three games, he hit his first home run of the tournament in the fifth inning against Suwon SSG on Dec. 12, a solo shot to right off Lee Eun-wook. He followed that up with a double against Hanwha on the 14th, and quickly picked up the pace with a multi-homer game against Hanwha on the 15th. All five of his hits in the exhibition games were long balls, including three home runs and two doubles.

KT manager Lee Kang-chul, who worked with Rojas in 2019 and 2020, responded to his early slump by saying, “I’m waiting to see what he does because he’s done it before. 스포츠토토 If a foreign player you don’t know comes and doesn’t hit, you can say you’re fooled, but he’s basically done it before. When he gets a chance, he’s worthy of his name. I think there’s a difference with and without runners on base,” he said, expressing his faith in him.

“I haven’t faced a lot of pitchers yet, but after four years in the KBO, the average velocity of young pitchers has improved. “I think we have a week left (until the start of the season) to study a lot of their pitch mixes and characteristics and prepare for them,” he said.

In 2020, the last time Rojas played in the KBO, his fastball averaged 142.3 mph, according to Statcast. Last year, it rose 1.5 kilometers to 143.8 kilometers. In the meantime, young fastball pitchers such as Moon Dong-joo, Kim Seo-hyun (Hanwha), Lee Yi-ri (KIA), Jang Jae-young (Kiwoom), Park Young-hyun (KT), Chung Cheol-won (Doosan), and Yoo Young-chan (LG) have emerged. While the league’s landscape has changed with the rise in average velocity, Rojas’ presence has remained strong since the exhibition games.

Rojas was a dominant hitter in the KBO.

Over a four-year span from 2017-2020, Rojas batted .322 with 132 home runs, 409 RBI, 350 runs scored, a .388 OBP, .594 slugging percentage, and a .982 OPS in 511 games (1971-for-633). In 2020, he exploded in 142 games (550 at-bats, 192 hits) with 47 home runs, 135 RBI, 116 runs scored, a .417 slugging percentage, a .680 on-base percentage, and a 1.097 OPS. He led the league in home runs, RBIs, runs scored, and on-base percentage, and was named MVP.

This led to a two-year, $5 million offer from the Hanshin Tigers to play in Japan. However, he bounced around between the first and second levels of the organization, batting just .222 (82-for-372) with 17 home runs, 48 RBIs, 37 runs scored, a .302 OBP, .395 slugging percentage, and a .697 OPS in 149 games over two years. The psychological challenges of internal competition due to the structure of Nippon Professional Baseball, which allows for an unlimited number of foreign players and up to four in the first team, were not overcome by the quality of Japanese pitching. The difference in quality between the Korean and Japanese leagues is clear.

Rojas, who returned to KT last year after four years in the Mexican League, is still 34 years old. Despite his failure in Japan, he has the experience to repeat his MVP performance from four years ago. Like pitcher Raul Alcantara (Doosan), who played in Korea and Japan during the same time period, but rebounded after a failed stint in Japan, Rojas could do the same. Rojas’ presence will be a big boost for KT, which is looking to return to the top after a three-year absence.

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