Photo: Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire
The most remarkable defensive player in the game is an old man playing a kid’s position. An ageless wonder, you might say. He might rank last or next-to-last among his team’s position players in offensive production and he’s not even currently projected as his team’s regular starter.
The Dodgers have a lot of luxuries on their roster, but the one that’s the most under-the-radar is the best defensive shortstop in baseball, Miguel Rojas.
"Sorry, guys. I need to make this play real quick."
Miguel Rojas is mic'd up and doesn't miss a beat.
— MLB (@MLB) September 24, 2023
“Best defensive shortstop in baseball” is not a term we throw around lightly. We come with evidence. Rojas is either a leader or co-leader in Defensive Runs Saved at shortstop if we measure the last 2, 3, or 4 seasons.
Here are the shortstop leaders in Defensive Runs Saved over the last 3 seasons.
Rojas ranked 5th in Runs Saved last season as a 34-year-old. The 4 shortstops ahead of him were a 29-year-old (Dansby Swanson) and three 22-year-olds (Wander Franco, Ezequiel Tovar, and Anthony Volpe). The shortstop who ranked right behind Rojas was Gunnar Henderson, who turned 22 midseason (and seems destined for third base with Jackson Holliday on the way).
The defensive aging curve is not kind to most players, but Rojas has defied it. He is the only shortstop who had at least 10 Runs Saved in both 2022 and 2023. He was plugged into the shortstop spot after Gavin Lux got hurt and though he didn’t hit, his glove kept him on the field as a regular.
Could we have picked someone else as baseball’s best defensive shortstop?
This is the part of the story where Cubs and Braves fans tell me “Dansby Swanson would like a word.” Swanson’s terrific and was a unanimous selection for a Fielding Bible Award last year. Rojas almost matched him on a Runs Saved per-inning basis in 2023 and bettered him when we took a longer view of multiple years.
Jeremy Peña is very good but is just a little bit behind Rojas in Runs Saved Per Inning. Ha-Seong Kim might’ve been the pick had he not moved to second base. Wander Franco doesn’t look like he’ll be playing in MLB anymore given the criminal charges he faces. One of his potential replacements on the Rays, Taylor Walls, just had hip surgery and we don’t know what he’s going to be when he returns. Anthony Volpe won an AL Gold Glove last year as a rookie. Ezequiel Tovar played well enough to win one in 2023 but lost out to Swanson. Maybe we’re talking about them as the best in MLB next year. Jorge Mateo was excellent two years ago, a little less so in 2023, so he’s a ‘not quite.’
And the Defensive Runs Saved numbers just don’t back it up over the last 3 years for Carlos Correa, Javier Báez, Francisco Lindor, and Bobby Witt Jr. (yes, I know, Statcast rated Witt highly in 2023 … but it didn’t in 2022).
What I see when I watch Rojas
I wanted to give Rojas a comprehensive lookover not just statistically, but with video. So, I watched 150 plays from the 2023 season.
– Every batted ball that either added or subtracted at least 0.25 runs from his Runs Saved
– Every Good Fielding Play or Defensive Misplay & Error that wasn’t among the previous set of plays
– A group of randomly selected plays to get me to 150
What did I see from watching all that video? (Click the links to watch the plays)
* He goes to his left and right well whether with shuffle-steps or other means. The various broadcasters I heard praised his quick hands and smooth hands. His reactions are quick and his anticipation gives him the head start he needs to reach balls. I saw a good number of balls hit to the first base side of shortstop that he handled easily. As our VP of Baseball, Bobby Scales noted, his movements are still fluid.
Without concern for the numbers, I thought that Rojas looked better at going to his left than going to his right but the numbers provided context to add to that assessment. He ranked No. 1 among shortstops at converting batted balls to his left into outs in 2023, doing so 62% of the time.
But he also ranked 2nd among shortstops in getting outs on balls hit to his right (68%) and that was worth more when it came to his end-year Runs Saved.
|Out Conversion Rate
|Balls Hit To His Right
|Balls Hit To His Left
* I once interviewed an older college basketball player who brought up the “old man tricks” he employed to keep up with younger players. For Rojas, one of his ‘old man tricks’ is the sliding stop.
Rojas slid to reach 20 batted balls in 2023. Of those 20, he got at least one out on 17 of them (85% success, MLB average is 60%). The slides served to extend his range on the toughest plays. Of the 4 batted balls worth the most positive value to Rojas’ Runs Saved, 3 of them were plays that required Rojas to slide to make them.
* Rojas’ misses aren’t for lack of effort. The 4 defensive plays that cost Rojas the most in Runs Saved this season were all batted balls in which the effort was there, whether it be a leap, dive, reach, or charge. Speaking of diving, Rojas isn’t shy about doing that, even at his age and even though he misses on dives a lot more than he succeeds. He dove for 38 balls last season (getting at least one out on 7 of them). Only 4 shortstops had more diving attempts than Rojas did. When he does make a diving play, it’s usually a really good one.
Did you know: 25 shortstops played at least 100 games at the position last season. Miguel Rojas was the oldest of those 25.
* He doesn’t have a strong arm … and that’s ok.
Per Statcast’s leaderboards his 84.5MPH average velocity on the top 5% of his throws ranks 29th. His 90.5 MPH maximum speed ranks 26th. This lack of zip comes into play sometimes though not a lot.
But eye-popping velo isn’t a necessity for the position. Though Tovar and Henderson throw harder than Rojas does, Peña and Volpe both throw slower to first base on average than Rojas does. Swanson, who has beaten out Rojas for the last 2 NL Gold Glove Awards, throws almost 5 MPH slower than Rojas does (79.7). And Rojas still can make a hard throw when it’s most needed.
* Our stat tracking provided considerable help when it came to watching video of Rojas’ mistakes, as it turned out that it was rare that we saw any.
Our Video Scouts watch every play of every game and track plays we previously mentioned, known as “Good Fielding Plays” and “Defensive Misplays.” Good Plays include your typical dives, slides, and jumps to get outs, but also things like keeping the ball on the infield to prevent a runner from taking an extra base. Defensive Misplays are errors but also are plays not scored errors but that could be, like failing to complete a double play, or initially breaking back on a ball that lands just in front of you.
In the last 3 seasons, Rojas ranks 2nd in both most Good Fielding Plays and fewest Misplays & Errors per 1,000 innings among shortstops (24 and 17).
In 2023 by itself, he ranked 6th in Good Plays and 1st in Misplays and Errors per 1,000 innings, respectively (19 and 15).
Currently, Rojas is a backup, not just to a now-healthy Lux at shortstop, but at the other 3 infield positions for the Dodgers too, as he has at least 70 career games of experience at each. He’ll report to spring training in a few weeks, turn 35, and will try to keep himself healthy and useful.
Hitting a little more would help. Rojas actually hit better than his final results indicated. That’s another story for another time (or click here to read the article and leaderboard and see what I’m talking about).
There’s a funny thing in all of this. While we feel definitive about our perspective about how well Rojas plays defense, there’s much less certainty when it comes to how much he’ll play in 2024.