Monday, August 7, 2017

Getting to Know Quad Cities 3B/2B Josh Rojas

Through 31 games for Quad Cities, Astros 2017 26th round draft pick Josh Rojas has managed to slash .263/.311/.551 with four doubles, three triples, eight home runs and 28 RBI. Although Rojas was originally assigned to the Short Season A Tri-City team, he never played a game there and instead made his pro debut with the Full Season A Quad Cities team, a move that isn't very common for a lower round pick. That piqued my curiosity, so I made my plans to talk with Rojas late last month during my Quad Cities trip.

Josh Rojas - July 2017
Photo by Jayne Hansen

After learning that Rojas only hit five home runs his entire senior year at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, I tried to square that with the eight home runs he collected in his first 16 games with Quad Cities. So my first question to Rojas was, "What the heck?!?!" Rojas replied, "I think it had a little to do with the fact that we were in Hawaii. The ball doesn't fly very well. You've got to hit them perfect to get them out. I hit a couple that I thought were gone and they'd get caught or they hit the wall or it just hangs up there a lot. (The ball) doesn't fly very well." Also, Rojas has been working hard on his approach since starting his professional career and he felt that work was already starting to pay off and could be a factor in his power output as well.

Rojas had hoped for the chance to be drafted as a junior, but a variety of factors (including some self-imposed pressure) worked against him. So he approached his senior year with a different mindset. "Going into my senior year, I kind of just said, 'Forget all the rest of the stuff. I don't really care about the draft right now. I'm just going to go back to playing the game that I was playing in high school and junior college, just having fun, and see where it takes me.' So I had a good senior season and I played well," said Rojas.

But even during a senior season that was successful for him, Rojas wouldn't allow himself to dwell on the draft. When friends asked him about it, he told them, "I haven't heard anything and I'm not really worried about it. I'm really not thinking about it. I'm just going to do well, focus on what I want to do next and that's it." And then it was summertime, the season was over and he still hadn't heard anything. But then he got a call from an Astros representative inviting him to a pre-draft workout in Huntington Beach. It was short notice, but Rojas went. "(I) felt like I did pretty well and then they said, 'we'll keep in touch,' (but) I really didn't hear anything."

So Rojas moved on with life and went ahead and scheduled job interviews. But when draft time came, it was in the back of his head. He knew that, if he was to get drafted, it would be in the final day. His girlfriend knew he was thinking about it; he gave himself away by answering a call from an unknown number that day, something he would rarely do. But then he got a call from someone he knew; it was his mom congratulating him on getting drafted. While he was still trying to wrap his head around it, his dad called him from work to congratulate him as well.

"I was in disbelief. I was so excited. And then right after that, the same guy that invited me to the workout called me and said, 'Hey, I just wanted to let you know that we drafted you and I'm taking it that you're going to accept,' and I (said), 'Heck, yeah, I'll take it!' So that was the crazy, crazy draft day. It was pretty cool, especially since I was kind of left in the dark about the whole thing. I'm happy. I couldn't have asked for anything better. There's nothing else I'd rather be doing," said Rojas.

And then, of course, Rojas headed to Tri-City as so many new Astros draft picks do, but it took a while for him to get activated and before he knew it, he was headed to Quad Cities to start his professional career. Rojas said, "The first day I was here (in Quad Cities), I was in the lineup so that was going to be my first game since college, first live pitching I've seen since college." And he had seen tweets coming out that he would be the first 2017 Astros draftee to make it to Quad Cities. "Personally, I felt like I've got to live up to that. I don't want to come in and they're like, 'What is this kid doing here? He's not very good.' So that first game I was pressing a little bit. It was online and my parents got to watch it. My Dad texted me right after the game ... I went 0-for-3 with a strikeout or something, maybe even two ... and he told me, 'Just have fun. It looked like when you were at the plate, you were thinking too much,' which I was. It was funny that he could tell. That next day I ... just focus(ed) on getting a base hit, and then I hit a home run."

When I asked Rojas to give me a scouting report on himself, he touted that his knowledge of the game and baseball IQ are high and he's worked a lot on his defense, but he quickly honed in on what he's working to improve. "I've always just been a free swinger and not really had an offensive approach. So I think the biggest thing I could work on is my offensive approach, just being more consistent and swinging at better pitches. Because I think when I start doing better at the plate and start having more success, I start to be more of that free swinger again and start to lose my approach. So I think the biggest thing is I've got to stay focused on my approach and, in the end, it will make me a more consistent hitter."

Quad Cities Manager Russ Steinhorn is pleased with what he's seen from Rojas thus far, "We're just trying to get him to drive the ball and swing hard with intent every swing, and he's had some success with it. He's come in to the organization and he's bought into our hitting approach." Steinhorn went on to say that playing every day and preparing will be the biggest learning curve for Rojas.

Rojas played primarily second base and third base during his college career, plus some right field in junior college, and feels comfortable at any of those positions. When asked to characterize himself defensively, he told me, "I feel like I'm consistent on defense. I pride myself on trying not to make errors. I pride myself at getting to balls that other people might not get to. I think my reads off the bat (are) what I'm the best at because I'm not the fastest guy. I'm probably not the quickest guy. But I feel like my read off of the hitter's swing, I feel like it's really good. So I think that's what allows me to play multiple positions as I can read the ball off the bat from different spots on the field because I've been all over the place. I think that was the biggest adjustment when I first started moving around. I was playing second a lot (so) I learned the reads from second. I moved to third. A right-handed hitter, you're kind of cut off from seeing, but then you learn over time how their swing is and where the ball will end up. I think that's probably my strength. I think one of the weaknesses I have on defense is I definitely want to improve my arm strength. You see the guys out here that play third and take their time, take their time and then throw a missile to first, whereas, I'm more of a guy that gets it and gets rid of it because I don't have the arm strength to do stuff like that. I would love to improve on my arm strength."

I wanted to dig a little deeper and find out what kind of teammate Rojas is. I found that he's a little bit of a joker, more apt to be the guy who keeps the clubhouse loose than the team leader. "I'm definitely more of a guy who tries to keep things loose. When a guy is frustrated, I like to go joke around with them and be the guy that just keeps people up. I like to have fun and play jokes on people, play pranks. That's how my Dad is too. Same way. Still playing jokes and messing around." When Rojas told me later on that he likes to hunt and fish, including surreptitious night fishing on golf course lakes, it cemented his jokester persona in my mind.

Since Rojas is new to the Astros organization, I wanted to know which of his new teammates really impressed him. Rojas said, "Defensively, Chuckie [Robinson] stands out to me. It's unreal how hard he throws the ball and it's right on the money. Like yesterday, he had that ball in the dirt and he picked it out of the dirt and threw the guy out by three steps. And then I really like the way Ronnie [Dawson] plays, just because he's so big and athletic at the same time. The first time I saw him run, I was like, 'What the heck?' I did not expect that out of him. I like Daz [Cameron] too. Daz is super athletic, gets to balls that I think are hits and he's camped under them in center field. Good swing. I feel like he doesn't swing and miss very much. He's always on it."

Going back to draft day, I wanted to know what Rojas was interviewing for as his baseball backup plan. He was hoping to become an academic adviser at Arizona State University (in his home state), while pursuing his Master's degree there with an eye toward ultimately snagging a coaching job. Whatever his career brings, he hopes there is a coaching job at the end of it. "I've always been a guy that, when we're in the dugout, even when the pitching coach is telling the pitchers stuff on pitching, I'm always listening. I like to know that kind of stuff. Even when I'm watching a game on TV, I have to rewind it and pause and slo-mo it on little things I see that I didn't know. I feel like I learn a lot by looking and listening."

A self-described sports fanatic, Rojas's high energy and curiosity should serve him well should he ever have the opportunity to pursue that coaching career. But, hopefully, that next career will be postponed for a while. I'll leave you with something else Steinhorn said about Rojas, "I don't think anybody could expect the start that he's had at the full season level when he was supposed to be in Tri-City like all the other draft guys. Nobody expected this, but we're all glad he's an Astro."

Thank you for your time, Josh, and best of luck as your season continues.

Other Recent Interviews:
Marcos Almonte and Abdiel Saldana

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