A Long Conversation With KBO Superstar Mel Rojas Jr.

Rojas Jr. Mel
Kt Wiz v SK Wyverns | Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

KT Wiz outfielder Mel Rojas Jr. is chasing a Triple Crown and MVP in the most internationally scrutinized KBO season to date. The switch-hitting slugger may achieve both goals, but even if he doesn't, his second act in Korea has been a smashing success. After eight minor-league seasons in the Pittsburgh and Atlanta systems, Rojas staked out his luck halfway across the globe, joining the Wiz midway through the 2017 year. In 2018, he blasted 43 homers while driving in 113 runs and compiling a .979 OPS. Last year he hit .322 with another 24 long balls and 104 RBI.

In 50 games this season, the 30-year-old has a league-leading 18 homers and is second in both batting average and RBI. His OPS sits at an unreasonable 1.152.

Rojas spoke to The Big Lead, the unofficial blog of his MVP candidacy, about his acclimation to a new brand of baseball, his hopes for the future, and how he approaches the bat flip.

Kyle Koster: Do you remember the moment when you first started entertaining the idea of playing in Korea? You spent a lot of time in Triple A but couldn't get over the hump.

Mel Rojas: Yeah. One day my hitting coach was like why are you here?' Why don't you go to Asia and make some money? At first I didn't want to come over but my family convinced me to do it. It ended up being a great decision.

KK: Why did you resist at first?

MR: Not so long ago if you came over here it was seen as the end of your career. But for me, it's been the opposite. Not just for me --for a lot of guys like Eric Thames, Josh Lindblom. They're coming over and then going back to Major League Baseball.

KK: Was there a time during your minor-league career that you fell out of love with baseball?

MR: I've always been a baseball guy but I didn't love it four or five years ago. I didn't get excited about going to the field. Then I got traded to the Braves and that's when everything turned around. It was like I fell in love with baseball again. Now I love getting out there every day.

KK: What were those first few weeks like in Korea?

MR: It was tough. I was here by myself and I couldn't adapt to the time change. The umpires have bigger zones. The pitchers have different mechanics than I was used to. It was just hard for a few weeks but then I adapted. I feel like I'm Korean now.

KK: Why do you say that? What parts have you grown to really like?

MR: I fell in love with their culture. It's a very safe country. The people are friendly. I love the food, especially the Korean barbecue.

KK: Teams in the KBO are only allowed three foreign players so I would imagine you're stepping into a high-pressure situation where they're counting on a lot of production.

MR: It was even harder for me because I came mid-season. I didn't get a spring training.

KK: Did you have any moments where you asked yourself what you'd gotten yourself into?

MR: I'm sure I had them. I remember my first game I went to the stadium and saw how different it was. But that went away quickly. All the guys were great to me. My teammates and the staff were very helpful. Not everyone has the same luck but part of it is having the right mindset too.

KK: The language barrier is something that really interests me. Baseball can be a very solitary game anyway. How challenging was it to communicate with your teammates?

MR: We have a translator. My first year, he was young and used to live in Los Angeles. So it was pretty cool.

KK: Do you heckled? And would you know if you were being heckled?

MR: No, no. The opposing team's fans are really cool. There will be one or two on social media but not in person.

KK: How about in the dugout? Is there a lot of chatter in there or is that made more difficult?

MR: I talk to everybody, and have good relationships. I enjoy joking around and messing with people. I do that because I want them to know I have their back.

KK: You've played in the United States, Dominican Republic and Korea. Is there a different concept of being on a team for each place you've played? And if so, what stands out?

MR: I haven't really thought of that before. Guys here definitely focus on the game and want to learn as much as they can. Part of that is cultural. Back in the Dominican and in the States, they joke around a little more. There's a real focus on the dugout here.

KK: You come from a family with deep baseball ties. Your father was a pitcher in the majors for many years and your cousin is Moises Alou. How much of your youth was spent in clubhouses?

MR: I went to the stadium with him every day up until his final year in the MLB when I was 9. It was great being around players like Sammy Sosa, Pedro Martinez and stuff. I knew I wanted to be a baseball player since I was in my mom's belly. I've always loved it. I also had the pressure to follow in my family's footsteps.

KK: How so?

MR: I hated when people back in the day would say oh, you're going to play in the big leagues because your dad did and you come from a baseball family. I hated that. That had a lot to do with me coming to Korea. I wanted to make my own path.

KK: You have had a major career renovation. Did your hitting just click or is it a product of fewer high-velocity fastballs or both?

MR: It was a process. After I got traded to the Braves I felt like I started killing it. The numbers may not show it but if you watched my at-bats they were better than my numbers. I'm not making excuses, the numbers are what they are. Over here, everything just exploded.

I don't think the velocity has much to do with it. Honestly, it's harder to hit against Koreans than Americans sometimes. The average speed over here is 88-90 mph but it gets there quick and looks faster than it is. They're very sneaky.

KK: Yeah, there's a hitch in the windup and the breaking and off-speed stuff really spins.

MR: You have to have a really good approach. They'll throw you a splitter -- and they are very good -- then you see the fastball and it looks like it's 100 mph. In the States, a lot of people throw 100 mph but it doesn't look as fast. I've seen good big-league hitters come to Korea and struggle. That shows how hard it can be.

KK: What would winning MVP mean to you, if that happens down the road?

MR: If I win the MVP, I'm for sure getting a big-league contract. It would mean everything to me, and I'm not just saying that. To come to a place like this, take a chance and have it pay off is already incredible. And then if I were to win the MVP, it would mean so much to me and for the team. [KT Wiz] is relatively new so I'd be the first to do it.

KK: Do you get recognized on the street? What's the level of celebrity we're talking about here?

MR: Oh yeah. Everywhere. This year they're not all over me because of the virus but the first three years they'd run from far away for pictures and autographs.

KK: You know, the fans seem like such a special and integral part of the KBO experience. It's a bummer that you and the people over here America are missing out on that energy.

MR: It helps fire me up. When I first got here and was struggling, the fans were always with me. It helped me and made a difference. It's not like that in the States or in the Dominican. There you'll hear the boos.

It's too bad that people back home can't enjoy that part of it. I have heard the fans are coming back soon. You have to hear them cheer and sing and all that. That's one of my favorite parts of playing here. They are true fans. And I feel like the women are more passionate than the men.

KK: Well, there is a lot of beer being consumed from what I hear.

MR: Yes. A lot of eating and drinking for sure.

KK: All the KBO players have personalized fight songs. You probably have to say yes, but do you like yours?

MR: Oh, sure. It's a bit different at first but I like it.

KK: Well, it's a lot different than, like, Jay-Z over a loudspeaker.

MR: Exactly.

Rojas Jr. Mel
Kt Wiz v SK Wyverns | Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

KK: Were you fired up when you learned they'd be showing games on American television?

MR: Oh, yeah, I was excited. Especially that first game on ESPN. I tried to look nice, wear everything brand new. But then after, like, the third game on ESPN I started to forget that it was going to be televised. I'll remember mid-game that my wife and friends are watching.

KK: Are you able to DVR the games and watch to see how it's being covered?

MR: No, man. Unfortunately we don't get ESPN over here. I know they're doing a really great job and providing so much knowledge.

KK: That's a bummer. It's been a real pleasure to just appreciate a baseball game, even if it's different. It sounds crazy but I almost prefer the style of play because there are fewer strikeouts and more action.

MR: I didn't know how big of fans of just baseball people were. Friends of my wife or guys I know back there are waking up at 5 or 6 a.m. just to watch our games. I love baseball but I don't know if I'd wake up that early. I really appreciate people doing that.

KK: Well, just full disclosure I have two small children who don't sleep so I'm an easy mark. A lot has been made of the bat flips in the KBO. You hit more homers than anyone but you don't really have an extremely flip or exaggerated style.

MR: I don't want to go too crazy. I've done some here though that I think would get me hit in the head in the States. I don't want to get in too much of a habit so it carries over if I go back. I do watch the ball from home plate though.

KK: So I have to ask. When I look at the numbers you're putting up and that you have power from both sides of the plate, why aren't you in the Majors right now?

MR: The thing I hear would be that I've never played in the big leagues so they don't trust the numbers. But I feel like that doesn't carry much weight. If they see you can play in several leagues -- I've been in Dominican Winter Ball, the World Baseball Classic -- and I felt like I was there for a reason. Now I'm doing well in Korea.

Just in general, though, if guys here can ball, why not give them a chance? Baseball is baseball. You hit the ball, you run, it's the same everywhere.