Phillies’ Johan Rojas made it look easy in center last year. This season hasn’t been as smooth

May 15, 2024; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Johan Rojas (18) is unable to field the RBI double of New York Mets second base Jeff McNeil (not pictured) during the eighth inning at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

PHILADELPHIA — The day after two balls clanked off his red glove, Johan Rojas went to right field to practice with some tennis balls. But he wasn’t the only outfielder doing the drill Thursday afternoon. Paco Figueroa, the first-base coach who oversees Phillies outfielders, invited everyone.

This wasn’t punitive work for Rojas.

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“When these things happen, what you don’t want to do is be reactionary,” Figueroa said. “Keep working. There’s no excuses.”

Rojas is here for his defense. The standard is high — the Phillies believe he is an elite center fielder. They are willing to sacrifice offense to put Rojas in center. No Phillies player drew more attention in spring training than Rojas and, seven weeks into the season, he’s been an ancillary figure on the team with the best record in baseball.

That is what constant winning does — it can mask weaker links. The Phillies have a runway to let Rojas regain his form in center. That is their plan.

“He’s overrun a few balls,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “But he’s a really good defender and I trust him out there.”

Rojas graded at an absurd level defensively in his rookie season. The advanced metrics have not liked him this year. “I’ve never looked at defensive metrics because I’m not real confident in them,” Thomson said. “I trust my eyes.” And, Thomson admitted, Rojas has not always passed the eye test.

“I have to be better,” Rojas said.

“Here’s the thing,” Figueroa said. “If there is one person, he’s the one that takes pride in his defense. He knows. He doesn’t want to make it a bigger deal than what it is, right? Yeah, he’s dropped balls that he normally catches all the time. He never drops balls ever since I’ve seen him.”

Rojas dropped two in Wednesday’s win over the Mets, then did not start Thursday night against a lefty. Thomson said it wasn’t related to Rojas’ fielding mistakes. Rojas will be back in the lineup Friday.

Nothing has changed since Opening Day: The Phillies are best when Rojas is in center. They have platooned Brandon Marsh more in recent weeks. Cristian Pache has gained playing time from that arrangement. Whit Merrifield has yet to find a consistent swing. All roads lead to Rojas.

That doesn’t mean Rojas is guaranteed to hold his position deep into the summer. The Phillies are using these early months of the season to learn whom they can trust when the toughest challenges arrive. They are not living and dying with every nine innings. Not yet.

The Phillies are content with Rojas’ performance at the plate; he’s hitting .233/.276/.325 — all figures that are better than the average No. 9 hitter in baseball. Figueroa wondered if the increased focus on his hitting distracted Rojas from concentrating in the field. A reliable big-league regular can separate offense from defense and vice versa.

That’s something Rojas, 23, is still learning, and the Phillies are willing to live with it. His defense will have to be a constant, so the miscues are surprising.

“I think he’s played fine,” Thomson said. “But there’s been some plays where maybe he was a little bit too aggressive. But we have to take it with a grain of salt because he gets to more baseballs than 99 percent of outfielders in the game.

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