Since moving to the East Coast a month and a half ago, I have not felt the disaffection towards all things Seattle that many warned me of. I’m fortunate to have this community keeping me connected, but in the least compelling big league season since the early 2010s, the Mariners set a low bar for engagement. That sentiment seems shared throughout our staff, the community, and the fanbase as a whole. For several of us, myself included, we’ve turned to the minor leagues to sup our souls and it’s been reflected in our writing on the site. I know grainy footage of partial or complete unknowns doesn’t get everyone’s juices flowing. But the growths and blights of these seedlings have nourished my spirit and curiosity in a season where the big-leaguers have borne precious few fruits for sustenance.
Last night, in Modesto, the Nuts delivered a harvest of joy fit to last for an entire winter.
Just yesterday Nick penned an excellent reminder of the importance in treating these performances with caution in terms of projection. It is exciting to see scouts from virtually every national outlet herald a player as a possible Top-25/Top-10/Top of the Pops talent, but even special talents struggle. Just because Julio Rodríguez hasn’t failed at any point yet as a pro (his injury via HBP notwithstanding) doesn’t mean he won’t at some point, nor will that struggle if/when it comes spell doom for him long-term. But seeing him advance and immediately thrive at a level where only his personal friend/rival and near-universal new No. 1 prospect in all of MLB, SS Wander Franco, is younger (18y, 5m vs. 18y, 8m) is as impressive as it is delightful.
Rodríguez went 5-for-5 in Wednesday night’s 10-2 trouncing of the Stockton Ports (Oakland’s A+ affiliate). He sprayed Latin American Graffiti all over Modesto’s John Thurman Field, with a pair of pulled doubles, a lined single up the middle, a sharp groundball between 1st and 2nd, and a triple off the top of the wall at the 400 ft mark in dead center. At a certain point all there was to do was laugh.
Julio Rodriguez in his first at-bat after the official announcement that he's headed to the Arizona Fall League to be the youngest player on the Javelinas roster: RBI double pic.twitter.com/DXFu39MLmu— Lookout Landing (@LookoutLanding) August 29, 2019
When a hitters is first promoted they can benefit from the unfamiliarity pitchers have with them, even as they may struggle with unfamiliarity and heightened degree of difficulty themselves. There is undoubtedly some of that at play with Rodríguez - the pitch you see above is a first-pitch fastball at the knees that’s middle-away. It’s not a traditional meatball per se, but easy enough to jump on and lash 109 mph for an aggressive and talented hitter like Julio. He’s also mashed mistakes, like this 3-2 fastball:
Juliooooooo tonight: two at-bats, two RBI doubles. This one plates two. Absolutely blasted, and with a little more loft, this goes over the fence. pic.twitter.com/KbckROthv5— Lookout Landing (@LookoutLanding) August 29, 2019
I’m sorry Mr. Pitcher but you know this will not do.
Many big league hitters do most of their damage by punishing mistakes and slobber-knocking get-me-over offerings, so it wouldn’t be disqualifying to only be seeing that from Rodríguez. Sometimes pitchers make a much better pitch, and this (from his fifth PA of the evening) can happen:
How relaxed is Julio in High-A? He takes a huge, aggressive hack at the first pitch in this at-bat...and comes up laughing, like "you got me." pic.twitter.com/JN6BlT2pfO— Lookout Landing (@LookoutLanding) August 29, 2019
It’s a pretty good first-pitch slider, and it fools Julio. These are the types of pitches he’ll start seeing more often; he’s already becoming a victim of his own success. Rodríguez has taken a couple of hacks like this already in the Cal League, but nearly every one has come with one or no strikes. In an earlier plate appearance, he handled a similar first-pitch slider off the plate easily.
Julio Rodriguez flashing the smile after his 3rd hit of the game. pic.twitter.com/uBh8PeTcLg— Mariners Minors (@MiLBMariners) August 29, 2019
That pitch is off the plate outside, with decent break, knee-high. It’s not a great pitch to hit, and frankly isn’t a spectacular swing decision, except the result is still getting the barrel to it, lifted on a low line. Like his hit in his fourth PA, it’s a hit that could easily be an out if hit at a defender, but each bit of contact is firm enough to give it a good shot at poking through. Returning to that swing-and miss, one pitch later, on a worse slider...
Then he triples on the next pitch. pic.twitter.com/2l9HGJbCBu— Lookout Landing (@LookoutLanding) August 29, 2019
He got under it a bit, and Modesto’s high walls keep plenty of would-be-bombs in the yard, but we’re interested in process and the early returns are good. At some point pitchers will start going out of the zone against him more consistently and he’ll have to adjust, though the Cal League may not have the talent necessary to challenge him even then. The Arizona Fall League, hitter-friendly though it is, should provide a fantastic chance to see whether J-Rod starts in Modesto or Arkansas next year.
If he stays in Modesto he’ll probably get to pair with last night’s starting pitcher for at least a little while once more. RHP Devin Sweet is a tricky player to project, given his unassuming roots and unimposing stature, but as Connor dove into a few weeks ago, the most notable “un” pertaining to him lately has been “unhittable”. His numbers as a pro have been, forgive the term, nuts. In the past two seasons he’s racked up a 3.00 ERA and 169|31 K|BB across four levels (predominantly Low-A West Virginia this season), which is both fabulous and dramatically better than any season or combination of his NCAA career. Since returning to the rotation in June, he’s been even more impressive: 14 GS, 86.0 IP, 2.20/2.80 ERA/FIP, and a 28.1%/4.7% K-BB%. Last night, back home where the video is (clangs cowbells angrily in direction of Visalia), Sweet was brilliant yet again.
If you’re familiar with Sweet at all, you know his bread and butter is the four-seam/change-up combo, but his slider shone in a supporting role last night as well. Over his seven scoreless innings, Sweet never was threatened, and the offensive explosion provided him comfort to pump fastballs for the final couple innings, but the first several innings had hitters looking foolish. Here’s the change, which looks like it passes near a black hole about two thirds of the way to the plate.
More Devin Sweet changeup goodness. pic.twitter.com/pLZPGQqMGW— Mariners Minors (@MiLBMariners) August 29, 2019
It’s Fernando Rodney-level nonsense. That pitch comes on the heels of a fastball that clocked 91-94 at Visalia last week and looked about the same Wednesday night. It’s so hard to trust a player performing this well when they went undrafted, but if Sweet had all the same characteristics along with an 8th-to-12th-round designation he’d be seeing much more traction. As it stands, the 22 year old is a slice of curiosity, with a three-pitch mix that causes fits. Here’s the slider:
Devin Sweet strikes out the side in the 2nd. pic.twitter.com/m3QJn4n344— Mariners Minors (@MiLBMariners) August 29, 2019
For another look, here’s one on a poor young Ports RHH:
The pitch isn’t as devastating as his changeup, but the ones he threw were well-located and late-biting enough to get whiffs thanks to his good fastball command. If your fastball is 91-94, you’re the right age for the level, and you have two off-speed pitches that get hitters swinging out of the zone, you will start turning heads sooner or later. There aren’t too many 5’11 UDFA starters in the bigs, but if Sweet is to be one he’ll need all three pitches. To even hang as a reliever at the higher levels would be no mean feat considering where he began, but every start like this helps move the needle towards prospecthood.
Sweet’s dominance was a perfect partner act to Rodríguez’s explosion. Two players - one unheralded and the other nearly crowned already. Both with unlikely backgrounds and skills that continue to stick. Last night, they came together for my favorite night of baseball in a long time. If we’re lucky, maybe they’ll make a habit of it.