There’s a quote, usually falsely attributed to C.S. Lewis, calling experience “that most brutal of teachers.” (It ends: “But you learn. My God, do you learn,” and maybe that’s the part that should tip people off that this isn’t the work of the devout Lewis.) If we’re already mucking about with quote attribution then, why not just change the whole thing: baseball, that most brutal of teachers.
When Alberto Rodríguez came over from the Blue Jays organization in the Taijuan Walker deal in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, he was flying high. Not only was he joining a new organization that clearly wanted him, but he was going to play at the same level, in the same organization with his childhood best friend, Noelvi Marte, someone he considers a brother. Without a minor-league season, the Mariners sent Rodríguez to the alternate training site in Tacoma, a high honor reserved for a few select prospects, where the two roomed together and spent their days training with one another.
Rodríguez would go on to rake at Modesto that year, flirting with a .300/.400/.500 line, before earning a late-season promotion up to Everett to once again be reunited with his “brother.” As a capper, that off-season the Mariners added the 21-year-old to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft. The future was looking bright for the young outfielder, dreaming of one day playing in the big leagues with his best friend as his teammate.
But the 2022 season chipped away at all those nice things. Rodríguez struggled in a full-time assignment to High-A Everett, his bat cooling with the colder climate up north. He struggled to get back the consistency that he’d worked so hard to find in Modesto and get back on the player plan the Mariners had created for him—different than the one he’d been working on in Toronto, focusing more on physical conditioning. Questions about his physical fitness arose, with whispers (loud ones, as they appeared in national outlets) that the Mariners weren’t happy with the stocky-framed outfielder’s conditioning. And then, in late July, the devastating blow: a trade that sent his best friend and closest teammate, Noelvi Marte, to Cincinnati as part of the Luis Castillo trade.
Losing his best friend as an organization-mate was difficult for Rodríguez for multiple reasons: not only was he now left alone in an organization still unfamiliar to him, but he also lost a built-in coach and cheerleader, someone who could talk him through hard days and help troubleshoot difficult periods at the plate.
“It was super difficult,” he says, not least because even before moving on to Modesto and Everett, the two bonded even more deeply during the COVID season as two of the youngest players at the alternate training site.
“We were accustomed to always being together. We lived together, ate together, gave each other advice. If he saw me doing something wrong he’d say something, and vice-versa, we could say: hey, look at this.”
“And then suddenly, pow! Traded.” Rodríguez arcs his hands through the air, in one motion illustrating both the swiftness with which his best friend was snatched away and the lack of control young baseball players have over their careers.
“It affected me a lot,” he acknowledges, admitting there were tears at the time of the trade. “But it is a business. And all I can do is control how I play baseball.”
After the conclusion of the minor-league season, the Mariners extended Rodríguez’s 2022 by sending him to the Arizona Fall League; he played in just 10 games, largely replicated his in-season line, and in December, found himself booted off the 40-man roster to make room for waiver claim J.B. Bukauskas.
Returning back home to the Dominican Republic this off-season, though, far from the Northwest League or the complex in Peoria, Rodríguez was able to take time away from the game so intent on teaching him hard lessons and reconnect with his major support system, his family—which includes his best friend, Marte.
“This off-season healed my soul,” he says.
At home, Rodríguez zeroed in on what he saw as his biggest weakness, his conditioning. Over the off-season he focused on weightlifting, building muscle while staying lean with an improved diet. In addition to working with a hitting coach and a general baseball coach, he worked with a trainer dedicated specifically to helping him improve his physical fitness.
But he also focused on working on aspects of his batting, as well: sticking to the plan he’d developed with the Mariners, and getting back to the consistency he’d had in Modesto. Nick has written several times here about how he’d like to see Alberto quiet down the hitch in his swing and still his head, and from a couple of brief spring training looks, it definitely seems like he’s simplified his movements significantly. He also seems to have ditched the toe tap he utilized in favor of a more simplified leg kick.
Please excuse the extreme spring trainingness of this video but here’s Mariners prospect Alberto Rodríguez taking BP. Looks like he’s quieted his hands down and stilled his head movement some for a simpler, but still powerful, swing. pic.twitter.com/9uqj8zA0f3— Lookout Landing (@LookoutLanding) March 21, 2023
And while he’s since been reassigned to minor-league camp, he had a few huge moments with the big-league club:
When it's spring training you don't get a big celebration for walking it off, but this has to feel pretty good for Alberto Rodríguez, who saw himself removed from the Mariners' 40-man roster this off-season after a disappointing 2022. pic.twitter.com/DFgqh202Cl— Lookout Landing (@LookoutLanding) March 2, 2023
This spring Rodríguez has focused in on making the hard year’s lessons pay off, doing all the little things right and proving to the Mariners that he can help the team in the future and is worth a spot on the 40-man (again).
“This spring I’m focused on doing things right to show the team that I’m worth it, that I can help the team win a championship in the future.” In Spanish, the phrase Rodríguez uses is “vale la pena”—worth the pain/suffering/grief—which seems like an accurate summation of where he landed this off-season, mentally.
“In my house, I thought a lot about how I can’t let time pass me by. I have to mature if I want to play in the big leagues. And so I came with a focus: on each pitch, each ball, each run, always focusing on getting better.”
That focus has also included sharpening up his outfield defense to make him more viable as a corner outfielder. In the DR, Rodríguez’s trio of trainers not only focused on helping him with on-field skills; they helped him develop a routine that structured his days and increased his discipline. In Mariners camp, he’s apprenticed himself to two great Mariners outfielders in Mike Cameron and Franklin Gutierrez, getting special morning sessions with Guti to work on his route running. The work he put in with his conditioning has paid off in the field, as well, as his range has improved, leading to some great catches like this:
Alberto Rodriguez making an outstanding catch in RF. pic.twitter.com/7vrj6BZXQo— Gravel (@Gravel_sense) February 25, 2023
Rodriguez has also come up with some big hits this spring, but he says when he steps to the plate in a clutch situation, all that’s going through his mind is this: “what can I do to help the team?”
“Each pitch is part of the plan. Depending on the pitch, I have a plan when it’s thrown, and the plan is to help the team.”
Maybe that involves taking a few pitches from a reliever struggling with his command; maybe that involves pouncing on a fat pitch left over the heart of the plate.
On his go-ahead home run off big-leaguer Tyler Cyr in a mid-March game against the Dodgers, Rodríguez says he was annoyed at himself for chasing after a ball, a slider that torpedoed out of the zone and away from the lefty, putting him in an 0-2 count with two outs in the ninth inning. The organist at Camelback honked out the first few plaintive notes of “Time to Say Goodbye” for the second time that inning as the 29-year-old big leaguer stared down the 22-year-old prospect.
But Rodríguez was not ready to say goodbye. “I had to recover my plan,” he says. Cyr threw him a pitch inside, but in a fat part of the plate, which Rodriguez blistered, but pulled it just foul. He took a second to call time and visualize what he’d do to that pitch if he saw it again, if Cyr made a mistake.
Facing Cyr, the incessant organ, and a stadium of jeering Dodgers fans, he fought his way back into a 2-2 count before Cyr made a mistake pitch which Rodríguez crushed over the wall to put the Mariners up 2-1. “Un picheo medio-medio,” he smirks. Middle-middle. Crushed.
Alberto Rodríguez: HERO MODE ENGAGE pic.twitter.com/9JcfgPXeuL— Lookout Landing (@LookoutLanding) March 9, 2023
The pitch clock doesn’t bother him, Rodríguez says, because for him, his plan starts before the pitch is ever thrown, before the clock even starts counting down. It begins in the dugout, preparing for each pitch and reminding himself of the plan he will execute to help the team, regardless of who is on the mound, or what the game situation might be.
This newfound maturity can also be found in his laser-focused goals for the upcoming season.
“I want to focus more on doing good work, above all. Obviously I want to play in the big leagues, but I can only control what I can control. I want to work hard, in the season and during the off-season. I want to work to learn more languages. I want to lift the ball a little more, that’s part of my plan. And I want to maintain my physical fitness.”
It’s a maturity that’s hard-won after a difficult year. But Rodríguez is not afraid to reflect on past mistakes and use them to better himself for the future.
“Baseball teaches you. It makes you mature. It’s always teaching you something new. For example, in the past, I was a little confident, a little full of myself. And then I changed climates, leagues, and everything was different. But this year I’m looking at last year, looking at what I have learned, what I can do better.”
“But baseball teaches you. It teaches you year after year.”
Baseball: that most brutal of teachers. On his own now, Alberto Rodríguez is learning about who he is.