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About Last Night: Julio’s cold start feels worse than it is

Julio Rodríguez is still that guy

Houston Astros v Seattle Mariners Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

The morning after the Seattle Mariners offense wasted perhaps the best outing of Logan Gilbert’s career and a shutdown performance from the bullpen, one play feels indelible.

With the bases loaded and one out, the data says a team should score an average of 1.65 runs. That’s to say nothing of the fact that it felt like a minor miracle that the Mariners’ bottom of the order was the group who’d loaded the bases and that the guy in the box is who you should want there, who should be the Mariners’ best hitter. But as we know, and can’t forget, he grounded into a double play to end the inning, wasting the team’s best opportunity to capitalize on Jon Gray looking characteristically decent-but-not-dominant. Perhaps the most deflating moment in perhaps the most deflating game of the year, it felt really bad.

And yet something else stands out about that play too: the ball came off of Julio’s bat at 103.5 miles per hour. It’s true that he mashed it into the ground, but that exit velocity is indicative of someone who’s still got it. The play is pretty symbolic of Julio’s first quarter of the season: it looks and feels much worse than it is.

I don’t want to minimize Julio’s problems—we’re not imagining things. Most notably, his hard-hit rate is down by 5% and his barrel rate is down by almost 3% from last year. And the end results have been bad, most obviously noticeable in his .296 wOBA and 91 wRC+. But while I don’t love articles that just walk through a player’s stats pages, things don’t look so bad under the hood, and this feels like a moment where doing that together could be good for perspective.

Let’s start with this: Julio’s been getting very unlucky. His .256 BABIP is really hard to believe for someone who hits the ball as hard as he does and who runs as fast as he does. He doesn’t deserve that BABIP based on his contact. I know it’s hard to believe, but his xwOBA—his expected results based on quality of contact—is actually up this year, at .344 after coming in at .337 in 2022. What’s happening is that he’s in the 12th percentile for xwOBA-wOBA, which is to say, he’s been unluckier than 88% of the league.

I think the weather and the ballpark are to blame for a lot of that. wRC+ accounts for ballpark effects, but uses a years-long adjustment, whereas the marine layer is at its most impactful in April, and it’s been a particularly cold and wet spring this year. Here are just two of many examples of balls that would have been out in a lot of other parks.

(As an aside, it’s true that the Mariners pitching staff has benefited from this, which somewhat mitigates using it as an excuse for the hitters. But I don’t think the impact on the offense and pitching has been equal, and I’m not that concerned about pitching regression because the staff’s strikeout-to-walk ratio is elite and they’ve allowed the fewest barrels in MLB. That’s a whole other post.)

Meanwhile, his approach remains fine. I know that lately it’s felt like he’s swinging through everything, but that’s just not true. His swing rate is basically flat, and so is his contact rate. He’s only chasing just a teensy bit more, but he’s balancing that by getting fewer called strikes. He doesn’t need a sit-down with someone to get his approach under control; he’s doing the same things that made him a star.

I won’t deny that his whiffs have been hard to watch. But a big reason why it’s felt so bad is because his swing is violent and so it looks awful when he misses. Again, though, that’s always been true. It’s how he does so much damage when he connects. Here are a couple whiffs from last July, when he was as hot as any hitter on the planet:

That looks awfully reminiscent of what we’ve seen from him lately. Maybe a tweak or two is in order, but I don’t think he’s lost control of himself.

And it’s not like he’s mashing the ball into the ground all the time. His groundball rate is actually down. Again, it just feels worse because that’s come at the most inopportune times. He’s already grounded into six double plays in his 33 games this year after totaling just seven in all of 2022. But of course, the way an infielder doubles up a player as fast as Julio is because he’s hit the ball so hard that it’s gotten to the fielder with plenty of time.

That poor timing runs deeper. His clutch score, which measures how he performs in high-leverage situations relative to how he performs in low-leverage situations has cratered from 0.76 last year to negative 0.54 this year. That’s a big reason why Julio’s at-bats have felt so bad; his moments aren’t coming when they would matter, and he’s blowing it in important spots like last night.

All of which is to say that last night’s high-stakes double play was not an aberration.

But that trend is very unlikely to last. The nerds have shown conclusively that clutch is not a sticky metric. It’s true that some people on this earth can’t handle pressure (I’m one of them), but those guys essentially never make it to MLB. And even if you refuse to believe that data, I mean, come on. Julio? Really? I cannot think of anyone whose mental skills I trust more. It’s why we all fell in love with him in the first place.

Again, the results clearly aren’t what we want to see, and having a big hole from your superstar amplifies the struggles from the rest of the offense. I wrote this up as much as anything as to interrogate my own emotional reaction to Julio’s recent work. It’s not like Julio doesn’t have any problems, but if, like me, you’ve been wincing when he’s come up to bat lately, I think that’s probably more based in how it’s felt to watch him than in how he’s actually been playing. After all, just two days ago, he hit the longest home run of his career. He’s still very much that guy.