Of the many gambles the Seattle Mariners have made in their efforts to “step back” and rebuild following the failed contention of the 2010s, the biggest bet has worked out the best: Julio Rodríguez is a superstar. If you want a single way of summarizing the 22-year-old’s brilliance, it wouldn’t hurt to look at who else in big league history has recorded 11 wins above replacement in their first two years as a big leaguer. It’s a short list.
That list, if you’re curious, goes Hall of Famer, likely HoF fringe if not for WW II, HoF, HoF, longtime All-Star, HoF, future HoF, longtime All-Star, longtime All-Star, HoF, HoF, Julio, future HoF, HoF, future HoF.
That could be the article.
We are in a golden age of narrowly parsed fun facts, shoutout to Alex Mayer, but this is one of the more striking groupings I’ve seen. If anything, I’ve undersold it, especially given that Longoria and Bryant are removed enough from their consistent brilliance that younger or less-nationally-attuned readers might understate in their head the brilliance of these players for quite some time. But it is appropriate in seeing Julio’s performance and stardom, even through his ups and downs at the plate, to consider that he is truly, deeply special, and that he has learned to bring about positive outcomes at such an overwhelming rate in every aspect of the game has vastly surpassed even the rosiest expectations of the slugging young outfielder from just a year and a half ago.
We saw that in August, as astronomers could’ve been forgiven for wondering if a solar flare was somehow emanating from the Mariners’ locker room. If you establish a minimum of plate appearances in a month of 80 (this cuts off his only competitor... himself in September/October of 2022 in 79 PA), Julio’s August was the best offensive month in Mariners history. His 232(!) wRC+ in 114 PAs is otherworldly, having gone .429/.474/.724. Essentially, Julio went 3-for-7 in August, every game, with power, speed, and consistency, doing this in spite of only appearing in 23 games due to efforts to rest and avoid exacerbating injury. The play of much of the team was elevated in August, but Julio’s extraordinary pace pushed him into the AL MVP race, a field opened up by Shohei Ohtani’s injuries and premature shutdown, as well as multiple injuries that have cost Corey Seager time, albeit little in terms of production.
Julio’s mechanical adjustments were well documented, notably shortening his stride to get him in hitting position slightly earlier. While some players need a larger stride to generate power, Julio’s bat speed is so great and his ability to generate power so consistent that he can sacrifice a shade of it in pursuit of more contact and better swing decisions. An aggressive approach from Julio has been intermittent, as he had success for a time ambushing first pitch strikes, then was fed a diet of garbage, leading him back towards patience, ebb and flow, ebb and flow.
You might notice, in the career numbers up there, that teams have begun to completely abandon throwing in the zone to Julio recently. That’s in line with what Adam Jude wrote recently for the Seattle Times, as opponents have ceased providing the M’s with fastballs or easily hittable pitches, trying instead to tempt the M’s into aggression and mistakes. For Julio, that’s meant pitch after pitch out of the zone, and while Julio has not had an exorbitant rate of balls off the plate in September, among hitters w/70+ PAs this month, Julio is 8th of 182 in chase rate. Of course, that’s not meant a bad month, his 126 wRC+ is fabulous and his 20.9% strikeout rate this month is below league average. But it does have an impact.
You’ll notice Julio’s rolling 15-day average wRC+ is still healthily above-average, and his .859 OPS is similarly rosy. But we have seen the tricky snag of Julio’s uncommon approach once again become a target for pitchers: because Rodríguez is essentially seeking to drive the ball the other way with power, and for one reason or another almost only putting the ball on the ground when he pulls it, pitchers are hammering him on the inner half and below the zone.
Can Julio continue to excel against this approach? Absolutely, as he’s done before, but it demands is punishing the ball when he does get it on the outer half, and in the past few games we’ve seen him just narrowly miss the barrel. With five games left, the difference between a few fly outs and big flies will be all the difference.