How J-Rod keeps cool, adjusts to called K's

April 23rd, 2022

SEATTLE -- The commentary has grown from faint frustration to maddened mania among Mariners fans over the seemingly night-in and night-out calls that have rung up Julio Rodríguez for an MLB-high 14 called strikeouts in this young season -- including another in Friday’s win over the Royals.

It marked three games in a row that featured a late-inning backwards K against Seattle’s top prospect, and all were pitches clearly outside the strike zone, according to Statcast. It continued a trend that began all the way back on Opening Day in Minnesota.

Nine of the 14 called punchouts have been on pitches Statcast classified as outside the zone. For context, the MLB high last year on out-of-zone called strikeouts was 17 against the Giants' Brandon Belt, and the all-time high since Statcast began tracking in 2015 is 25 to Houston's Colby Rasmus that year. The Mariners are just 14 games in, or 8.6% of their 162-game schedule, putting Rodríguez on a trajectory to shatter that mark. 

Additionally, Rodríguez's nine are three more than any previous hitter in April in the Statcast era. And making this more unprecedented is that this season began one week later than usual due to the lockout and there are still eight days left in the month.

“After they call it, there’s nothing that I can do,” Rodríguez said Friday, shrugging and smiling. “I’ve got to wear it. Whenever it’s a ball and they call it a strike, I know 100 percent that it’s not. ... I don’t know if that’s what you have to do when you’re a rookie or if that’s what they feel like we’ve got to go through. Sometimes it’s not fair. Sometimes I definitely don’t like it. But I guess that’s their rules they have for us.”

However, Rodríguez didn’t have that assurance at first, so he moved closer to the plate recently.

“I thought it was me, that I was seeing it too far or something,” Rodríguez said. “But I got up a little bit to the plate and they’re still calling them off the plate. So, I’ve got to keep wearing it, I guess. I don’t know what I’ve got to do.”

While the called K’s have looked questionable, he’s also watched a few other in-zone pitches go by for strikes one and two, putting him in a vulnerable spot for the hook. Rodríguez is just 2-for-30 when getting to two strikes, including a decisive two-run double on Friday in a full count that sparked Seattle’s 4-1 win. He’s also swung for strike three an additional nine times for a total of 23, also an MLB high.

Though his called K's are notable, Rodríguez has also watched quite a few in-zone strikes go by earlier in counts.

Rodríguez feels confident about his swing decisions, and he has backing from the Mariners’ analytics department. It’s arguably the component to a hitter that they put the biggest premium on, up and down the organization.

“That’s the thing though -- I know the strike zone,” Rodríguez said. “I know what I can do damage to. ... I feel really good about [my swing decisions] because if you’ve been seeing where those pitches are located, even if I put the best swing I can possibly do to that, it may be like a ground ball is the best thing I can get out of that.”

Based on the location and pitch selection, it’s clear how opposing arms are attacking the 21-year-old -- with a bevy of breaking balls off the plate. He’s been in the Majors just two weeks, but scouting reports were out on him eons ago, specifically that his world-class bat speed and right-handed power could crush fastballs as good as anyone in the Minors.

A look at all of the called strikes against Rodríguez, illustrating how pitchers are attacking him.

As such, he’s seen fewer fastballs than all but one of 149 qualified hitters who have seen at least 170 pitches this season.

Most breaking balls and offspeed pitches seen, 2022

  1. Corey Seager, TEX: 61.8%
  2. Julio Rodríguez, SEA: 59.2%
  3. Luke Voit, SD: 57.1%
  4. Paul Goldschmidt, STL: 56.3%
  5. Nick Castellanos, PHI: 55.7%

Though the Rangers threw Rodríguez a few more heaters on Thursday, he’ll likely continue to see those outside breaking balls -- especially if umpires are calling them for strikes, whether they’re out of the zone or not.

Yet Rodríguez will continue to be patient. He worked extensively on plate discipline in the Minors, particularly last year. Swinging at out-of-zone pitches would erase that effort, create bad habits and go against the Mariners’ mantra of “dominating the zone.”

“I’m not going to be chasing that, because I’ve never done that,” Rodríguez said. “I’m staying true to myself and I’m still getting those calls. I’m just going to stay true to myself.”

Staying true to himself also means that he hasn’t let the punchouts get under his skin. If Rodríguez shows opposition to a call, it’s under his breath and never eye to eye. His positive attitude always suggested that he’d be able to handle adversity, and he hasn’t reached a boiling point.

“I don’t think I’m ever going to get to that point because that’s just not who I am,” Rodríguez said. “Going good or bad, I’m always going to keep being the same guy. And I know it’s going to come around. I guarantee that. I know it’s going to come around.”