Julio talks early-season struggles at the plate

April 16th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Daniel Kramer’s Mariners Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

SEATTLE -- For Julio Rodríguez, this young stage of the season demands a balancing act.

Yes, he was frustrated after being picked off to end Sunday’s gut-punch of a game -- as a pinch-runner, to boot, and on a day when Mariners manager Scott Servais intended not to use him at all before the stakes necessitated so. Even after a cool-down period postgame, Rodríguez still preferred not to speak with reporters.

Yes, Rodríguez sees his numbers and realizes they paint a picture of a player off to a slow start, now for the third year in a row. And yes, he expects to deliver for the team in the highest-stakes moments.

But he’s also not letting the lows eat him alive.

“I feel like people get so caught up in what's happening right now and they just focus right here, when there is a whole big picture that is developing,” Rodríguez said on Monday afternoon. “I will never stress so much when it’s so early in the year. You’re always going to try and be good and everything, but if things don’t play out, you have so much time that you can continue to work on things, continue to put the right work in.”

Combatants to the “it’s early” adage and underselling urgency in April -- who have justification after the Mariners missed the postseason by one game last year -- are not going to steer Rodríguez, who at times has a fiery edge but mostly plays with joy.

“A lot of times we forget that we do the hardest thing in the world of sports,” Rodríguez said of the act of hitting. “I feel like we cannot get ourselves so down ... especially this early. You’ve always got to try and do your best, obviously, and all that. But if you go out there and put your ‘A’ swing and they just make a really good pitch, then that’s kind of ‘tip your cap.’”

Rodríguez has been at the center of a few big highlights -- a walk-off against Boston on March 31 and a bases-loaded breakthrough against the Cubs on Friday, both directly leading to wins -- but those moments have been overshadowed by inconsistencies, which have become exacerbated within the totality of the Mariners’ team-wide struggles.

Entering the week, Rodríguez was hitting .186 with a .441 OPS and a 33.3% strikeout rate. His Wins Above Replacement were negative by both FanGraphs (-0.2) and Baseball-Reference (-0.4) metrics. He’s still seeking his first home run.

All of these factors were why Servais gave Rodríguez his first day off on Sunday, in an effort to “unplug,” before the pinch-running pickoff.

“I mean, you never know in baseball when it’s a day to unplug,” Rodríguez said. “It is what it is.”

Rodríguez is also steadfast with his approach and believes he’ll turn a corner soon, pointing to a few hard-hit balls in Toronto. Last week, each of his six hardest-hit balls went for an out, including a 114.5 mph liner to Kevin Kiermaier, easily the highest exit velocity for a Mariners hitter this year.

“Right now, I’m just kind of letting it play out,” Rodríguez said. “I feel like the last few series, I’ve been either squaring it up or hitting it right at somebody or just getting out.”

As for the “getting out” factor, his 32.6% swing-and-miss rate, which ranks in Statcast’s 16th percentile, has room for improvement. Even with new mechanical tweaks -- attempting for fewer motions into his crouch and the hitting position -- there are still moving parts to his setup. Some have suggested it makes him susceptible to pitchers aggressively changing speeds throughout an at-bat more than most. Beyond whiff, it’s a possible correlation to a dip in fly-ball rate from 24.5% last year to 17.1%.

“When Julio is hitting the ball in the air, usually good things happen,” Servais said. “He's on time to get the head of the bat out. When he's pounding into the ground or just swinging and missing a lot of the breaking balls down, it's because he's late.”

The Mariners, in so many ways, go as Rodríguez does. It’s no coincidence that they set a franchise record with 21 wins last August, when he was the AL Player of the Month. They don’t need him to play at a historic level every night, but rather a more consistent one.

“We're not seeing him go like he can go,” Servais said. “And when he does get going, we're a different ballclub. It's just early and it hasn't happened yet.”