'Some kind of special': J-Rod flexes with upper-deck blast

June 30th, 2022

SEATTLE -- The stamp he left on this week’s series has Julio Rodríguez in a strong position to win consecutive AL Rookie of the Month Awards, perhaps quietly leading to stronger All-Star consideration as voting heats up. But it’s the looming possibility of a two-game suspension that has heightened the urgency of how much the Mariners have needed him.

Nearly every hitter chipped in during Seattle’s 9-3 win over Baltimore on Wednesday afternoon at T-Mobile Park, yet Rodríguez had the most dramatic contribution -- a towering, 431-foot homer that landed above both bullpens and into the upper deck beyond left field. It was a two-run shot as part of a six-spot that the Mariners put up in the fourth inning that helped them win this three-game series.

Seattle has now won seven of its past nine and will need to go at least 11-5 in order to reach the All-Star break above .500, a record that will come with the sky-high challenge of accomplishing without Rodríguez, Jesse Winker and J.P. Crawford for part of that stretch if their suspensions from the melee in Anaheim are upheld. Wednesday was another big reminder why, even with key contributions from the bottom of the order.

Rodríguez dug out a hanging slider from Nick Vespi in a 2-1 count and pummeled it 109.3 mph, watched his 12th of the year sail with a wide grin and then flipped his bat down the first-base line, tomahawk style. It was a part of the park that only the Majors’ elite right-handed sluggers typically reach. Rodríguez is just 21 years old, but Wednesday’s homer was another tangible token to his already elite power and bat speed.

“I think the whole organization, the Seattle fan base, everything -- this guy is some kind of special,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “We're watching it play out before our eyes. That's a long way to home run in this ballpark. You don't see it too often. He's been right on everything all series.”

Rodríguez also had a 109 mph sacrifice fly in the second inning in a 2-2 count, a sequence in which he shortened his swing and was simply trying to put something in play. For all of the components to his offensive profile, the biggest step forward that Rodríguez has honed in on has been his two-strike approach. In April, he was 4-for-46 in those sequences (granted, many of those results hinged on pitches called clearly out of the zone), then he advanced to 9-for-56 in May and is 11-for-52 in June.

“At the beginning of the year, I was a little all over the place kind of,” Rodríguez said. “I was new to the neighborhood and kind of like just getting my feet on the ground to just settle in, I feel like that’s been my biggest adjustment.”

Rodríguez entered this season with enormous expectations, ranked as baseball’s No. 3 prospect, per MLB Pipeline, and those ambitions were just as high as those that he put on himself. Take out his first 12 games in the big leagues, when he was 6-for-44 with 22 strikeouts, and he’s hitting .300/.357/.514 (.872 OPS) in the 64 games since.

For the season, he now leads all Mariners position players with 2.4 wins above replacement, per FanGraphs, having passed Ty France, who is on the 10-day injured list.

Most wins above replacement among rookies (per FanGraphs)
1-t) Julio Rodríguez (SEA): 2.4
1-t) Jeremy Peña (HOU): 2.4
3) Bobby Witt Jr. (KC): 1.8
4) Brendan Donovan (STL): 1.5
5) Michael Harris II (ATL): 1.4

“He hits the ball as hard as anybody in the league on a consistent basis,” Servais said. “And he's just kind of getting into his power. He's a good hitter, and the power is going to come and we're starting to see it come right now. You never know -- he might show up in L.A. for an All-Star Game.”

Rodríguez was also was a key vessel in Tuesday’s 2-0 win, having dodged a tag from O’s first baseman Ryan Mountcastle on the would-be third out of the eighth inning that would’ve kept a scoreless tie intact. Robbie Ray afterward marveled at the rookie’s hustle. Then, Rodríguez followed it with arguably his most impressive homer yet.

“I feel pretty good about the year that I’m having, and I feel pretty good about the way that I’m helping the team,” Rodríguez said.

Rodríguez said after Wednesday’s game that his agents are still sorting out his appeal with the MLB Players Association against the two-game ban he received for his actions relating to Sunday’s ugly incident in Anaheim. Typically in these situations, the entire suspension is not revoked, which would mean that, in a best-case scenario, Rodríguez would miss one game if it’s trimmed at all.

And as he exhibited in this week’s series against Baltimore, his presence in every game is vital.