Why Julio is 'on board' with move away from leadoff spot

May 11th, 2023

SEATTLE -- The logic was a few days in the works, but the conversation ultimately took place after the Mariners’ loss on Tuesday. Manager Scott Servais called star center fielder Julio Rodríguez into his office and informed the reigning AL Rookie of the Year that he intended to move him out of the leadoff spot for just the second time since last June 29.

Rodríguez was dropped to the No. 6 spot ahead of a 4-3 loss on Wednesday against Texas at T-Mobile Park, and J.P. Crawford moved to leadoff after missing two games with left knee soreness.

The uber-competitive Rodríguez understood the decision on the heels of a stretch spanning more than two weeks in which he hit .120/.214/.260 (.474 OPS) with a 39.2% strikeout rate in 13 games entering Wednesday.

“I was on board with it,” Rodríguez said after going 1-for-4 with a strikeout in the series finale. “Once we talked about it, I feel like I'm the type of guy -- I started hitting leadoff [last year] because it was the best thing for the team. And now if hitting sixth is the best thing for the team, that's where I'm going to be hitting at.”

There’ve been big bright spots in this sophomore season, but they’ve been outweighed by inconsistencies -- not an unfamiliar feeling for Rodríguez after beginning last year in an eerily familiar fashion.

Most of Rodríguez's advanced metrics are in line with his AL Rookie of the Year Award winning season in 2022

Rodríguez is hitting .205/.270/.384 (.654 OPS) through 35 games, with a 28.9% strikeout rate that ranks 25th highest among 172 qualified hitters. So, what’s gone wrong, and what do the Mariners want him to work on?

'Hitting the fastball; that’s the core'
Rodríguez entered Wednesday hitting fastballs for a .194 batting average and a .328 slugging percentage, per Statcast, way down from .316 and .557, respectively, in 2022. He’s also been susceptible to them under his hands and early in counts, which, if he misses, leads him to quickly fall behind.

As Statcast shows, the number of hittable pitches dips significantly when Rodríguez falls behind in counts

“It’s getting back to hitting the fastball; that’s the core,” Servais said. “Stay with what you’re really good at. He’s an awesome fastball hitter. It doesn’t matter who’s throwing it or how hard it is. He’s got to get back to squaring the fastball up.”

'Julio is chasing more'
Rodríguez has always chased -- he ranked in the 19th percentile in chase rate last year and is in the 16th in ‘23 -- but that attribute also makes him a threat when he’s able to connect on a “pitcher’s pitch” for a knock.

Yet Rodríguez’s swing decisions have steered further from the plate, especially with two strikes. A sizable 24 of his 35 swinging K’s have come on out-of-zone pitches, per Statcast, including a way-inside slider on Wednesday. Jamming fastballs inside early and generating off-the-plate whiffs late is a textbook formula to thwart talented young hitters.

A vast majority of Rodríguez's swinging strikeouts have been on "chase" pitches, as Statcast shows.

“The numbers don’t lie, they don’t,” Servais said. “Julio is chasing more of the pitches that are off the plate. It’s why the walk rate is down. Julio is so gifted. He’s putting those balls in play. I wish he’d swing and miss at ‘those’ pitches. That’s what is leading to his struggles at times. It comes back to getting the ball over the middle of the plate.”

'Do my best for the team'
If there were frustrations, Rodríguez didn’t show them. He flashed the trademark grin all afternoon, interacting with fans in center field while exhibiting much a more “relaxed” nature. Rodríguez’s strikeout struggles early last year were partly out of his control, but most of his issues this year look fixable.

It’s also worth noting that players -- especially a team’s best -- can fall into traps of trying to swing their way out of slumps.

“He does take probably too much responsibility for the success of our team and our offense,” Servais said. “He’s just one of nine. He just happens to be maybe the most talented of all the nine, and he takes that responsibility seriously. It’s a lot. Let’s not lose sight of the fact how young this guy is -- and I think we just need to keep that all in perspective, because he’s handled everything about as well as he could. There’s so much season left to play.”

“I always want to do my best for the team,” Rodríguez said. “But at the same time, [hitting lower] definitely gives you some time to kind of relax and kind of take the game in, and it felt good today, really good.”