J-Rod balancing elite athleticism, unnecessary risks

February 28th, 2023

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- A leaping home run robbery over the wall is an achievement that Julio Rodríguez badly wants to add to his Major League résumé, even if it’s in an exhibition environment and not the final out of the World Series.

So when the Mariners’ star center fielder saw a sky-high fly ball sailing towards the warning track in left-center field during the third inning of Monday’s Cactus League game against the White Sox, he went all in on the attempt -- but instead of ball meeting leather, it was body meeting wall. Rodríguez came up inches short of the snag while slamming his right arm and right shoulder into the barrier, carried by the momentum of his 6-foot-3, 228-pound frame.

With the wind knocked out of him, Rodríguez put both hands on his knees before gathering himself and flashing his trademark grin to indicate that he was fine. He remained in the game for the rest of the third inning but was pulled for Cade Marlowe in the fourth, before the rest of Seattle’s starters departed.

Rodríguez said later that all was well. But the sequence shifted focus to whether he was venturing toward the wrong side of the line between utilizing his elite athleticism and risking injury -- especially in an inconsequential Spring Training game.

“I'm never going to slow that down,” Rodríguez said. “I feel like as my body allows me to do so, I'm going to be running out there and just doing all the things that I'm capable of.”

Because of his relentless preparation and conditioning, having transformed himself from a pudgy corner outfielder into a five-tool player at a premium position, Rodríguez believes that his skill set is an attribute that few possess. Coupling that athleticism with his baseball acumen, widely touted as advanced for his age, the 22-year-old insists that he’s not playing with reckless abandon, but rather calculated intent.

“I feel like I totally use my abilities whenever I have the opportunity of doing so,” Rodríguez said. “I'm not always going out there reckless. I just feel like if a play comes to me, I'm ready for it, instead of always going out of control and kind of reckless in a way. I feel I prepare myself so every time that I ask my body to do something, it's going to go out there and do it. So I feel like that's kind of what I manage, just kind of being smart, but at the same time, knowing that whenever a play is going to come like that, I'm ready to go.”

Playing with such exuberance -- both athletically and through his personality -- are what makes Rodríguez one of MLB’s brightest young stars. He’s not just a baseball player, but “an entertainer,” as Mariners manager Scott Servais said at the outset of camp. And if Monday’s effort was a sign of what's to come, he’s going to go all out in the upcoming World Baseball Classic.

“No issues with [his health] and certainly never an issue with his effort,” Servais said after Monday’s 10-1 loss. “That’s what makes Julio, Julio. He’s a really good kid, a great player. Let him go do his thing. He’s really in tune. He’s an advanced player for his age.”

Monday’s sequence turning into a dissection of Rodríguez’s playing style -- especially with Rodríguez coming away fine -- is perhaps equally due to his prominence, his importance to the Mariners and the fact that the play seemed somewhat familiar to some of his past injuries, when he has hurt himself by sliding too hard or diving too aggressively.

Rodríguez missed four games coming out of last year’s All-Star break with a sore left wrist immediately after his electric Home Run Derby performance. He first aggravated the wrist sliding headfirst on a stolen-base attempt two days before the Derby. He later broke his left pinkie in Game 3 of the American League Division Series legging out a double, also sliding headfirst. Going back to 2020, he fractured his left wrist diving forward on a catch attempt during a baserunning drill at the Summer Camp ahead of the COVID-impacted season.

Rodríguez has become smarter since those injuries. He’s no longer diving for balls in front of him, instead sliding towards them. He also curbed his stolen-base attempts, in part, due to health risks. He has learned how to maintain his body after experiencing the demands of his first full MLB season.

But overall, Rodríguez plays with flair. And if there’s a home-run robbery to be had, he intends to make the play.

“I know I'm going to go run into the wall,” Rodríguez said. “I know I'm going to dive for plays. I know I'm going to go there and round the bases hard and do what I can. But I feel like that's whenever the situation that it’s called for. It's not that I'm going to be doing things out of place.”