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ROY Favorite Julio Rodriguez Is Flashing Shades of Ronald Acuna for Surging Mariners

Zachary D. RymerJuly 7, 2022

Alika Jenner/Getty Images

If you somehow missed Ronald Acuna Jr. winning the National League Rookie of the Year and generally beginning his rise to superstardom with Atlanta in 2018, don't worry.

Watch Julio Rodriguez right now, and you'll basically get the same effect.

The Seattle Mariners' 21-year-old center fielder came in as B/R's No. 3 prospect with an exceptional package of tools that include dynamic power and speed, and the hype surrounding him was set at maximum at the outset of the season. Despite a slow start, he's more than living up to it by way of a 137 OPS+, 15 home runs, 21 stolen bases and 3.5 rWAR.

The most recent of those home runs was a doozy. Rodriguez got a changeup from San Diego Padres left-hander Sean Manaea on July 4 and hit it to the top of the Western Metal Supply Co. building at Petco Park:

Seattle Mariners @Mariners

JuliOMG <a href="https://t.co/73wf72PvRp">pic.twitter.com/73wf72PvRp</a>

Even at 429 feet, that home run nonetheless fell well short of the 450-foot blast that Rodriguez hit for the first of his career on May 1. This brings us to Acuna reference No. 1, as the Mariners PR department tweeted that he and Rodriguez are the only players who've hit a 450-foot homer and stolen more than 10 bases this season.

Too specific? Yeah, probably. So let's go straight to Acuna reference No. 2, which appears in conjunction with how quickly Rodriguez got to 15 homers and 20 steals:

Sarah Langs @SlangsOnSports

Players with 15+ HR &amp; 20+ SB in ANY 81-game span at age 21 or younger:<br><br>Julio Rodríguez<br>Ronald Acuña Jr<br>Mike Trout<br>Andruw Jones<br>Cesar Cedeño<br><br>And Julio’s was his FIRST 81 -- the 1st player of any age to do that in his 1st 81!

It isn't just the results, as the underlying metrics for Rodriguez's power and speed in 2022 are eerily similar to what Acuna showcased as a rookie in 2018. Sprint speed percentile of exactly 97? Check. Hard-hit rate percentile in the low 90s? Another check. Barrel rate percentile also in the low 90s? Yup, another check.

To the Mariners go the spoils, and especially lately. They've won 12 of 15 as Rodriguez has gotten even hotter, thus reviving their chances of making the playoffs for the first time since 2001.

As for Rodriguez himself, it almost goes without saying at this point that the American League Rookie of the Year is his to lose. Not bad, considering that the first month of his major league career was an unmitigated disaster.


How Rodriguez Turned His Season Around

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After tearing up both the minor leagues and the Olympics in 2021, Rodriguez left little doubt that he was ready for The Show by also shredding this year's spring training exhibition season. He went 14-for-34 with three homers and three steals in 14 games, so it was no great surprise when the Mariners selected him for their Opening Day roster.

What was a surprise was when he hit the ground not running, but with a face-first fall.

The Dominican Republic native simply didn't hit in the 20 games he played in April, batting just .205 and collecting zero home runs to go with his four doubles. He also whiffed 30 times in 81 plate appearances, equating to an ugly 37.0 strikeout percentage.

While it's not unusual for a rookie to get a rude awakening in the majors, what was different about Rodriguez's was that it wasn't really his fault.

A running theme of his first month with the Mariners was him getting hosed by umpires. Seattle manager Scott Servais sent a letter to the league about the situation, which he summarized thusly: "What's going on with Julio Rodriguez right now is not right."

Daniel Kramer @DKramer_

A look at the three-pitch sequence this afternoon to Julio Rodríguez that led up to Scott Servais' ejection: <a href="https://t.co/0mq6hAa66s">pic.twitter.com/0mq6hAa66s</a>

Rodriguez was called out on strikes 10 times on pitches outside the zone during April. In the 15-year pitch-tracking era, that's the second-highest total for a single month after the 11 that Matt Chapman incurred in Aug. 2018, though he took 42 more plate appearances than Rodriguez in his debut month.

Looking back now, the message that Rodriguez took away from this experience seems to be this: better to just swing away.

Rather than tamp down what was already an aggressive approach, his swing rates inside and outside the zone have increased in May, June and July relative to April:

  • April: 72.7 Z-Swing%, 33.7 O-Swing%
  • May-July: 74.5 Z-Swing%, 37.9 O-Swing%

This is where we would typically point out a more specific rhyme or reason for Rodriguez's swings. But because we didn't spot any discernable shifts in either the types or the location of pitches he's been swinging at, we'll defer to how he describes his approach.

"See it and hit it, I guess," Rodriguez said after hitting that monster home run on July 4, according to Shaun O'Neill of MLB.com. "That's what I try to do every time I'm at the plate. Just be ready if you see something."

Rodriguez's results capture just how ready he's been in the 62 games he's played in since the start of May.

Whereas he was whiffing 37.0 percent of the time, his K% is down to a more manageable 24.8. He's also been driving the ball better, boosting his average exit velocity from 90.1 mph to 92.5 mph and making good use of his best power alley. Of his 31 line drives and fly balls to his pull side overall, only one was in April.

Add that up, and you get a .910 OPS with all 15 of his home runs since May. He's also 12-for-16 in stolen bases in this span and has been above water with his defensive value.

Seattle Mariners @Mariners

It's called the No-Fly Zone for a reason 🙅‍♂️ <br><br>JROD's Squad RETURNS for our series vs. the Blue Jays, starting next Thursday. <br><br>&gt;&gt;&gt; <a href="https://t.co/zuHk9veGob">https://t.co/zuHk9veGob</a> &lt;&lt;&lt; <a href="https://t.co/7DjW9ESQeh">pic.twitter.com/7DjW9ESQeh</a>

If the latter comes off as an understatement, well, fair enough. The best ratings for Rodriguez's defense come courtesy of Statcast, which has him tied for fifth among center fielders with five outs above average.

What Rodriguez has done over the last two-plus months is so deserving of respect that even umpires seem to have taken the hint. His rate of called strikes outside the zone has plummeted since April.


As Rodriguez Goes, So Go the Mariners

Alika Jenner/Getty Images

Since "highlight" doesn't seem like quite the right word, we'll say that the biggest exclamation mark of the Mariners' season was their brawl with the Los Angeles Angels on June 26.

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

BENCHES CLEARED IN MARINERS VS. ANGELS 😱 <a href="https://twitter.com/BRWalkoff?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@BRWalkoff</a><br><br>(via <a href="https://twitter.com/BallySportWest?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@BallySportWest</a>) <a href="https://t.co/6JK09rhHsL">pic.twitter.com/6JK09rhHsL</a>

That brawl resulted in all sorts of ejections and suspensions, yet there's a reading that sees the Mariners getting hot as still another result of it. Though they lost that game and the one after it, they've since won seven of eight to climb from fourth to second place in the American League West.

In truth, though, the Mariners were already warming up before things got heated between them and the Angels. They went into that fateful contest on a five-game winning streak.

Not so coincidentally, it's within these last 15 games that Rodriguez has gone from merely hot to something more like a supernova. He has 19 hits in 57 at-bats during this stretch, including seven of the 17 home runs that the Mariners have hit as a team.

An All-Star? The Mariners sure think so.

"[He] maybe was on the fence a couple weeks ago, but he's been so good," Servais said, per O'Neill. "He's one of the better players in the game right now, based on how he's played in recent times. His numbers look pretty good. I think he's an All-Star."

To give further credit where it's due, Seattle's recent turnaround is also rooted in pitching. Robbie Ray, the team's $115 million ace, is finally coming through with a 0.80 ERA over his last five outings. The bullpen has been lights-out, recording a 1.44 ERA since June 21.

At 41-42, the Mariners aren't yet over the .500 hump. They've nonetheless clawed their way to within 4.0 games of the Toronto Blue Jays for the third wild-card spot in the American League. According to FanGraphs, their chances of making the playoffs are roughly four times what they were on June 19.


The AL Rookie of the Year Race Is Rodriguez's to Lose

Alika Jenner/Getty Images

Rodriguez was on the outside looking in at the AL Rookie of the Year race, but now it's hard to see him as anything other than the favorite for the award.

His 3.5 rWAR gives him a 0.2-point leg up on Houston Astros shortstop Jeremy Pena among AL rookie hitters and an even sturdier leg up on Texas Rangers left-hander Brock Burke (1.6) and Minnesota Twins right-hander Joe Ryan (1.5) among AL rookie pitchers.

Pena had the AL Rookie of the Year race largely to himself earlier in the year, but a left thumb issue landed him on the injured list on June 15, and he hasn't been the same in eight games since returning. He has three home runs but also more strikeouts (14) than hits (10).

Ryan's own case for the AL Rookie of the Year has suffered a similar fate. After pitching to a 2.28 ERA over eight starts through May 21, he landed on the COVID IL and has since put up a modest 4.39 ERA in five starts since his return on June 14.

Rather than Pena or Ryan, Kansas City Royals third baseman Bobby Witt Jr. could potentially pose the biggest threat to Rodriguez's Rookie of the Year pursuit.

He endured a similarly slow start in April and early May but has since turned things around with an .832 OPS, 11 home runs and seven stolen bases over his last 49 games. He was B/R's No. 1 prospect at the start of the year, so there's reason to believe he's just scratching the surface of his potential.

In the meantime, though, there simply isn't another rookie who's sailing along quite like the Mariners' budding star. Ultimately, Rodriguez is the first 21-or-under player to post a .900 OPS, 15 homers and 10 steals in a 62-game span since...

Well, how about that. Since Acuna.


Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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