Julio Rodríguez is Coming; Will the Mariners Follow?

Julio is hot. Will it trickle down the Seattle lineup?

Bear with me on this intro. I had it in my head to draw a comparison between the modern Seattle Mariners & the modern Star Wars franchise. Something about introducing exciting young talent, flashing, and creating enough content (Read: Jerry Dipoto trades) to maintain at least a moderate presence in the mainstream consciousness before ultimately disappointing us. But much like JJ Abrams between Episodes VIII & IX, I lost my way. Instead, let’s talk about Julio Rodríguez.

I’ve never written about Julio Rodríguez. Despite being one of the game’s top young stars and my own residence on the West Coast, it’s never materialized. Much like the bit above. Nevertheless, it’s looking like we’re in the midst of yet another Julio Rodríguez come up.

It’s not entirely unlike last season. Through June of last year, Rodríguez was technically a below-average hitter. He was striking out a lot and not walking enough to compensate. His on-base sat at .302. In the power department, his ISO was a just okay .170. He was a far cry from the 25/25 guy we’d seen in 2022.

But then something clicked for Julio. For the remainder of the year, he slashed .312/.364/.561/.924. He ISO’d .248 while cutting the strikeout rate down to under 23 percent. August was an especially impressive stretch. He hit .429 & reached base at a .474 clip. He ISO’d almost .300. The strikeout rate was even lower (roughly 18 percent). He was back.


A Slow Starter


There are some players in baseball who are slow starters. For whatever reason, it just takes them a minute to ramp up. I’m sure people much smarter than me have examined the phenomenon. But now in Year 3 of his big league career, we can likely count Julio Rodríguez among those players. Because his start to 2024 has looked quite similar, albeit in a shorter sample to date (and a less dramatic ascent).

Through May 11th—a somewhat arbitrary date based purely on a performance threshold—we could’ve lumped Julio in with some of the worst hitters in baseball. He maintained a K% of almost 30, while swinging at a high rate of pitches outside the strike zone (about 34 percent). His OBP was clinging to exactly .300. He hit only a single homer within a broader .044 ISO.

For whatever reason, that point marked a turn for Julio Rodríguez. Since May 12th, he’s hit well over .300 and reached base to the tune of a .338 mark. His ISO is up at .145 over that stretch, including three homers. He’s still swinging fairly wildly—especially within the context of a BB% under three—but making more contact.


Lineup Implications


It may seem like an obvious statement to state that when you have a star player and that star player is going, your lineup is going to go along with him. This was especially true in the case of last year’s M’s.

Through June of 2023, the Mariners were a decidedly average offensive operation. They struck out at the league’s second-highest rate (25.7) and reached base at one of the seven worst clips over that stretch (.308). Their team ISO, at .156, ranked 19th. While they were able to walk, they weren’t able to do a whole lot else.

When Rodríguez got hot, so did the collective. The post-June Mariners walked and struck out in a mid-tier fashion. But they also had the league’s eighth-best team batting average (.255), sixth-best OBP (.334), and eighth-best ISO (.184). The August M’s had a top six walk rate, and were top five in AVG, OBP, and ISO. Their .371 OBP actually paced the entire league for that month.

On June 30th, the Mariners were 38-42. Fourth place in their division and 10 whole games out of first. They were 16.5 back of a wild card spot. By the end of August, they were in first in the American League West, tied with Houston and a game ahead of Texas. Despite narrowly missing out on a playoff spot, Rodríguez’s explosion changed the entire complexion of the 2023 Seattle Mariners.


Where’s the Carryover?


While Julio has demonstrated marked improvement off a slow start, he hasn’t quite reached the same level as he did last summer. Not that we’d expect him to go in the way that he did in August. That’s carry-the-team levels of dominance over an extended stretch. So maybe it’s not a surprise that the Mariners’ offensive fortunes haven’t been as notable as they were in ’23.

Through May 11th, they were 26th in AVG (.222), 25th in OBP (.300), and 19th in ISO (.139), with the league’s highest K% (28.6). In the time since that point, they’re 24th in AVG (.222), 25th in OBP (.277), and 15th in ISO (.151). Their K%, at 27.2, trails only Oakland for the league’s worst.  Not only has Seattle not been able to replicate the offensive punch that they provided behind their star last year, but they’ve gotten actively worse in certain respects since he started heating up.

There’s probably a reason for that. When Rodríguez got hot last year, the regulars who provided quality secondary offense (by FanGraphs’ wRC+ for the sake of simplicity) included J.P. Crawford (159), Mike Ford (129), Dylan Moore (122), and Cal Raleigh (120). Eugenio Suárez (116) & Teoscar Hernández (103) were also technically above average in that time. That’s six hitters getting at least semi-regular plate appearances and supplementing the torrid pace their superstar was setting. And four of them outside of Julio had an ISO of at least .200.

This year—from that May 12th point onward—it’s been Moore (170), Ty France (134), and Luke Raley (131). Crawford sits at exactly 100, but is also striking out at an abysmal 34.1 percent clip within that stretch. But that’s the list, with only Moore & France providing heavy ISO in support of Rodríguez’s pace.


Even August of 2023 Julio Could Never


Rodríguez getting hot wasn’t a surprise. And there’s more in there. The contact & launch angle trends should lead to more of what even this solid stretch is missing: power. But it might not mean anything within the larger composition of the Mariners’ roster.

This was a top 10 ISO team last year. They were a top 10 HardHit% last year. Even their modest OBP was well-supported with actual impact from some of their hitters. So when Jerry Dipoto traded Suárez & let Hernández walk in free agency, there was something of a power void. Moore is a gap(s) guy. France is just sort of steady. To think that the additions of Mitch Garver (a one time 30-homer guy) and Jorge Polanco (just a hitter) would appropriately support Julio’s hot stretches in the same way was always going to be unrealistic. But I’m starting to lose the point.

Seattle, as currently constructed, is not a team built to support the efforts of their superstar player. That is the point. To see that their roster hasn’t broken out in the same way that it did over his hot stretches last year speaks to the failure to build out an appropriate lineup in terms of supplementation. It’s a lack of on-base and a lack of power. You need some sort of steadiness in supporting a star; the Mariners, instead, have erraticism. Not that the Mariners were trying too hard to build out the infrastructure to begin with.

That’s not to say that this team can’t be successful within a regular season context. They have a top-10 pitching staff and a decent enough defensive unit, depending on your metric of choice. But even if Julio Rodríguez reaches that other gear again this year—and some trends are indicating just that—one wonders if it will carry the weight that his 2023 stretch did, given the insufficiencies around him.

Randy Holt

Randy Holt is a staff writer for Pitcher List & a depth charts analyst for Baseball Prospectus. He's a self-identified Cubs fan who has become more agnostic, instead obsessing about quality defensive baseball wherever he can find it. Randy has a sport management degree from the University of Florida, as well as degrees from Embry-Riddle & Arizona State. When not wasting away on the husk of Twitter/X, Randy is a high school English teacher & a baseball and golf coach.

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