Mariners Phenoms: How Julio Rodríguez compares to Ken Griffey Jr.

Jul 5, 2022, 9:43 AM

Mariners Julio Rodriguez...

Julio Rodriguez gestures after hitting an RBI double vs the A's at T-Mobile Park on July 03, 2022. (Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

(Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

Expectations were sky high for Julio Rodríguez entering his rookie season, and he’s been even better than advertised through his first 81 MLB games for the Mariners.

Is Julio the fastest in Seattle sports to meet expectations?

As expected, the power has been there for the rookie center fielder – especially of late – but there’s more to it than that. Rodríguez has been a legitimate five-tool player this season and more than deserves to be among the game’s best players in a few weeks for the 2022 MLB All-Star Game.

This isn’t to talk about Rodríguez’s All-Star candidacy (which is very strong as I evidenced on Monday) but to do a fun comparison that will raise more than a few eyebrows. Any time you talk about Mariners playing center field, you’ve got to talk about Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr., arguably the best player to ever wear an M’s uniform. And with Rodríguez being a young and charismatic center fielder with an electric personality, beautiful swing and big smile, it’s hard not to compare the two.

While no one is engraving Rodríguez’s Hall of Fame plaque any time soon, it is pretty incredible just how similar Rodríguez’s start to his MLB career is to Griffey’s rookie season way back in 1989.

So, with the 21-year-old Rodríguez now halfway through his rookie season at 81 games played, let’s compare it to the 19-year-old Griffey’s first 81 games.

The offensive numbers

In Griffey’s first 81 games (75 starts), he put together a .282/.346/.463 slash line, good for an .809 OPS. He also slugged 13 home runs and drove in 43 runs.

Rodríguez, meanwhile, is slashing .275/.335/.489 (.824 OPS) with 15 home runs and 43 RBIs in 81 games (80 starts).

Yeah, the two are very close in all three parts of a slash line, with Griffey having a very slight edge in batting average and getting on base while Rodríguez has been a better slugger to start his career. That’s due to Rodríguez having 33 extra-base hits through 81 games compared to 26 for Griffey.

Rodríguez also has the edge in stolen bases (20 in 24 attempts) over Griffey (11 in 14 tries), while the Hall of Famer did a better job controlling the strike zone (52 strikeouts to 29 walks) compared to Rodríguez (91 strikeouts, 23 walks).

WAR notes

Griffey was among the most valuable players of his era, especially at his height in Seattle. He quickly established himself as a very valuable player in terms of wins above replacement (WAR) in his rookie season, posting 3.3 WAR in 127 games in 1989.

That’s a very, very good number for a player in 127 games, especially for a rookie breaking into the league at such a young age. I bring up Griffey’s rookie WAR because Rodríguez through 81 games has already eclipsed that mark.

Yes, in 81 games played, Rodríguez has accumulated 3.5 WAR, per Baseball Reference.

Defense and age

When I posted about this topic Sunday on Twitter after Rodríguez’s 80th career game, two common lines I saw were in regards to Griffey’s age and defense as to why what he did in 1989 was more impressive than what Rodríguez is doing now.

I’m not here to try and sway you one way or the other, but rather add some context to show why those two specific things aren’t necessarily the slam dunk scale-tipper some may think.

Yes, Griffey played his entire rookie season at 19 years old while Rodríguez is playing his entire rookie season at 21 years old. And yes, Griffey was a 10-time Gold Glove center fielder and his generation’s best defensive outfielder while Rodriguez is, obviously, just getting started. But let’s take a second to step back.

First, in regards to age, yes, it’s remarkable what Griffey did in 1989. No one is saying it isn’t. But Griffey played half of his games in the hitter-friendly Kingdome while Rodríguez’s home games are at the more pitcher-friendly T-Mobile Park. Additionally, while there were a number of fantastic arms that Griffey faced in 1989, the level of stuff thrown by pitchers as well as the amount of detailed scouting reports each pitcher has on hitters is far and away greater in today’s game.

Now are either of those points worthy of wiping out a two-year age difference? I don’t know, and honestly it doesn’t matter. But it’s interesting to consider nonetheless.

As far as defense goes, while Griffey was a highlight waiting to happen as a rookie, he wasn’t the immediate Gold Glover some seem to remember him as. In his rookie campaign, Griffey posted a defensive WAR of 0.6 – which is very good! – and had 11 errors in the field to 10 outfield assists.

Rodríguez has just one assist this year and has recorded two errors in center. Additionally, he’s recorded 0.4 defensive WAR through 81 games, putting him on pace for roughly 0.8 dWAR this year.

After his latest blast …

Rodríguez hit home run No. 15 on Monday against the San Diego Padres, which made some history.

Per the great Alex Mayer of Mariners PR, Rodríguez made MLB history as the fastest player to hit 15 or more home runs with 20 or more stolen bases, surpassing Ellis Burks, who did so in 82 games. And by the way, home run king Barry Bonds reached the 15/20 club in 90 games.

Just to reiterate

I am not trying to say Rodríguez is better than Griffey was as a rookie or that he’s been more impressive. I’m not saying he will reach Griffey’s heights or that he’s on track to be “the next Griffey.” But when you’re looking at how good of a year the young Mariners center fielder is having, how can you not glance at what The Kid did back in ’89?

And for Rodríguez to be putting up numbers so comparable to Griffey’s rookie year? That’s pretty darn good.

Enjoy it, Mariners fans. Sure looks like he’s just getting started.

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