Mariners’ Julio Rodríguez has MLB’s attention — and should be in MVP race

Jul 19, 2022, 12:37 PM | Updated: 3:42 pm
Mariners Julio Rodriguez...
Julio Rodriguez bats during the 2022 T-Mobile Home Run Derby at Dodger Stadium on July 18, 2022. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
(Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Under the bright lights of Los Angeles, the entire world got to learn what we here in the Pacific Northwest have known since April: this Julio Rodríguez kid who plays center field for the Seattle Mariners is pretty dang special.

Fann: Julio Rodríguez reminds M’s fans why we cherish homegrown superstars

Rodríguez may not have won the MLB Home Run Derby Monday night, but the event’s runner-up was absolutely the star of the show, smashing 81 total home runs and knocking out reigning two-time champ Pete Alonso in the second round before falling to Juan Soto in the championship.

Rodríguez’s derby performance was, in some ways, a continuation of what he’s been doing for the Mariners as a 21-year-old rookie. In other ways, it was a star-making performance that put the rest of the nation – and world – on notice that baseball’s next big thing plays in the PNW.

That Rodríguez got to shine on the national stage isn’t just great for himself and the Mariners, it’s great for all of baseball. The sweet-swinging outfielder is a dynamic player with otherworldly charisma that’s matched by his incredible talent. He’s the total package when it comes to what you’re looking for from a superstar in Major League Baseball in the year 2022.

And being on the big stage and catching the eye of the entire sports world should hopefully shed light onto something else when it comes to “The J-Rod Show.” Not only is he the runaway favorite to win the American League Rookie of the Year, but his elite play for a surging Mariners team in the midst of a 14-game winning streak should have him on the MVP radar.

The numbers

Through his first 91 games, Rodríguez has posted a .275/.337/.477 slash line (.814 OPS) with 16 home runs, 52 RBIs, 36 extra-base hits and 21 stolen bases. He’s also recorded a 134 OPS+ and 135 wRC+ in the first half of 2022.

What makes Rodríguez’s incredible first half all the more impressive is that he got off to a very slow start, hitting just .206 in April with no home runs. But since hitting a mammoth 450-foot shot off NL Cy Young favorite Sandy Alcantara on May 1 for his first MLB homer, Rodríguez is slashing .293/.351/.535 with all 16 of his home runs and 46 RBIs. Over a 162-game pace, that equates to 37 home runs and 105 RBIs.

Those numbers are all impressive in their own right, but Rodríguez does more than get hits and drive in runs. He’s been one of baseball’s best baserunners this year, ranking second in the American League in stolen bases with 21, and he’s played a very quality center field, making plays with both his glove and his cannon of a right arm.

All in all, Rodríguez has posted a 3.6 WAR in 2022, per ESPN. That’s tied for 19th in baseball and eighth in the American League, and among position players, Rodríguez is 13th in the big leagues. At 3.6 WAR right now, he’s on pace for a 6.4 WAR season, which would be the highest WAR a Seattle player has posted since Mitch Haniger’s 6.5 WAR season in 2018, when he finished 11th in MVP voting.

Additionally, Rodríguez’s 3.6 WAR is seventh among AL hitters – including Angels two-way sensation and reigning AL MVP Shohei Ohtani – and third among AL outfielders, trailing just Aaron Judge of the Yankees and Mike Trout of the Angels.

So yeah, Rodríguez is in pretty good company, wouldn’t you say?

But as we’ve seen over the years, the MVP historically goes to a player on a playoff team or a close contender. Ohtani winning the AL MVP last year was a bit of an outlier in that sense, and while Bryce Harper’s Phillies didn’t make the playoffs in 2021, they finished over .500 and 6.5 games back in the then-lowly NL East as he took home his second NL MVP award.

I bring that up because the Mariners are hot, and have been for the past month. And not just hot, but hot hot. Seattle enters the All-Star break with a 14-game winning streak and currently holds the second of three AL wild card spots, meaning if the season ended today, the Mariners would end their lengthy playoff drought. Rodríguez has been right in the thick of things for the Mariners as they have emerged as one of baseball’s best teams.

When looking at just the Mariners, it’s easy to see the team and individual statistics and say that Rodríguez at just 21 years old is already the best player on the team. He leads the Mariners in WAR and stolen bases and is tied for the team lead in home runs while ranking second in hits. Rodríguez also leads Seattle in RBIs, which is made more impressive when considering both his tough month of April where he drove in just six runs but also that he’s been hitting leadoff a lot more of late, doing so 18 times since June 18.

Rodríguez has accounted for roughly 23% of all Seattle runs scored in 2022, and is slashing .332/.396/.608 (1.004 OPS!) in Mariners wins this year.

When looking at players on teams currently holding down a playoff spot, Rodríguez ranks fourth in the AL in WAR, trailing only Judge, Yordan Álvarez of the Astros and Shane McClanahan of the Rays.

With MVP voters having traditionally favored placing players on winning teams higher on MVP ballots, Rodríguez’s season and value to the Mariners needs to be on their radar going forward in the second half of 2022. Hopefully the Home Run Derby helped in that sense for those who had yet to see much of the dynamic outfielder.

The rookie is built different

Part of what makes Rodríguez such a star is just how physically imposing and freaky he is at just 21.

The rookie is listed at 6 foot 3 and 228 pounds but appears to taller and bigger than that listed height and weight. And while being close in size to star Seahawks receiver and fellow physical freak DK Metcalf, Rodríguez is producing some absurd advanced numbers that further outline just how special of a talent he is in just his debut MLB season.

As you might imagine after watching him pelt 81 home runs in Monday’s derby, Rodríguez hits the ball exceptionally hard. He’s in the 92nd percentile in average exit velocity, per Statcast, at 92.1 mph. For added context, the league average exit velocity is 88.4 mph and a hard-hit ball is defined as 95 mph or higher off the bat.

Rodríguez is also in the 97th percentile in max exit velocity at a ridiculous 115 mph, and his hard-hit rate is 51% (MLB average is 35.7%), putting him in the 94th percentile. He’s also barreling baseballs at a high clip, putting him in the 91st percentile in MLB.

But as mentioned earlier, Rodríguez’s star power goes beyond home runs, hard contact and his bat in general.

The rookie is playing a very good center field, ranking in the 92nd percentile in outs above average with a 0.4 defensive WAR.

And going back to his speed, Rodríguez is in the 97th percentile in sprint speed, averaging 29.5 feet per second, which ranks 16th in baseball.

Final thoughts

Mariners fans – and fans of a handful of teams that have gotten to see Rodríguez play this year – knew he was special prior to Monday. Now, the whole world knows.

But it goes well beyond smacking homers in the Home Run Derby. He’s been one of the best players in the American League and has done so for one of baseball’s best and hottest teams.

Rodríguez, if healthy, appears to be coasting to the AL Rookie of the Year Award, but he’s also been good enough to warrant legitimate consideration when it comes to the AL MVP race.

Will he be the first player since Ichiro in 2001 to win both Rookie of the Year and MVP? Probably not. But his elite play in all facets of the game coupled with his value to a Mariners team in serious playoff contention should have J-Rod finishing much higher in 2022 AL MVP balloting than anyone could have expected once this season started.

Well, anyone but the ultra-confident Rodríguez.

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Mariners’ Julio Rodríguez has MLB’s attention — and should be in MVP race