Drayer: Mariners’ Julio Rodríguez wins AL ROY — inside his remarkable rise

Nov 14, 2022, 3:53 PM | Updated: 4:46 pm
Mariners Julio Rodríguez...
Mariners CF Julio Rodríguez rounds third base after hitting a home run against the Rangers on July 26, 2022. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)
(Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

What had been a foregone conclusion for months finally came to fruition Monday afternoon: Mariners center fielder Julio Rodríguez has been named American League Rookie of the Year as voted on by two Baseball Writers’ Association of America members in each AL city.

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Rodríguez, who was announced as a finalist earlier this moth along with Orioles catcher Adley Rutschman and Guardians outfielder Steven Kwan, led all rookies in bWAR (6.0), home runs (28), stolen bases (25) and wRC+ (146), and the actual announcement seemed a mere formality. His work on the field did not go unnoticed throughout the season with two Rookie of the Month Awards, an All-Star selection, and an invitation to the Home Run Derby where he was bested only by Juan Soto. Throw in numerous publications’ ROY honors and a Silver Slugger and there was little suspense.

Accomplishing this feat should not be taken for granted, however, no matter how easy Rodríguez made it look. That, after all, is a part of his game.

I was reminded of this in an on-air conversation with Bob Stelton and Stacy Rost on Seattle Sports last Thursday afternoon I was asked if I was surprised at the ease of transition Julio had to the big leagues. The jump from the minors to the Majors is huge. We’ve seen so many struggle to replicate their minor league results against big league pitching. It’s a different game and it takes adjustment. For Julio, the adjustment was not against superior pitching; rather, it was against the umpires and an expanded strike zone in his first month.

We learned a lot about the rookie in that month. In his mind, that struggle was never about him, and at some point the umpires’ calls had to get better.

“I’m not going to be chasing because I’ve never done that,” he said. “I’m staying true to myself even if I still get those calls. God is watching and what goes around comes around.”

In looking back, that “struggle” was great to see. A young player’s worst enemy can be doubt, which can lead to too many adjustments. Julio knew himself and had confidence in who he was at the plate so much so that hitting .136 for his first dozen games and not hitting his first home run until May 1 was not going to throw him off his game. He didn’t start swinging out of the zone, he didn’t make major adjustments, and eventually he saw fewer balls out of the zone called strikes.

Once that first month was behind him, Rodríguez slashed a blistering .297/.355/.550 for a .905 OPS and 159 wRC+, fourth-best in the AL behind Aaron Judge, Yordan Alvarez and Jose Altuve after May 1.

Rodríguez has more than lived up to the expectations put on a Baseball America cover subject as a prospect. Still, it seems remarkable considering how quick this has happened.

Entering the season, Rodríguez was only three years separated from his arrival stateside, with one of those seasons completely wiped out by COVID. It was three years ago he could be seen in the stands in Peoria, Ariz., taking in a big league game after his minor league camp work was done. As a top prospect he did not go unnoticed, often standing on the walkway behind home plate. Some joked it was likely he had a uniform on under his sweatsuit just in case there was an opportunity to get in a game. In truth, he was there to cheer on minor league teammates who either were on the early spring roster or were called up for the day.

“It’s fun when you see also your friends accomplish their dreams,” he said the following spring. “People that you see grinding with you every single day, and you see them progress. That’s really cool for me. I really enjoy everything they do because we are all in it. If I did good, if they did good, I would be really, really happy.”

That year he would get his own opportunity to get into a few spring games. The potential could be seen, but it was the next spring – 2021 – where he showed more. Yes, the power and the exit velocities that we had heard of were on full display, but more importantly the ability to make adjustments. In spring training 2021 you started to see the plate discipline and approach. It was clear he was not far off.

In 2022, he would kick the door down, showing up for camp with a couple of new tricks: elite speed and the ability to play center field. These were not offseason plans he was sent home with, rather challenges he put upon himself with his goal to be the absolute best athlete he could be.

The results have led to Rodríguez becoming the fifth Mariners player to win Rookie of the Year honors, joining Alvin Davis, Kazuhiro Sasaki, Ichiro and Kyle Lewis. Could he join Ken Griffey Jr. and Ichiro as the only Mariners to win MVP awards? It would appear to be a goal.

When his new, potentially record contract was announced in late August, it was learned that escalators that could take a $200 million extension well past $300 million if options tied to MVP awards and voting are vested. This was not the club’s idea, rather the idea of Rodríguez.

“We initially in the negotiations did not pin anything on winning MVP awards,” Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto said. “That was Julio. Julio wanted us to know that he was intent on doing these things and he thought that there should be tiers considered if he is that player. I found that remarkable. He could have opted for much easier pathways than having to go out and win MVP awards.”

It is a high bar to set but should surprise nobody who has watched his rookie season. If things go his way, it should just be a beginning.

“I’m definitely going to put myself in the best position so I can keep performing for the team, the city, for everybody,” said Rodríguez. “I feel like that’s who I am. I’m happy I got that contract like that. It’s definitely going to keep me motivated and I am definitely going to keep grinding every single year and put myself in the best position to perform like that.”

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