Stecker: With Julio hitting 3rd, Mariners can get back to ‘Chaos Ball’

May 14, 2023, 5:37 PM | Updated: 7:13 pm

Seattle Mariners Julio Rodríguez...

Julio Rodríguez celebrates after scoring for the Mariners in Detroit on May 13, 2023. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

(Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

Julio Rodríguez as leadoff hitter for the Seattle Mariners makes a lot of sense on paper.

If you’re new school, he’s the Mariners’ best hitter when he’s right, and it’s never a bad idea for the best hitter to get the most possible plate appearances over the course of a season.

If you’re old school, he’s as fast as they come and Seattle’s best best to steal a base.

And if you’re the type who appreciates the kind of instant offense that the power-hitting George Springer used to provide as the Astros’ leadoff man, well, Julio certainly has the potential to be that kind of player.

But all that being said, Rodríguez hasn’t been himself for the majority of the young 2023 season. And frankly, the Mariners’ offense hasn’t been what it’s supposed to be, either.

As Julio Rodríguez goes, so go the Mariners. And maybe it’s no coincidence that the M’s lineup looked a lot more like it should in Detroit this weekend with Rodríguez hitting somewhere other than the leadoff spot.

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Rodríguez was mired in a pretty significant slump when the M’s left Seattle on Wednesday after their series loss to the AL West-leading Rangers, hitting just 7 for 58 (.121) with five walks to 23 strikeouts over his previous 15 games. He got a day off with the rest of the team Thursday, then went right to work as soon as the Mariners hit the field in Detroit, breaking out in a big way Friday by going 3 for 5 with a home run, four RBIs and two runs scored to help the M’s run away with a 9-2 win and kick off a series victory.

That big day came in Rodríguez’s second game since being taken out of the leadoff spot, and he was able to do some serious damage hitting third in the order as Seattle’s bats warmed up in just their third game in 70-degree weather this season (you know I can’t pass up the chance to point that out).

The next day, Rodríguez tried his hand at the cleanup spot, and while he went 0 for 3, he added a walk and run scored in the 5-0 M’s victory. Then back at No. 3 on Sunday, he returned to the hit column with an RBI single in the middle of a three-run third inning that gave Seattle the lead, though he went hitless and the offense went scoreless the rest of the way in a 5-3 loss.

Yep. As Julio goes, so go the Mariners.

Servais: Julio “trying to be a little bit more” than himself

While Seattle is still trying to get over and stay over .500, the offense has been showing signs of life lately. The Mariners have won three of their last four series and are enjoying a 9-4 stretch over the last two weeks, scoring four runs or more in eight of those 13 games. It may not feel like it because of how disappointing the earlier weeks of the M’s season were, but they are playing better baseball, lineup included.

Now, it’s too early to say Rodríguez is completely back on track or that hitting lower in the lineup is why he had a decent weekend, but I do think the Mariners are on the right track with him situated in the heart of the order like he was at times in 2022.

While I was actually on the side of Seattle hitting him at leadoff going into the season, it was a few weeks ago when the Mariners were in Toronto that I changed my opinion. The reason: Seattle’s offense provided a reminder of what it does best.

In that Sunday game north of the border, which Rodríguez coincidentally missed due to back soreness, Seattle jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the first inning as three straight hitters earned free passes with two outs after working the count to 3-2, setting up Taylor Trammell to jump on a 1-0 offering from Toronto pitcher Chris Bassitt for a grand slam.

That’s how the Seattle Mariners offense is supposed to operate, and Rodríguez’s strengths are more in line with what Trammell did than the three hitters before him.

Seattle has players who can work counts, and it has players who can punish mistakes. And sure, there are some who can do both, but I wouldn’t count Rodríguez as one of them. He’s a punisher, rarely someone who fouls off pitch after pitch in search of a walk or a better offering to hit.

The M’s as a whole seem to thrive when they can wear out or frustrate a pitcher, then take advantage when they leave a pitch somewhere they don’t want to. That’s where the whole “Chaos Ball” thing comes from, after all. There’s always the possibility the M’s will work the count, draw some walks, and make good on the traffic they create with a big rally.

I wouldn’t be shocked if the Mariners look to put Rodríguez back atop the lineup once he’s fully back up to speed at the plate, because they had their reasons to hit him there in the first place, but I hope they don’t. They’ve got the right person hitting leadoff now in J.P. Crawford, who leads the team with a .379 on-base percentage and has a knack for fouling off pitches until he gets one to hit or earns a walk.

What really jumps out to me, though, is Crawford entered Sunday ranking 15th in MLB in pitches per plate appearance (4.31), while Rodríguez is below the league average (3.91) at 3.78 pitches per PA. Ty France, who typically hits second for Seattle – and makes a ton of sense in that spot with a .357 OBP – sees even less pitches than Rodríguez (3.46 per PA), so I think there’s a lot of value putting Crawford ahead of them both. Not only will it go far in making sure pitchers work a little harder out of the gate, but with more pitches comes more opportunities for a mistake to be taken advantage of.

The Mariners hit the 40-game mark with Sunday’s loss, and at 20-20, there’s certainly room for improvement. The first 40 games are where teams find out what they have. Now comes the adjustment period. If getting back to Chaos Ball is the goal, batting Crawford first and Rodríguez third seems like a good start.

More on the Seattle Mariners

Mariners fall short of sweep as Tigers strike late for 5-3 win
Dipoto on Julio moving down in order, Teoscar needing to swing less
Bob Stelton’s M’s Breakdown: Pitching up, bats down; AL West check-in
Servais: Rotation giving Mariners a chance to win ‘pretty much every game’
Seattle Mariners Takeaways: ESPN’s Passan on Julio, trade targets

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