Lefko: Julio’s struggles magnify Mariners’ need to add impact bat

Jun 27, 2024, 9:41 AM

Seattle Mariners Julio Rodríguez...

Julio Rodríguez of the Seattle Mariners draws a walk against the White Sox on June 12, 2024. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The burden has become too great for the Seattle Mariners’ Julio Rodríguez.

In a season already bereft of power, simply getting on base proved elusive during the Mariners’ recent nine-game road trip. Perhaps most concerning was an 0-for-5 day at the plate one game after being given a day off.

How much did bumpy road trip hurt first-place Mariners?

As far as we know, there is nothing physically wrong with Julio; this is not a wrist injury like there was in 2022, nor a foot issue like at the end of 2023 that might be affecting him at the plate. Plain and simple: it’s in his head.

We know that Julio is not the only issue on offense – it has been a collective underachievement. But no other Mariners hitter has the weight of expectations of someone whose raw talent and freakish athleticism garnered them an All-Star selection, a Rookie of the Year award, and a feature story anointing him as the savior of the franchise. All of that within the first six months of his MLB career, not to mention a life-changing contract extension.

Understandably, there becomes just slightly more pressure to live up to and exceed the whirlwind of 2022. Those expectations weren’t met in 2023, save for one historic month of August that showed the tantalizing potential of Julio’s pure talent.

So what happens after a disappointing season, where the weight of decades of hope, frustration, and heartbreak from an entire fan base inexorably presses on you? You try harder. You push yourself to the point of injury in spring training in order to channel one month into an entire season’s worth of stardom.

In his first two seasons, Julio’s chase rate leapt from 33.5% in 2022 to 37.4% in 2023 (it’s currently hovering just below 36% this season). His walk rate has also declined each subsequent season: from 7.1% to 6.6% and now 6.1% this year. You can see the natural inclination to want to deliver a big moment, instead of taking the prudent approach. Walks aren’t headline-grabbers, they don’t necessarily justify the big contract like a home run or game-changing hit do in the same situation. But with the way pitchers have attacked Julio, it’s become more difficult to see hittable pitches in the strike zone. It’s part of what Mariners Hall of Famer Alvin Davis broke down when analyzing what he has seen from Julio at the plate this season.

Related: ‘Mr. Mariner’ shares his advice for struggling Julio Rodríguez

The lack of a significant and consistent threat in the lineup behind him certainly hasn’t helped, both in maintaining a disciplined approach and in actually getting pitches to hit. Here are the batters who have had the most starts behind Julio this year:

• Cal Raleigh (25 games)
• Jorge Polanco (24 games)
• Mitch Haniger (10 games)
• Mitch Garver (Nine games)
• Ty France (Nine games)

Among qualified hitters on the Mariners, only France has a wRC+ (109) that ranks in the top 80 in baseball. Raleigh and Garver are both in the top 10 in strikeout rate. Meanwhile, the majority of Polanco’s plate appearances behind Julio came in the first month of the season (March 28 to April 30) where he hit .170, slugged .290, and struck out 37 times in 100 at-bats.

This is where adding an impact bat comes into play. That could be the power of Pete Alonso or Vladimir Guerrero Jr., or the consistency of guys the Mariners just saw in Tampa Bay’s Issac Paredes or Yandy Díaz (who has a 19-game hit streak after Wednesday). But it has to be someone, anyone, who can ease the burden off Julio by looming as a bona fide threat to do damage behind him in the lineup.

We saw that work to perfection in the sixth inning on Wednesday against the Rays. With two outs and a runner on first, Julio was at the plate, the Mariners trailing 1-0 and just one hit to their name at that point. Julio falls behind 0-2 but then fights back, fouls off a few pitches and then works a nine-pitch walk. One batter later, Raleigh changes the course of the game with a go-ahead three-run homer.

If it were always that easy, it would be a simple fix. Yet that is a microcosm of what the Mariners can do in order to alleviate the burden on Julio. Beef up the lineup behind him, make it so pitchers can’t risk walking him, and by easing that pressure, allow Julio to unlock his full potential at the plate.

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Lefko: Julio’s struggles magnify Mariners’ need to add impact bat