Rost: The two things about first-place Mariners’ season that are baffling

Jun 28, 2024, 10:26 AM

Seattle Mariners Scott Servais Julio Rodríguez...

Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais looks on after Julio Rodríguez strikes out on April 16, 2024. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The Seattle Mariners are a baffling team. For several reasons, but really, just pick your poison.

They lead the league in strikeouts, they struggle on the road, their biggest star isn’t playing much like it – and despite all of this, they’ve been in first place in the AL West since early May.

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I sent out a poll on X asking Mariners fans to list the single most confusing thing to them about this team in an effort to figure out some of the more fascinating – or frustrating – questions about Seattle’s roster.

The top answer? Strikeouts. I’m a bit more interested in the second-most popular answer – which I’ll get to in a second – but this was also the one I chose.

The Mariners were second league-wide in strikeouts last season and would’ve set a new MLB record (1,603) were it not for the Minnesota Twins’ 1,654 strikeouts. Two things of note here. First, the weird and frustrating part: the Mariners moved on from Teoscar Hernández and Eugenio Suárez. While critics wondered aloud if these were salary-shedding measures – a fair assumption – it was also fair to assume the Mariners had a goal of cutting down on strikeouts, and that included moving on from their two strikeout leaders (Suárez at 214 and Hernández at 211). They brought in Jorge Polanco at second base, a player whose 25.7% strikeout percentage in 2023 – a career high for him – was still below those two departing bats.

This year, Polanco’s 31.8% strikeout rate is not only a career high for him, but also higher than Suárez (31.2%) and Hernández (31.1%) in 2023.

The second point of note is the Twins and Mariners both took similar approaches – at least in terms of personnel – when it came to strikeouts: addition by subtraction. The result? The Twins are 20th in strikeouts this year. The Mariners, meanwhile, are on pace for more.

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As part of this exercise, I wanted to make an attempt to answer questions. But who’s got the true answer to this one? If the Mariners did, they’d solve it. And I don’t blame fans for wondering whether there’s an organization or philosophical reason. That said, I’ll throw in the context (not the excuse, the context) that strikeout records have been broken more recently and it’s harder than ever to hit. That, and those strikeouts would be easier to swallow if this team was slugging.

The Julio problem

That brings us to the second-most popular answer and the one that’s most fascinating to me. What the heck is going on with Julio Rodríguez?

“Shocked,” ESPN’s Buster Olney told us on Bump and Stacy when we asked about Julio’s career-low rates for slugging and extra-base hits. “I thought for sure, once he worked through the sophomore slump last year, that this would be something that … he’s figured it out and he’s going to be able to learn from that going forward. But if you look at some of the concerning trends that’s he’s developed – more ground balls, more problems against offspeed pitches, sliders and changeups are just killing him – opposing pitchers and opposing catchers have clearly figured out that if you spin something and change speeds, he’s going to have a problem with that.”

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Rodríguez has done things the Mariners – or even the league – has never seen. Does it mean he’s a top-five player? No, but it does mean he’s had an “it” factor and been a special talent since making his debut. Last season he broke the league record for most hits in a four-game span with 17. He became the first player in history to register 25 home runs and 25 stolen bases in each of his first two seasons. That doesn’t happen on accident. So for anyone wondering whether Julio’s first two seasons have been some kind of mirage or fool’s gold, I’d point to the amazing feats he has accomplished and stress just how hard it is to do that at this level.

That said, this team is going nowhere fast with an offense that can’t hold up its end of the bargain, and Julio’s bat is the most important part of that. They need an impact bat at the trade deadline. More than that, though, they need the most talented bat on their roster to play like it if they have any hope of making it – for the first time ever – to the Fall Classic.

More on the Seattle Mariners

Lefko: Julio’s struggles magnify Mariners’ need to add impact bat
3 Takes: Big questions about Seattle Mariners halfway through season
Mariners Breakdown Video: What’s the level of concern with Julio?
Salk: The Griffeys, the Brons, and the joy of father-son teammates
Key player exits early for Twins, Seattle Mariners’ next opponent

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