The Cause Of Julio Rodriguez’s Early Season Struggles

While the Seattle Mariners are in first in the AL West, they are still waiting on Julio Rodriguez to really come alive for them to take off.

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND - MAY 19: Julio Rodríguez #44 of the Seattle Mariners walks back to the dug out after striking out in the first inning during a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on May 19, 2024 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

While far from perfect, the first quarter of the 2024 Mariners campaign has been satisfactory. They are 25-22, sit in first place in the AL West and have the best rotation in baseball.

Since April 15, they are the sixth-best offense in baseball by WRC+. Overall the lineup has produced. Which is at times hard to believe with the early season woes of a plethora of their new-faced (expected) impact bats by the likes of Jorge Polanco, Mitch Garver and, until recently, Luke Raley. But numbers don’t lie.

What’s even tougher for Mariners fans to grasp these days is just how much better the offense, and the team’s record, could be if the face of the franchise was playing up to par.

Julio Rodriguez has found himself off to a slow start for the third time in as many big league seasons. He is slashing .266/.316/.328/.643 with a 92 WRC+. Rodriguez now has a career .642 OPS for the month of April and posted a .606 OPS this April.

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This could be hard for some to accept, but Rodriguez may just be a slow starter for his career. Some players just take a little bit more time to get going.

But this year’s start feels like the most sluggish one yet. He has deposited just two long balls, putting him on pace for about 15 for the year. While that obviously won’t sustain, it is less than ideal for the team’s success.

The cause of the slow start for Rodriguez? Let’s take a closer look.

Lack Of Elevation

None of the struggles have stemmed from a hard hit issue. In fact, Rodriguez’s HardHit% sits in the 87th percentile of the league (per Baseball Savant). That is a few ticks down from where he’s been in years past (95th percentile), but nothing overly concerning.

It’s the launch angles that raise the eyebrows.

Rodriguez simply isn’t squaring up the baseball enough these days. Yes he is hitting the ball hard, but often right into the ground. His 47th percentile Barrel% paired with a slightly above average xSLG (54th percentile) and SweetSpot% (54th percentile) support this case. It is a large reason as to why he only holds a pair of home runs to his name along with seven total extra-base hits.

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In his previous two big league seasons, his Barrel% sat in the 90th and 77th percentile, respectively. A large portion as to why Rodriguez swatted 60 bombs over his first two seasons. For the offensive numbers to climb, the power has to once again take center stage. And for that to happen, he has to start hitting the ball in the air.

Major Splits Difference

This has never popped up as an issue before, but all of the sudden Rodriguez is getting eaten alive by right-handed pitching. He is hitting .318 with an .816 OPS against southpaws, but possesses just a .586 OPS against right-handers. 

Changeups gave Rodriguez fits last year. He hit .213 against the offering, his lowest batting average against any of the pitch types he saw. In 2024 it is so far happening again, with Rodriguez hitting just .211 against the changeup with no extra-base hits against it. And he will often see a flurry of changeups out of the arms of right-handed pitchers.

History suggests that this shouldn’t continue too much longer. But it is a reason for the slow start this year and still could be something to keep an eye on here and there.

Hitting The Cookies

Perhaps most importantly, Rodriguez has not taken advantage of the winnable pitches enough. 

There has been a clear attack plan against Rordriguez. A plethora of inside fastballs (no right-handed hitter has seen more fastballs on the inner half of the plate), along with a lot of breaking balls away in addition to the changeups.

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But Rodriguez wouldn’t have to see so much off-speed if he was capitalizing on fastballs in the zone. He is slugging just .362 against four-seamers with a Run Value of one. For context, he slugged .547 against four-seam fastballs in his previous campaign.

He has fouled a lot of those offerings back rather than turning them around so far, and has oftentimes been a bit off-balanced at the plate. The latter half is an area in which Rodriguez is currently trying to work through.

Simply doing damage on the offerings that one is expected to do damage on can alter a lot. Once Rodriguez begins to execute on more of those pitches, his season will really get going.

Final Thoughts

Rodriguez has started to marginally push his season in the right direction. He is hitting .429 with a 1.019 OPS over his last seven games and has posted a .757 OPS over his last 30 games.

He has posted a 116 WRC+ for the month of May. Which is certainly above average by league standards, it is just not above average on the Julio Rodriguez scale.

His floor will always be about a three-win player due to his elite centerfield defense that has not wavered at all, in spite of his first couple months at the plate (five OAA, sitting in the 98th percentile). 

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And ultimately at season’s end, this probably won’t be dwelled on too much when looking at his overall production, because Rodriguez is too talented to not begin to click at the plate. However, in order to start doing so, he will have to start lifting the baseball with authority.