To me, the core of who we are cannot be defined so simply. We cannot be defined alone by our abilities, by our physical presence, or by our personality. To me, we are best defined by all of those things, and how we choose to use and present them, in the moments that matter most. This is even more true of athletes, and especially baseball players. Anyone that knows baseball also knows that a 3-2 count, with the bases loaded, and a tied score is about as much of a moment that matters as any that will come along, especially in an April game that otherwise matters very little.
Julio Rodríguez found himself in that exact situation last night. The very same Julio Rodríguez who virtually the entire baseball world has been watching under a microscope since making his Major League debut at the start of the season. Questions and speculation have not been a mere buzz, they’ve been a thunderstorm. I won’t repeat those questions here quite yet, we all know what they are, we all have already formed our own opinions to varying degrees. What we’re here to discuss is Julio’s answer to those questions; his answer to a 3-2 count, bases loaded situation, with the game on the line. Julio could answer the thunderstorm because he works in an Electric Factory.
A good Major League baseball player knows when to swing his bat, and when not to. A great baseball player does that consistently, and makes impactful plays because of it. An amazing, generational baseball player does all of that, and makes it look easy. Now of course I’m not calling my shot this early and saying that Julio is one of those types of generational players, but I’m also not not saying that. After all, one of the biggest questions looming large over him has been his plate discipline, and in the 15 games the Mariners have played so far I have seen his approach to hitting be described as being extremely varying degrees of bad and good, with wildly different reactions to the same plate appearances.
A singular point of contention above all else has been his strikeouts. As of this moment he ranks nearly dead last in K% at 42.1%, trailing only Jo Adell. His SwStr% ranks 18th worst at 15.9%. So in the interest of fairness, those concerns are valid to a degree. Speaking of fairness, and forgive me for retreading this ground that has been ever marched upon as of late, not all of those strikeouts were fair.
Every single pitch on that chart was a called strikeout. Some of the more borderline ones would be forgivable if we weren’t seeing such an egregious pattern here, accounting for more than half of Rodríguez’s strikeouts. The knee-jerk reaction to seeing any of these pitches live was easy: he seemed to be getting punished for good plate discipline. Looking at the data only cements that opinion in me. An interesting take on all of this that I have seen is that he should be chasing some of these pitches, the ones that are borderline especially, and learn to battle the umpires and the pitchers like “a true Major Leaguer would”. I’m of the mind that a rookie learning to navigate baseball at this level is already fighting so many other battles that at least for a time they should stick to their initial game plan and fully test it before attempting to pivot strategies, especially when it is a game plan that has helped them overcome every obstacle at every level. Lucky for us, Julio is extremely driven and definitely came with a plan.
Julio Rodriguez didn’t like the early labels that he would chase pitches out of the zone with two strikes. So he spent the last few years working hard to refine his plate discipline and pitch recognition and develop a mature approach at the plate.
– Ryan Divish (@RyanDivish) April 22, 2022
How can you not respect and admire that level of determination? How can you not empathize with a player like that, when they are meeting obstacles outside of their control? Making all of this the more frustrating for me was that I have been watching these at bats. I can see the patience, I can see the carefully pulled back check swings. Julio Rodríguez isn’t only passing the eye test, he’s rewriting the syllabus for all future students. With what I have seen, I and many others of like mind, have known in our heart of hearts that it was only a matter of time before the luck turned.
Before the bat flip, Julio Rodriguez looked back to make sure he’d drawn ball four:
“I knew it was a ball, but I was like, ‘Man, if you call that right now, we’re going to have some words.’ I feel like that would’ve been the time where you would see me get fired up. ” pic.twitter.com/krn6QXHKgx
– Daniel Kramer (@DKramer_) April 24, 2022
We are all Julio in that moment. “Don’t you dare do it”, we thought, “we need this and you owe him this ”. Sometimes, the baseball gods are good. Yes, last night Julio did strike out once, swinging at an off-speed pitch in the zone. He also got two hits including a double, and a stolen base. For me though there was nothing more punctuated than that RBI walk. No more resounding a response to all those pesky questions. The answer? Rodríguez is without a doubt a Major League caliber baseball player, he was always going to be. The kid is just clutch. Well, really. Clutch is a metric on Fangraphs, and per them “Clutch measures how well a player performed in high leverage situations ”. Where does Julio rank in Clutch after last night’s game?
He ranks 2nd, in all of baseball. Just above another Mariner hero, Ty France. Next on the list for our team at 23rd is Eugenio Suárez. Great company to keep, and a veritable who’s who of proving the haters wrong, this season especially.
So while we are constantly battling with the elements of the universe that seek to define us, fighting to craft our own narrative, it is vital that we appreciate the moments where one takes destiny into their own hands, when the patience pays off. Julio will be defined by many more moments in his career, and this moment may get lost in the sea of them. What’s one bases loaded walk, in an early season game, stacked against a career? For me, however, this will remain in my memories as one of those defining moments. I think maybe for Julio and some others too.
Julio Rodriguez said he got goose bumps on the field for the first time in professional baseball after he took the bases-loaded walk and heard the reaction from the crowd.
Winker called it the at-bat of the game.
– Ryan Divish (@RyanDivish) April 24, 2022
Goose bumps, indeed.