On Monday night, in a packed Dodger Stadium in Southern California, another Home Run Derby came and went. Tape measure homers were frequent, with young MLB stars such as Juan Soto and Ronald Acuna Jr. participating, along with MLB legend Albert Pujols participating in his fifth and final derby. But, a name that many were unfamiliar with at the time eventually stole the show. With his wide, contagious smile and his vibrant personality, it was time that the world learned this young man’s name. Many learned it that night, and many will now never forget it.
The name is Julio Rodríguez, a young phenom that blasted 81 total home runs in the three rounds, the second most ever in a single derby. On the way, he eliminated All-Star Corey Seager and two-time Home Run Derby champion Pete Alonso. He eventually went on to lose to Juan Soto, but it was impossible not to be impressed with the way this young talent decorated the outfield bleachers with baseballs emphatically and consistently all night long.
Julio has arrived, and know the whole world knows it.
But how did Julio get to this point? After dominating the minor leagues with a .331/.412/.543 slash line with 30 home runs, 152 RBIs, and a 177 wRC+, it was clear that Julio, even at his age, would be joining the big league roster sooner rather than later. As he quickly progressed through the minor league system, Mariners fans were becoming more and more familiar with his game. Fans were become ecstatic by what Julio may become, and prospect rankings were taking note of the tools that Julio was showing, no matter the level he was playing at. So, as the lockout ended and spring training for the 2022 season began, these same fans were very hopeful. Not hopeful that Julio would perform well enough to make the Opening Day roster because we all knew that he would do so, but hopeful that the front office and management would make the right decision. Leaving Julio off the Opening Day roster would be a disservice to him and a team that is in a position to compete now. But, lucky for Julio and Mariners fans alike, manager Scott Servais was able to give him the incredible news: “Julio, you’re headed to the show.”
Uncharacteristically, Rodríguez struggled as the big league season began. For somebody who had never played above AA, he struggled with how major league pitchers were attacking him. In April, Rodríguez posted a .205/.284/260 slash line with a very low 61 wRC+, striking out 37% of the time and not hitting a single home run. But as Julio stated as he was mic’d up in the All-Star Game on Tuesday night, “It was pretty surreal for me. I had to remember that I deserve to be here. After I realized that, I was able to start to play my game again.” It certainly wasn’t for lack of talent, and it was only a matter of time before he showed his true colors. Since May 1st, Julio has posted a .293/.351/.535 slash line with 16 home runs, 44 RBIs, 12 stolen bases, and a 155 wRC+. According to Alex Mayer (@alexmayer34 on Twitter), Julio is the FIRST player in MLB HISTORY with 15+ home runs, 50+ RBI, & 20+ stolen bases through his first 90 career games. He has also won two straight AL Rookie of the Month awards, receiving the national recognition that he deserves. He has become a catalyst at the top of the Mariners lineup and has shown that the month of April was nothing but a fluke.
But to Julio, he’s nothing more than a kid from Loma de Cabrera. A kid that loves the game of baseball. A kid that wants to make his family proud. If you were to ask Julio Rodríguez how to describe himself, he wouldn’t start the sentence with words such as fame or superstar. To him, at the age of 21, he is just a kid, following his dreams and getting the priceless opportunity to play a game. When Scott Servais pulled Julio into his office at the end of Spring Training he made sure to tell Rodríguez: “Don’t ever change how you play, play with joy. Play with energy, and be you.”
Without a doubt, Julio has been having a lot of fun as the first half came to an end. The Mariners rode a 14-game winning streak into the All-Star Break, good for the second-longest winning streak in franchise history, behind only the 2001 Mariners, who won an MLB record 116 games. They are in the thick of the AL Wild Card race, with Julio playing a big role.
The last two decades, there hasn’t been a lot to smile about as Seattle Mariners fans. But, with Julio in the lineup every day, he brings an element of joy, an element of excitement to Mariners baseball that hasn’t been present since the play of legends such as Ichiro or Ken Griffey, Jr. He seems to take immense pride in playing at his absolute best night in and night out, giving the fans what he believes they deserve. “I love the Seattle fans, honestly,” he says. “They always show me love every time I step on the field, so they make me feel really special every time, every time.” The energy and professionalism that Rodríguez carries himself with is unmatched as a 21-year-old rookie, and the fans seem to feed off of that. You can often find him looking up to a section that is slowly becoming dedicated to his brilliant defensive play in centerfield, the “No Fly Zone”.
Along with fans, other MLB players are starting to notice the mind-boggling play of the young centerfielder. As Ryan Divish from the Seattle Times mentioned, there were many superstars talking about the buzz surrounding Julio Rodríguez during the All-Star break.
“Incredible, incredible,” said Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
“Star,” said Justin Verlander.
“He’s special,” said Manny Machado.
“He’s great for the game of baseball,” Mike Trout stated.
The All-Star Game was the perfect stage to act as a “national coming out party” for young Julio Rodríguez. As I stated before, people familiar with Mariners baseball have known what his game entails and the limitless potential that he possesses. But for more casual baseball fans or fans that aren’t quite as close geographically to Seattle, Julio Rodríguez may have been considered just another bucket to store Mariners fans’ false hope. But, with his performance in the first half, the Home Run Derby, and the All-Star Game, it’s a safe bet to assume that this kid from Loma de Cabrera is going to be very special.
The combination of skills and humility is not something that you find very often. Julio Rodríguez is so grateful for every opportunity he is given and is so thankful for the support he receives from his family and fans. Oftentimes, it seems as if Julio Rodríguez is a bit clueless as to how special of a talent and player he really is. But, whether Julio was expecting it or not, he is rapidly becoming the face of the Seattle Mariners and quite frankly, the face of Seattle sports. And even if the young star wasn’t expecting it, he has recently shown that he is, without a doubt, ready for it.
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Featured Photo: Mariners / Twitter