August 13, 2022

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How J-Rod keeps cool, adjusts to called K's

4 min read
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SEATTLE — The commentary has grown from faint frustration to maddened mania among Mariners fans over the seemingly night-in and night-out calls that have rung up Julio Rodríguez for an MLB-high 13 called strikeouts in this young season.

Each of Seattle’s past two games entering Friday featured a late-inning backwards K against Seattle’s top prospect that had a critical impact on the final outcome; both pitches were clearly outside the strike zone, according to Statcast. It continued a trend that began all the way back on Opening Day in Minnesota.

Is this a tough rookie treatment from umpires, or is Rodríguez being too selective when he should be more aggressive in protecting the plate in two-strike counts? It might be a bit of both. But one thing is clear: He is far less outraged about the situation than everyone else.

“After they call it, there’s nothing that I can do,” Rodríguez said Friday, shrugging and smiling. “I’ve got to wear it. Whenever it’s a ball and they call it a strike, I know 100 percent that it’s not. … I don’t know if that’s what you have to do when you’re a rookie or if that’s what they feel like we’ve got to go through. Sometimes it’s not fair. Sometimes I definitely don’t like it. But I guess that’s their rules they have for us.”

However, Rodríguez didn’t have that assurance at first, so he moved closer to the plate recently.

“I thought it was me, that I was seeing it too far or something,” Rodríguez said. “But I got up a little bit to the plate and they’re still calling them off the plate. So, I’ve got to keep wearing it, I guess. I don’t know what I’ve got to do.”

While the called K’s have looked questionable, he’s also watched a few other in-zone pitches go by for strikes one and two, putting him in a vulnerable spot for the hook. Rodríguez is just 1-for-27 when getting to two strikes, the only hit being the ninth-inning double for his first career hit, which led to a comeback win on the second day of the season. He’s also swung for strike three an additional nine times for a total of 22, also an MLB high.

Rodríguez feels confident about his swing decisions, and he has backing from the Mariners’ analytics department. It’s arguably the component to a hitter that they put the biggest premium on, up and down the organization.

“That’s the thing though — I know the strike zone,” Rodríguez said. “I know what I can do damage to. … I feel really good about [my swing decisions] because if you’ve been seeing where those pitches are located, even if I put the best swing I can possibly do to that, it may be like a ground ball is the best thing I can get out of that.”

Based on the location and pitch selection, it’s clear how opposing arms are attacking the 21-year-old — with a bevy of breaking balls off the plate. He’s been in the Majors just two weeks, but scouting reports were out on him eons ago, specifically that his world-class bat speed and right-handed power could crush fastballs as good as anyone in the Minors.

As such, he’s seen fewer fastballs than all but one of 149 qualified hitters who have seen at least 170 pitches this season.

Most breaking balls and offspeed pitches seen, 2022

Though the Rangers threw Rodríguez a few more heaters on Thursday, he’ll likely continue to see those outside breaking balls — especially if umpires are calling them for strikes, whether they’re out of the zone or not.

Yet Rodríguez will continue to be patient. He worked extensively on plate discipline in the Minors, particularly last year. Swinging at out-of-zone pitches would erase that effort, create bad habits and go against the Mariners’ mantra of “dominating the zone.”

“I’m not going to be chasing that, because I’ve never done that,” Rodríguez said. “I’m staying true to myself and I’m still getting those calls. I’m just going to stay true to myself.”

Staying true to himself also means that he hasn’t let the punchouts get under his skin. If Rodríguez shows opposition to a call, it’s under his breath and never eye to eye. His positive attitude always suggested that he’d be able to handle adversity, and he hasn’t reached a boiling point.

“I don’t think I’m ever going to get to that point because that’s just not who I am,” Rodríguez said. “Going good or bad, I’m always going to keep being the same guy. And I know it’s going to come around. I guarantee that. I know it’s going to come around.”

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