Julio Rodríguez hits home run, double; Mariners win vs. A’s

SEATTLE – Julio Rodríguez arrived at T-Mobile Park Saturday afternoon and demanded answers from an empty stadium.

In a power drought that no one could have imagined in the first quarter of the season, Rodríguez participated in early batting practice with Mariners director of hitting strategy Jarret DeHart, leading to positive, simplistic conversations:

Be on time for fastball.

Those efforts paid off 24 hours later, when Rodríguez blasted a 409-foot, two-run homer that gave Seattle an 8-4 victory over the A’s on Sunday afternoon. The deep fly was only his second of the season and his first at home, and it ended a streak of 43 plate appearances without an extra-base hit.

For good measure, Rodríguez came within inches of another home run in the fifth, settling instead for a 101.7 mph, 403-foot double that dented the top of the yellow padding deep in left-center.

There were signs that Rodríguez was close to doing just that, especially after burning three fly balls over 100 mph in Saturday’s loss that all ended in outs.

“I put in all the work and did everything I could,” Rodríguez said. “But sometimes you think you’re doing everything, but then the game shows you ‘OK, you need to do a little more.’ And that’s kind of where I’m at.

Despite the Mariners’ best efforts to revamp their offense last offseason, they focused on Rodríguez being a star. Still, the .547 OPS they receive from the second roster spot he has played in all but four of his 41 games is the third lowest in MLB.

“There are other boxes that I have to continue to check, I guess – or different boxes that I have to continue to check,” Rodríguez said.

“On time for fastball”
Rodríguez’s homer was against a mid-88 mph sinker from left-hander Alex Wood, which had to do with his grander approach of timing fastballs. The double came on a 92.4 mph four-seamer from left-hander Kyle Muller.

Rodríguez’s .321 batting average against heaters is well above the league average of .242. But before Sunday’s massive explosion, it had not been correlated with damage. Of his 121 swings at fastballs in the zone, only three were barrels.

Specifically, on fastballs to the heart of the plate, 32.4% of his contacts were graded by Statcast as weak/poor, 17th worst in the game.

Then he added two barrels against fastballs on Sunday alone.

“If you’re on time for the fastball, you can hit anything,” Rodríguez said. “I feel like it’s something I struggle with a little bit. And I feel like, little by little, we’re definitely getting better and finding the best way for me to time.

“Win your slots”
To participate in faster ball sequences, better plate discipline is essential. Entering Sunday, Rodríguez was late 33.1% of the time, 20th worst in MLB and more than each of his first two years. Sunday’s homer was a 1-2 count.

There have always been twists and turns in his game, and this attribute sometimes makes him a threat when he is able to connect on the “pitcher’s pitch” to strike. But when he’s not doing it consistently, or hitting for power, a strikeout rate of 28.7%, tied for 22nd in the game, becomes much more exacerbated.

“With him, it’s about understanding how teams are going to present him,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “They’re not going to put him first in there.” They will challenge him. You have to earn your arguments to succeed in firing the bad ones.

“I put more into my legs”
Rodríguez’s batting percentage dropped from .291 to .323 on Sunday, which ranked him 158th out of 172 qualified hitters. That 194-run drop from last year was the 13th largest in MLB, before the big home run.

Part of it was mechanical. Rodríguez installed a new setup in spring training, with the goal of reducing the amount of movement in the hitting position, but for some reason it impacted his balance.

“When you’re in a hurry to hit and you’re jumping forward, all of a sudden you’re not going to be able to stay behind the ball and get it off the ground,” Servais said. “That’s when we smother a lot of ground balls.”

Rodríguez recently made a more iconic adjustment to his old setup, “because I like to put my legs in more,” he said, “and I feel like I’m not sticking out of my body as much as I I would like to.”

Aside from Rodríguez being steadfast in his preparation and confident that things will change, the Mariners’ offense depends on it.

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