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Sports >  Seattle Mariners

Mariners mailbag: Julio Rodriguez’s early struggles, strike zones and more

April 18, 2022 Updated Mon., April 18, 2022 at 7:29 p.m.

Seattle Mariners' Julio Rodriguez, left, is waved in to score on a two-run triple by Adam Frazier during the fourth inning of the team's baseball game against the Houston Astros, Friday, April 15, 2022, in Seattle.  (Associated Press)
Seattle Mariners' Julio Rodriguez, left, is waved in to score on a two-run triple by Adam Frazier during the fourth inning of the team's baseball game against the Houston Astros, Friday, April 15, 2022, in Seattle. (Associated Press)
Ryan Divish Seattle Times

The last time the Twitter mailbag was answering questions from readers, it was busy criticizing commissioner Rob Manfred and MLB owners over the lockout and the contentious negotiations for a new collective-bargaining agreement.

No, the mailbag’s recent hiatus wasn’t a product of that criticism just a coincidence due to the hectic schedule of the compressed spring training and delayed start to the 2022 season.

But now 10 games into the 162-game marathon, it’s time for the weekly foray into the minds of readers and fans to return.

As always, these are real questions submitted by the top prospects that are my Twitter followers.

@YellowHaynes asks: “Why do umpires hate rookies … specifically Mariner rookies? Kelenic I can kind of get due to hyper-intensity, but Rodriguez seems like a mystery to me because of how joyfully he plays the game?”

I don’t think umpires hate rookies. They probably hate Twitter. They seem to hate fun. They definitely hate MLB Statcast and pitch-tracking software. While they don’t hate rookies, I also don’t think they have much respect for them as players, which isn’t atypical behavior.

Respect must be earned.

As for Jarred Kelenic, I feel like he’s been on relatively good behavior this season. He’s been adamant that he isn’t saying anything to umpires after questionable calls. He certainly seems more subdued than last season. But bad reputations aren’t easily changed or quickly forgotten.

His behavior last season, which included getting tossed from a game at Yankee Stadium, put him on the mental list of “bad attitudes” that umpires all keep. Is it fair? Probably not. But umpires don’t want to have some hotheaded youngster questioning their authority and strike-zone judgment or showing them up.

Julio Rodriguez has been an angel when it comes to reacting to bad calls considering the number that have gone against him, particularly for called strike threes. Beyond a brief reaction of frustration, Rodriguez immediately retreats to the dugout without staying to argue or protest.

And yet, that hasn’t gotten him any relief.

Does Nelson Cruz, who also plays the game with a similar amount of joy, get those borderline calls more often than Rodriguez? Absolutely. He’s a known and proven player who has reached the games highest levels. He has interacted with umpires over his lengthy career. His pitch discernment gets him the benefit of the doubt.

Should it be this way? No. The strike zone shouldn’t be interpreted or influenced by the player in the batter’s box based for any other reason than his size.

But that’s not how it works with humans as umpires. Also some umpiring crews are better than others. The crew of Ron Kulpa (chief), Marty Foster, Carlos Torres and Chris Conroy that the Mariners had in Minnesota isn’t considered one of the best.

Of his 16 strikeouts this season, Rodriguez has struck out looking 11 times. Using Baseball Savant’s MLB Statcast pitching tracking information — the same data that grades umpires accuracy — on Baseball Savant, five of those called third strikes are out of the strike zone enough to be considered a miss while three others are borderline.

The adage of “protecting the plate” or “too close to take” need to be banished from the big leagues where umpires maintain egos as large as players about being correct in their decisions. The last the thing the Mariners want is Rodriguez to get away from his improved hitting approach and disciplined strike-zone awareness to chase pitches that are out of the zone out of fear. Bad swing decisions on two-strike pitches can be the gateway mistake into expanding their strike zone leading to more poor decisions and swings and misses.

Kelenic was a victim of this last season. This season, he’s been a little better. Of the 19 called strikes against him, six were considered out of the strike zone — one of them was a sinker from Kendall Graveman that was a called strike three.

@HightOfInsanity asks: “Why do you think fans are heckling Kelenic but cheering Julio? Julio has worse slash line and 50% K rate.”

People can be fickle like kids with Christmas or birthday presents. Rodriguez is the shiny new toy that they’ve spent the last few months hoping/begging for, while Kelenic, last year’s I-need-to-have-it player, is pushed to the side.

There is a charisma to Rodriguez that doesn’t feel forced. With his megawatt smile, his youthful exuberance and social media presence, he’s been the darling of the fan base for a while now.

Kelenic’s personality is different. I’ve often joked that he reminded me of actor William Zabka, who played the bully or anti-hero in so many ’80s movies, most famously as Johnny Lawrence in “The Karate Kid.”

There is that intensity that you mention along with a self-confidence that a segment of fans viewed as cockiness or arrogance. Much was written about him, plenty was said by him and his former agent, and when he didn’t produce as expected, it was easy for some to sour on him or turn against him.

For the record, there is no way Daniel LaRusso could learn karate well enough in three months to beat Johnny Lawrence in the All-Valley Karate tournament. And yes, I was cheering for Johnny to win while watching that movie.

“Sweep the leg. No mercy.”

@RoseBug_22 asks: “What do you see as main reason for JRod’s struggles? Some bad calls by umps haven’t helped, but early he seemed to be trying to pull everything. Happy he went up middle/other way on Sunday.”

I guess I don’t really consider him struggling even with the 45.7% strikeouts. Given his age, lack of experience and the tough pitching, I figured he would have stretches like this.

And the six called third strikes represent more pitches or opportunities for success. When he has hit the ball, he’s averaged a 90.7 mph exit velocity, which will only improve. Of his 16 balls in play, more than half are considered “hard hit.”

The biggest aspect will be pitch recognition and adjusting to the level of breaking pitches that he’s seeing. Teams have more advanced scouting than ever before and they aren’t just going to give him fastballs because he’s a rookie. They know what he can do with those pitches.

Per Statcast, he’s had 137 pitches thrown to him this season — 75 of them were breaking pitches, 50 were fastballs and 11 were “off-speed.” They start him with breaking pitches and they keep using them with two strikes. He’s swung and missed at 10 of those 50 fastballs, all of them elevated in the top part of the strike zone, which is also something he will adjust to.

@seattlehandicap asks: “How long will they give JRod ?”

He’s played a quality center field. He might be one of their best base runners. And even with this slow start hasn’t seemed overwhelmed or looked like he didn’t belong. I think they are comfortable with what they’ve seen so far. And there isn’t a better option to play center field on a daily basis in the organization.

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