Seattle Mariners' Julio Rodriguez follows through during a baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels, Monday, Sept. 11, 2023, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

M’s analysis: Season mirrored ups, downs of star Julio Rodriguez

The 22-year-old center fielder had a massive second-half surge but was inconsistent overall.

Note: This is the first in a series of stories analyzing the Mariners main contributors from the 2023 season who are expected to return for the 2024 season.

Julio Rodriguez

Position: Center field/face of the franchise

Age: Turns 23 on Dec. 29

Contract status: Entering second year of a 12-year, $209.3 million contract extension and will earn $10 million in 2024.

Prime numbers: Rodriguez played in 155 games, starting 152 game in center field and three at designated hitter. In 714 plate appearances, he posted a .275/.333/.485 slash line with 37 doubles, two triples, 32 homers, 102 runs scored, 103 RBI, 37 stolen bases, 47 walks and 175 strikeouts.

He posted the fourth-highest FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) in the American League at 5.9, finished second in the AL with 180 hitsand 71 extra-base hits, and posted the third-most RBI and stolen bases.

Rodriguez also had the Mariners’ first 30-homer/30-stolen-base season since Alex Rodriguez in 1998. Bobby Witt Jr. was the only other player in the AL to achieve the feat this past season.

What worked in 2023: Well, August worked a lot. Rodriguez put together one of the most dominant months in team history. In 23 games, he posted a .429/.474/.724 slash line in 114 plate appearances with 45 hits — including 10 doubles and seven homers — 19 runs scored, 30 RBI, eight walks (two intentional), 21 strikeouts and 11 stolen bases. He had just three games when he didn’t register a hit.

On July 31, Rodriguez had a .251/.315/.423 season slash line. Following his final game of August, he had a .286/.346/.482 slash line.

Really, August was part of massive second-half surge for Rodriguez. On Friday, June 30, he went 0 for 5 and struck out three times in Seattle’s 15-4 loss to the Rays. In 78 games and 354 plate appearances, he had a .238/.302/.407 slash line with 14 doubles, a triple, 14 homers, 47 runs scored, 42 RBI, 10 stolen bases, 26 walks and 94 strikeouts.

They weren’t awful numbers, but everyone, including Rodriguez, expected so much more.

The next day he went 3 for 5 in an 8-3 victory. It was the start of that second-half surge. In his final 77 games and 360 plate appearances, Rodriguez posted a .312/.364/.561 slash line with 23 doubles, a triple, 19 homers, 55 runs scored, 61 RBI, 19 stolen bases, 21 walks and 81 strikeouts.

In the field, Rodriguez showed continued improvement in center, being named a finalist for the Rawlings Gold Glove Award.

He recorded a .994 fielding percentage and committed just two errors in 360 total chances. His fielding percentage was third-highest among American League center fielders.

In terms of advanced defensive metrics, he generated 12 outs above average (OAA), which measures the total effect of all individual plays made by a fielder based on MLB Statcast data. Rodriguez’s 12 OAA ranked third most among AL outfielders. He also had a minus-5 defensive runs saved value.

“It’s unbelievable how talented he is,” manager Scott Servais said. “And he’s still learning. He’s just starting to scratch the surface on what I think he can do on a consistent basis.”

What needs work: Rodriguez understands he’s an unfinished product. He holds himself to the highest of expectations. Really, it was more than just an unproductive first half and a strong second half. Rodriguez’s monthly splits mirrored the team’s record and overall up-and-down offensive production and the fan base’s optimism about the team.

Rodriguez’s monthly splits:

* March/April: .239/.301/.443, five homers, 13 RBI, 34 strikeouts

* May: .252/.314/441, five homers, 18 RBI, 33 strikeouts

* June: .220/.291/.330, three homers, 11 RBI, 27 strikeouts

* July: .293/.353/.472, four homers, 15 RBI, 28 strikeouts

* August: .429/.474/.724, seven homers, 30 RBI, 21 strikeouts

* September/October: .227/.277/.496, eight homers, 16 RBI, 32 strikeouts

Mariners’ monthly record and slash line:

* March/April (12-16): .219/.296/.375

* May (17-11): .238/.230/.388

* June (9-15): .230/.308/.394

* July (17-9): .249/.327/.435

* August (21-6): .285/.371/.493

* September/October (11-17): .231/.304/.390

The Mariners believe that some of the June struggles were due to the All-Star Game being played in Seattle and the pressure put on Rodriguez to be the team’s representative and host.

“We just needed to get on the other side of the All-Star Game,” Dipoto said. “I thought of all our players, he was the one who had the most external pressure on him to deliver to be on the All-Star team and to be present for that moment.”

It was unclear if Dipoto considered the Mariners marketing machine and business leadership as external. But those two groups added as much, if not more, pressure as Rodriguez’s personal endeavors and corporate sponsors. Even at a young age, he has an elevated sense of responsibility to the organization’s success and failures.

It led to an atypical approach from Rodriguez at the plate. Instead of the patient and confident plan he had as a rookie, waiting for his pitch, he was jumpy and over-aggressive. He was searching for results instead of simply getting good pitches and hitting them hard.

The Mariners openly criticized the approach in the early months of the season, stressing that he couldn’t force the production and he was simply trying too hard to hit the ball too far.

There were also some complaints about Rodriguez in clutch situations. Some of that was recency bias. After the torrid August, he fell off significantly in the final month of the season. He posted a .182/.259/.500 slash line with two homers, nine RBI, three walks and eight strikeouts in 27 plate appearances with runners in scoring position.

In 116 plate appearances considered “late and close” where the Mariners were either tied, ahead by one or had the tying run on deck after the seventh inning, Rodriguez posted a .260/.362/.450 slash line with seven doubles, four homers, 20 RBI, 12 walks and 36 strikeouts. While the numbers aren’t bad, it’s fair to expect more results and less strikeouts.

In the final 10 games of the season — seven vs. the Rangers and three against the Astros — Rodriguez had four hits (a single, two doubles and a homer) in 42 plate appearances with three RBI, three walks and 14 strikeouts.

“I could have been better,” he said after the Mariners were eliminated. “There is no other way around it. And I take that on myself. I prepared and everything, but it just didn’t happen for me. It’s not the way that I wanted it. You saw it, I saw it. I was swinging over there. And there’s no other way around it. It was not the best.”

What to expect in 2024: Rodriguez isn’t a player to be satisfied with success. For all that he did this season, the Mariners’ failure to reach to the postseason and his own inconsistencies will nag at him all offseason and motivate him through workouts.

“I think Julio has learned a ton this year,” Servais said. “From where the expectations were early in the season and the struggles he had there to get it flipped and end up putting together a really good season. Not a great season, I think, in his mind, but a really good season. But ultimately, it kind of comes down to the end. Do you have enough left in the tank? Can you control your emotions? Can you do the little things and not to get caught up in the big things so much. Fantastic player, great kid, and he’s learning. He’s learning like a lot of our young players.”

The Mariners believe the continued maturation of Rodriguez as a professional athlete will allow him to handle the increased responsibilities of his stardom.

A third year at the MLB level should help with his approach at the plate and his ability to slow his emotions in clutch situations.

He’s also starting to understand that he can’t force results when the other team won’t let him. Teams recognize his presence in the lineup. They won’t let him beat them. He needs to recognize those moments and not get himself out by swinging at pitches purposely thrown out of the strike zone.

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