Capping off award season with the biggest one yet
In the fall of 2018, I stood outside the Mariners’ complex in Peoria waiting to meet up with a promising young prospect named Julio Rodríguez. Julio was fresh off a dominating performance in the Dominican Summer League, having finished his pro debut season slugging .525 while walking almost as often as he struck out. Julio and I had been corresponding off and on for a while by then, and I thought I had a measure of the person I was about to encounter. I watched as a red-clad figure appeared across the complex parking lot, steadily growing larger—quickly, too quickly for the player noted as 6’2”—until, when he was about fifty feet away, this gargantuan figure hollered KATE!, loped across the last bit of distance, and swept me into an enormous hug. It was overwhelming, and it was also a tidy metaphor for the trajectory of Julio’s career so far: far away, and then suddenly everywhere, all at once.
Over the course of the interview, the then 17-year-old Julio spoke excitedly about his goals: how he wanted not just to make it to the bigs, but to make an immediate impact: to “break baseball” like his hero Alex Rodríguez. How he envisioned stepping up to the plate in Seattle and hearing the announcer say “Juliooooooooo...RODRÍGUEZ” (he did a pretty prescient Tom Hutyler impression, even then). How he saw himself coming back to the Dominican Republic after making the bigs and starting a foundation to help his people, as well as starting a family of his own. And of course, how he planned to help break the drought and bring playoff baseball to Mariners fans, who he already loved as his own. At the time, it was charming: the passionate declarations of a kid mapping out his worldview, his best-case-scenario, inviting us into his mind to see the big dreams that lived there. What I didn’t know then, what no one but Julio knew then, was that these weren’t just dreams; they were an instruction manual.
There are many people in this world who are driven, with an unfailing belief in themselves and the relentless work ethic to achieve greatness. There are not many who package that with the kind of athleticism and kinesthetic intelligence possessed by Julio Rodríguez. The 2022 Mariners had an opening at center field, so he taught himself to be a centerfielder. Evaluators defined him as a big-bodied corner outfield type, so he taught himself to be faster. Pitchers attacked him with off-speed, so he taught himself to lay off a slider. There is just enough mischief in Julio—enough of a desire to prove people wrong—to inspire him without bogging him down in negativity. He has the ability to absorb those criticisms and turn them into his strengths.
And he does it all with a smile and a spirit of bonhomie unmatched anywhere in the sport, because Julio does not view talent as a pie where one has to claw for every piece of it, but rather as a limitless expanse that can be reached by anyone willing to put in the hard work. (Julio seems to forget, at these times, that not everyone is 6’5”, built like a Greek god, and possessed of Herculean power; you see this also when he hugs his smaller or more fragile teammates with a little too much enthusiasm.) Julio wants to be great, but he also wants you to be great, too, or where’s the fun in beating you?
But end-of-season awards are a game where there can only be one winner, and of course Julio is the 2022 American League Rookie of the Year. He earned 29 of the 30 first-place votes; one voter awarded a first-place vote to Adley Rutschman. Rutschman, Julio’s closest competition in what was admittedly a fairly pre-determined race, was excellent but had the poor luck of debuting the same year as the Mariners’ magnetic young superstar. Rutschman also had a later jump on the season than Julio, not making his debut until May 24, but even if the two had played out the entire season together, it’s likely Julio would have still captured ROY. Rutschman gets a boost on defense, as he leapt into the most challenging defensive role on the field with aplomb with no slowdown in the bat, giving vintage Buster Posey vibes. But center field isn’t exactly a light defensive load, and Julio performed admirably there, recording +7 OAA, tied with fellow ROY candidate Michael Harris II for best among rookie centerfielders.
Julio Rodríguez defense appreciation tweet!— SIS_Baseball (@sis_baseball) November 14, 2022
The Mariners improved by 19 Runs Saved in CF from 2021 to 2022
Rodriguez rated above-average at catching balls hit to shallow CF, deep CF, and everywhere in between.#SeaUsRise #SubeLaMarea pic.twitter.com/1SZldOqyZN
And while Rutschman earns the defensive edge, being a catcher also means he’s slow on the basepaths, lacking the speed tool that Julio has.
But maybe the biggest separator for Julio in this ROY field wasn’t something that had to do with his play. Rutschman is three months away from his 25th birthday. Steven Kwan and Jeremy Peña, who didn’t make the final three, are both already at the quarter-century mark. Only Bobby Witt Jr., who also didn’t make the final three after a rookie year that had some ups and downs, is close to Julio in age; at 22 and one month, he’s little more than half a year older than Julio is. If the Rookie of the Year is supposed to recognize baseball’s best young player, it should recognize both its best and its youngest, and voters reacted accordingly.
I’m not exactly sure what stage we’re at in Julio’s grand plan—did he have ROY planned before or after the giant contract extension?—but I know this: I’m along for the ride and excited to see where it goes next, and full of confidence that whatever Julio sets his mind to, he will achieve. I saw it in a parking lot in Peoria, and again in a champagne-drenched clubhouse: it’s Julio’s world, and we’re all just (happily) living in it.