How Mariners rookie Julio Rodríguez found his speed

How Mariners rookie Julio Rodríguez found his speed

In his fourth game as a major leaguer, Julio Rodríguez, 21, the Seattle Mariners’ top prospect at the start of the year, noticed the opposition sleeping on him. Specifically, Minnesota Twins pitcher Dylan Bundy and catcher Gary Sanchez had left him largely unchecked early on after walking. They had likely seen the scouting reports, which praised his control of the strike zone, his ability to adapt and his “plus-plus raw power”, while tempering expectations about his “average speed”.

One of the few top prospects to make his Opening Day debut this year, Rodríguez’s flashy tools took a few weeks to warm up. And at 6-foot-3 and 228 pounds, he planned to be a bigger threat at home plate than on baseline.

Which is, frankly, part of the reason he chose to run. Because no one really expected him to – and because he was struggling to contribute in any other way – Rodríguez stole second, moving to third on Sanchez’s errant throw.

That first is still his favorite stolen base this season. There are now 11 picks to choose from, the most in Major League Baseball. Rodríguez knows he leads the league because people keep talking to him about it, wondering in some disbelief how he got there so fast.

“It’s just funny,” he laughs, “because before no one would have talked about it.”

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 15: Julio Rodríguez #44 of the Seattle Mariners looks on during the game between the Seattle Mariners and New York Mets at Citi Field on Sunday May 15, 2022 in New York, New York .  (Photo by Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Julio Rodríguez, pictured against the Mets on Sunday, stole his 11th goal of the season on Tuesday in a Mariners loss to the Blue Jays. (Photo by Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

When he withdrew from the Dominican Republic in 2017, scouts marveled that Rodriguez was “big for a 16-year-old and already growing”. This resulted in a promising pop, but there are concerns that his average speed will decrease over time as he grows and matures. They identified him as a corner outfield type, and even then he would have to watch his body to stay effective on the field. Reports noted, however, that “Rodríguez is proud of his defence.”

“While no scout will ever admit it,” says Mariners manager Scott Servais, “sometimes they get it wrong.”

Now, just over a month into his rookie season, Rodriguez not only leads baseball in steals, but he’s in the top 2% for sprint speed. Only seven players, out of several hundred, are faster. Recently, before a game against the Mets in New York, he said it only surprised those who underestimated him.

Did you underestimate him? Or has it gotten faster since then?

“Both. Before, I certainly wasn’t the fastest runner, but I wasn’t the runner people said I was,” Rodríguez said. ‘they’re wrong. That’s basically what I did.

learn to run

Ulises Cabrera, Rodríguez’s agent, thought those scouts were wrong. He thought Rodriguez could play center. Well, maybe if he was just a little faster.

So Cabrera asked Llewellyn “Yo” Murphy, a former soccer player who now runs a performance training center in Tampa, Florida, if Rodríguez could learn to run faster.

“I said he definitely could, not even a question,” Murphy says. “I wouldn’t say he couldn’t run, because everyone can run, but I just felt like he wasn’t maximizing what he had.”

In a post-Driveline world, independent coaches and programs have become mainstays in the lives of MLB athletes. Specialized strength coaches and sports science facilities provide players with the opportunity to hone every aspect of their game, which is necessary to succeed at the highest level. Everything is now a kind of “laboratory”.

Murphy has worked with several Cabrera clients, teaching them how to run properly to maximize their athletic potential. About three years ago he started working with Rodríguez, who at 19 had some goals.

“He wants to threaten people with his speed when he’s on base,” Murphy says. “He told me specifically that he knew he could play in the center and that he wanted to show that he could play in that position.

Murphy viewed Rodríguez’s height as a tool—long levers and long strides—to be perfected. The teenager took small steps and spent too much time with his feet up. He had to learn to hold his body at a right angle and attack the ground. They focused on accelerating, pushing heavy sleds or pulling them, then removing the constraints, and just sprinting. But Rodríguez didn’t need to run the fastest 60-meter sprint; he needed to be able to react to balls hit in the outfield and steal bases, so they also held practice drills, with real-life baseball implications.

Early in their time together, Murphy asked Rodríguez if he wanted to be awesome. It was supposed to be a challenge.

“Julio has always worked hard for me,” Murphy says. “But I didn’t see the purpose behind it, the intention behind it.”

Rodríguez – who fashioned himself “JRod” as a tribute to Alex Rodriguez and talked about how he wanted to “break baseball” when he was just 17 and conducts all of his interviews in English, despite it being his second language – wants to be awesome.

“I told him, you’re the only one stopping yourself from being awesome,” Murphy says.

It was a tense conversation. It worked.

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 15: Julio Rodriguez #44 of the Seattle Mariners drives third during the game between the Seattle Mariners and New York Mets at Citi Field on Sunday May 15, 2022 in New York, NY.  (Photo by Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

NEW YORK, NY – MAY 15: Julio Rodriguez #44 of the Seattle Mariners drives third during the game between the Seattle Mariners and New York Mets at Citi Field on Sunday May 15, 2022 in New York, NY. (Photo by Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Find a house in center field

Last year in High-A, Rodríguez stole five bases in a month and a half. According to him, “people” said it was simply because the experimental rules at this level limited throwout attempts by pitchers. Frustrated, he stopped running. Then he was promoted to Double-A, where there are no selection rules.

“That’s when I started running again,” Rodríguez says, “and I stole about 15 or 16 sacks in 40-year-old games.”

He’s always had the eye and the acumen to steal bases, his new speed just unlocked an ability. During the offseason, Rodríguez returned to Murphy, the talk of greatness still nagging at him. And this spring, when he showed up at major league camp, coaches noticed something different.

Servais says he would be lying if he said he always thought Rodríguez had the speed to be a centre-back.

“I didn’t see it coming,” he said. “Until I get to spring training. It was one of the first days we ran the bases as a team, early in camp, and the way he flies around the base like, Oh my god it’s different. And you start to see him move in the outfield, and his ability to get closer to the balls.

Just before the end of spring training, Rodríguez emphatically threw a home run inside the park, his sprint speed on full display. Three days later, he was told he was on the opening day roster. The Mariners have shared a video of Servais giving him the good news, it opens with the manager saying, “You look comfortable in center field.”

“I am,” Rodríguez said.

“Huge, huge, huge benefit”

Murphy says even most top athletes could learn to run more correctly. They don’t care because those who are fast don’t feel the need to, and those who are slow prefer to focus on their strengths.

Rodríguez is not like that.

“He’s got a huge, huge, huge upside,” Murphy says. “And one of the reasons is his humility; he really focuses on what he’s not good at.

This humility is evident in his dedication to training, his accessibility and, of course, the results. But Rodríguez – who sits on the floor of the visiting team’s clubhouse eating Froot Loops and says taking on the likes of Max Scherzer felt like a tall order only now that he’s basically used to the big leagues – is made up of at least as much confidence as modesty.

“I feel like this is the year where everything really took off, and people are seeing what they thought wouldn’t even be possible,” he says. “So joke about them.”

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