PEORIA, Ariz. – The majestic display of athleticism provided in Thursday night’s inside-the-park home run didn’t start when Julio Rodriguez smacked a 2-2 slider from Cleveland closer Emmanuel Clase to deep right-center.
Though Mariners manager Scott Servais had challenged him earlier in the week to hit more balls to right-center and Rodriguez listened.
“I was on him a couple days ago about hitting enough balls to right-center field and a little standing bet-joke between us,” Servais said. “He hit the exact sign (on the wall) that I told him to hit out there.”
It didn’t start when he exploded out of the batter’s box and seemed to be at full speed with frightening ease for a man who is a hair under 6-foot-4 with 228 pounds – seemingly all of it muscle – on his frame.
“He moves so well for as big as he is,” Servais said. “What would he look like if he had pads on and was in the NFL? That’s how he’s built and that’s how he moves.”
No, this particular highlight, one of several produced by the precocious prospect this spring and will be shown years from now as the moment when everyone finally understood the hype, was more than a year in the making with countless hours of work addressing aspects of his game that needed to be adjusted for him to find that success in that moment.
“I’m somebody that likes to maximize every single bit of skill I have,” he said.
There was the realization in the winter of 2020 when his childhood dream of playing in LIDOM, the professional baseball league in his native Dominican Republic, didn’t go quite as planned.
After suffering a fractured left wrist while diving for a ball in a team baserunning drill during “summer camp” of the COVID-shortened 2020 season, Rodriguez was allowed to play for Escogido De Leones to get some game time lost during the canceled minor-league season.
As a 19-year-old who had never played above the High-A level, he found grown men playing a different sort of baseball than he’d known in his brief professional career.
“It actually taught me how competitive baseball works,” he said of the experience. “Because in the DR, as in MLB, they work for a title. That’s what they’re playing for. You get paid and everything, but (a championship) is the main goal. Being around the veteran guys, it was just the best experience I’ve ever had of competitive baseball.”
After playing in 18 games and posting a .196/.297/.250 slash line with a double, a triple, seven runs batted in, six walks and 16 strikeouts in 64 plate appearances, seeing an array of offspeed pitches to get him to chase, Rodriguez opted to return to the Tampa area to start working on the deficiencies he saw with his swing and approach as well as getting stronger. He was going to be more discerning on pitches to get ahead in counts. He wasn’t going to let two-strike breaking balls beat him. He was going to be a complete hitter.
“I can say, it was everything,” he said back in July. “From winter ball to the work I did in Tampa, all the work I did, it’s everything right now. That’s why I’m having all the success I’m having because I prepared myself in a really good way in the offseason.”
That work allowed him to post a .325/.410/.581 slash line with eight doubles, two triples, six homers, 21 RBI, 14 walks and 29 strikeouts in High-A Everett. Promoted to Class AA Arkansas in late June, Rodriguez was even better at the higher level, slashing .362/.461/.546 with 11 doubles, seven homers, 26 RBI, 16 stolen bases, 29 walks and 37 strikeouts. Oh, and he also helped lead the Dominican Republic to a bronze medal in the Tokyo Olympics.
Irritated by some scouting reports that graded him as an average to below average runner, Rodriguez decided to improve his speed and running efficiency while becoming more streamlined as an athlete, removing the last bits of excess body fat from his frame and becoming more flexible. He even gave up chocolate.
“You can’t get an eight-pack eating chocolate,” he joked before flashing his chiseled abs.
He had felt faster due to the strength work he’d done before the 2021 season, but he wanted to be faster going into 2022. It would allow him to play center field and help his chances of making the opening-day roster.
“I’m gonna go out there and compete, like I do all the time,” Rodriguez said at T-Mobile Park in October 2021. “That’s what I do. Even if they say I don’t have a shot, I’m still gonna go compete.”
Rodriguez turned to Llewellyn Murphy Jr., who everyone calls “Yo,” and his aptly named business “Yo Murphy Performance” for the strength and fitness side. A former football player who had stints in the NFL, CFL, XFL and NFL Europe, Murphy often works with NFL players in their offseason conditioning programs as well as several college players preparing for the NFL combine. But he also trains MLB players like Kyle Schwarber and Rafael Devers.
Rodriguez had done some conditioning work with Murphy the previous offseason. This time he added even more speed and agility workouts to his daily routine. Murphy cleaned up Rodriguez’s running form in small ways.
“It made a huge difference because I feel like before, maybe two years or three years ago,” Rodriguez said. “When (Murphy) saw me, he said we have room to improve and get you faster by just running better. We worked a lot on my form, how to be stable, how to cut the angles and get my body in the right positions to stay balanced and change directions.”
Rodriguez doesn’t look like he’s trying to run fast while running fast. It’s almost a glide.
“If you see me honestly you think I could play football and that’s what he said,” Rodriguez said. “I feel like he’s a guy that not only trains football players, but he trains athletes. That’s how I view me. I’m an athlete and I want to be the best athlete I could possibly be on the diamond.”
The pure joy and enthusiasm displayed by Rodriguez after he dove headfirst into home to complete the home run, well, that’s always been there. But the realization of why it’s important to play that way has also been learned.
“”It’s just an everyday thing for me,” he said. “I like having fun. I’m living my dream. I’m playing baseball. This is what I love to do so why not do it and enjoy it. I feel there’s a lot of kids out there that are watching me play, yelling out my name. I feel I want to give them the best impression of myself that I have.”