Julio Rodriguez talks about his struggles, the mindset needed to overcome them and the amazing young talent in MLB

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Seattle Mariners
MLB: Kansas City Royals at Seattle Mariners

It’s been two years since Julio Rodriguez catapulted onto the Major League Baseball scene, starting in center field on Opening Day 2022 as a 21-year-old for the Seattle Mariners.

That season, he won the American League Rookie of the Year Award, receiving 29 of 30 first-place votes, while capturing a Silver Slugger and earning his first All-Star appearance. He also helped lead the Mariners franchise into the postseason for the first time since 2001 – when Rodríguez was nine months old.

For an encore in 2023, Rodríguez joined the 30-30 club (32 homers, 37 stolen bases), drove in more than 100 runs, made his second All-Star team, won his second Silver Slugger and placed fourth in AL MVP voting, all at age 22.

Heading into 2024, Rodríguez was on the shortlist for AL MVP favorites.

Then baseball did its thing. Just when it seemed like the game was too easy for Rodríguez, the sport punched back. He recorded a dismal .606 OPS in March/April, and though he’s had a better May so far, Rodríguez has managed just seven extra-base hits and only two home runs in his first 200 plate appearances of 2024.

No one is too worried, least of all Rodríguez, who said he understands that this game can knock you down. But he’s positive he’ll get back up, and soon.

Rodríguez sat down with Sportskeeda for a Q&A to discuss his early struggles, working through slumps, his unwavering mindset, the trend of incredibly talented young players in the game and the Mariners’ formidable pitching staff.

Editor’s note: The following has been edited and condensed.

You’ve had so much success early in your career. And then you hit a stumbling block to start 2024. Do you take any lessons from that?

That it’s a really difficult game, because you can be good and still get out. You can be good and still hit the ball right at somebody, even if you are doing all the right things. That doesn't matter. Just because you're doing all the right things, doesn't mean that you're going to have success in baseball. Compare that to a lot of the other sports, where if you do all the right things and you put the work in and you get yourself in the right position, you’re going to be successful more times than not. Baseball, I think, can be a little bit the opposite of that.

What is it like for a young player to have to work through those inevitable downtimes?

It depends. I feel like if you expect that you’re always going to be successful and everything's going to be in a straight line, then it can be really tough. But I’m the type of person that I know I'm going to be dealing with adversity, especially in this sport. I have had my own adversity, through my life and through my career, and I feel like that has taught me to continue to work and to develop a trust in that, that the work I put in is eventually going to come back out. That’s the approach that I take, because you’ve got to know if you play baseball, you are going to have failure at some point.

Your offense has improved recently – from a .256 average and .606 OPS in March/April to .301/.724 in 18 games in May. But overall, it’s still not quite up to your lofty standards. What do you think is going on and what’s given you the recent lift?

It’s a combination of a lot of things, but I feel like I'm just starting to trust myself a little bit more and letting my work and everything just kind of play out and let my old self take over. That’s something huge that I’ve gotten better with over the past few weeks, and I feel like that's what I'm going to continue to do.

In roughly 200 plate appearances so far this season, you’ve had only seven extra-base hits. How concerned are you about that early lack of power?

I don't really have that in my mind all the time. I feel like it's something that if you're going well, you're going to hit the ball out. I feel like that's something that shouldn't stress you out. You’ve just got to make sure you are having good at-bats and keep squaring the ball up.

It seems like offensive struggles haven’t affected your defensive side. You made a tremendous leaping catch in center last weekend. Is that important for you as you try to get right at the plate?

It's huge for me because there's more than one way to help your team win. Obviously, you want to hit. You want to help the team drive in runs and all of that. But I feel like stopping runs for the other team, that's a really huge part that's going to help your pitchers out and also give you a great chance to win the ballgame.

You made your debut at 21 with a lot of hype. That’s happening more frequently. Do you think it’s a good thing that players are debuting so young now?

It’s great. I think it’s great to give people, whatever age, the opportunity to play the game. I mean, if you can play, you can play. It doesn’t mean you have to be a certain age to play. If you can play, you deserve a shot. It’s great for the baseball community and the connection (with fans), because it seems like the sport is getting younger and younger every single year. I think it’s good to give young players the opportunity to shine.

You are obviously one of the first young players mentioned when people talk about this upcoming generation. Are there certain young hitters you like to watch?

There are so many guys. You can go from household names like Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis, Bobby Witt Jr., and then like the Gunnar Hendersons and Adley Rutschmans. There are so many -- Corbin Carroll – that you can watch right now and learn so much from them.

Do you ever compare yourself to them?

Not really. I like to compete against them, though. That's what I like. I like to compete against them because it’s just fun. It’s fun when you see somebody that’s really talented, when you can see somebody else that’s really talented with a really good team. That's what I enjoy the most about this game. Just showing up, lacing up, and going out there and competing against the best of the best.

Several highly touted youngsters have come up and struggled this year. Baltimore’s Jackson Holliday and Pittsburgh’s Henry Davis have been demoted; Milwaukee’s Jackson Chourio hasn’t hit much. Given your experience, what would you say to guys like that?

Just to keep working. That's part of the game of baseball at some point, if it's in the beginning of the year, if it's in the middle of the year, if it's at the end of the year. At some point, you're going to hit rock bottom and the game is going to test you. This is a test that you’ve got to overcome, to keep believing in yourself, to keep working hard and to keep showing up every day. That's the only way you can get through that. If you start shying away from those moments, then that's when you start seeing people having not-so-good careers when so much was expected from them. This is a test that they’ve got to overcome, and they cannot keep that situation in their mind and keep their head down. They’ve got to keep looking up. You need to keep advancing and know that it's going to pass.

How do you that when someone like you has so many expectations to meet?

Obviously, it's a little bit tougher, but I feel like knowing yourself and knowing the work you’ve put in, that's the best way. Even if things are not coming out well right away, you have to keep believing in yourself and knowing you’re doing things right. Because it is hard to be able to be yourself when a lot of people are talking about you. But, at the end of the day, that’s noise. You’ve got to stay true to yourself and keep working on things that got you to that level.

You’ve been compared to superstars such as Soto and Ronald Acuña Jr., talent-wise. That’s a lot to handle. What’s your take on those comparisons?

I try to make my own name, but it’s cool to be in the same conversation with those guys, because they are just the best of the best in the game. And getting my name thrown out there – this is just my third season – that’s something that I take a lot of pride in. But, at the same time, I’ve just got to continue working on myself and trying to help this team win. That’s always my main focus.

Is it your belief that when you look at your statistics at the end of the season, you’ll be in line with last year: 30-something homers, high OPS and 100-plus RBIs?

I just believe in myself, man. This is a long season for a reason. I know this is what (the numbers) are now, but I’ll continue to work, and we’ll see where they fall.

You have had the opportunity to play behind arguably the best pitching staff in the AL. What is that like?

They are unbelievable. That's something that really motivates me to go out there and play the best defense I can. Because I just see how hard they work, day in and day out. How hard they go out there and compete every single night. So, I feel like the least I can do for them is go out there and play the best center field I can. You said it. They’re arguably the best rotation in the whole league, so having guys like that gives you confidence that you’re going to have a good ballgame every single night.

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Edited by Sam Nestler
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