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Julio Rodriguez Carries Lessons From Ichiro With Him, Plus Other Futures Game Buzz



DENVERJulio Rodriguez arrived at the Futures Game riding higher than almost any other prospect in baseball.

The 20-year-old Mariners outfielder jumped from High-A to Double-A this season and is batting .320/.424/.553 with seven home runs and 25 RBIs in only 38 games. He led the Dominican Republic to the Olympics for the first time since 1992 and will represent his home country in Tokyo later this month. He entered the year the No. 3 prospect in baseball and managed to raise his game even higher, to the point many evaluators now believe he is the best prospect still in the minor leagues.

The performance has come during the summer, but the foundation for it was laid during the spring. Specifically, it was laid with help from his spring training throwing partner: Ichiro Suzuki.

“When we got to spring training we kind of were talking and I didn’t have a partner to throw with and he wanted to throw, so I was like ‘Ok, let’s throw,’ ” Rodriguez said. “And you know in baseball when you start throwing with somebody you can’t change. So it kind of went from there.”

Rodriguez and Ichiro played catch every day in spring training. During those sessions, the 47-year-old future Hall of Famer imparted as much wisdom as he could on the precocious young slugger. They talked about hitting, life and above all else, what Rodriguez needed to do behind the scenes to reach his potential and become one of MLB’s best players.

“We talked mostly just like about the preparation, about the process, about everything that it actually takes to be at that elite level," Rodriguez said. "For me, Ichiro is one of the best to ever play this game.

“If you see him right now, he’s 47, and he’s in even better shape than a lot of 20-year-olds that I know. Just by seeing the preparation and the dedication he is still putting in the game, I cannot imagine what he was doing when he was 25 or 27 when he won Rookie of the Year and MVP at the same time. He was basically all those things, what it actually takes to be an elite player in this game.”

The biggest piece of advice Rodriguez received from Ichiro?

“Don’t ever cheat yourself,” Rodriguez said. “At the end of the day if you cheat yourself, you’re just fooling yourself only. You’re not going to fool anybody else. If you don’t actually put in the work, it’s going to show at some point. So you just gotta keep working all the time.”

To that end, Rodriguez has worked harder than ever this season. He’s both bigger and leaner than in years past, and evaluators both inside and outside the Mariners organization have noted he’s become more consistent, whereas in the past he would lose focus and give away at-bats at times.

Rodriguez and Ichiro were able to connect despite speaking different first languages. Rodriguez is fluent in English and Ichiro speaks enough of the language to be able to communicate, with occasional help from an interpreter.

During their catch sessions, Rodriguez was pleasantly surprised to find Ichiro had a strong grasp of Spanish, as well.

“He would actually talk Spanish to me, too,” Rodriguez said. “It was good too. He knows a lot of words where I’d be like ‘How do you know that?’ Like Dominican slang words and stuff like that.”

It was more than just Ichiro’s words, in any language, that made an impression on Rodriguez.

“The first five days he was throwing better than me,” Rodriguez said. “By the end of the spring training he was still surprised I was still playing catch with him. I told him I feel like thanks to you, I have a better arm now. And I’m grateful to you that you actually showed me how to be dedicated to something and actually improve like that.”

Inspired in part by Ichiro, Rodriguez was already planning to take a trip to Japan next offseason. Instead, he’ll be in Tokyo in less than two weeks for the Olympics.

In a playful twist of irony, he plans to use the gains inspired by Ichiro to try and beat the latter’s home country on its own soil.

“I’m actually going to catch up with him,” Rodriguez said, laughing, “and tell him, ‘Hey, I might beat your team.' ”

REID DETMERS FINDS A SLIDER IN AN UNLIKELY PLACE

Reid Detmers’ fastball jumped from 90-94 mph in college to 93-98 mph in his first year of pro ball. But while the velocity increase has certainly helped, it’s not the main reason why the Angels lefthander leads the minors with 16.4 strikeouts per nine innings this season.

After primarily pitching with his fastball, curveball and changeup in college at Louisville, Detmers developed a knuckle slider last summer shortly after the Angels drafted him 10th overall. He refined it throughout the offseason and has turned it into a dominant swing-and-miss pitch this season at 86-89 mph with tight tilt and late action.

Detmers didn’t discover his new knuckle slider during a bullpen session or in a pitching lab. Rather, he found it in the parking lot of an Anaheim hotel with help from another Angels pitching prospect.

“It’s just one of those things where I knew I needed a slider and I couldn’t figure it out for a long time,” Detmers said. “Me and Chris Rodriguez, we played catch on one of our off-days in a parking lot at the hotel. We were just messing around with different grips and he was like ‘Try the knuckle slider' and I was like 'All right, I’ll give it a shot.' From there on I just kept it and it's worked, so I’m not changing anything.”

Detmers previously tried throwing a slider at Louisville, but it was never a particularly effective pitch. He led the nation in strikeouts-per-nine during the abbreviated 2020 college season, but his curveball was his signature pitch, with his slider more of a rarely-used afterthought.

“Before it was just a traditional slider,” Detmers said. “It didn’t really have the velo I wanted on it and it had too much break to it. I wanted something that was a little tighter and this was the only way I could get it to how I want it.”

Detmers showcased his new knuckle slider in the Futures Game to great success. He faced two batters in the game and struck out both on the pitch.

After entering in the bottom of the fifth, he got ahead of Mets third baseman Brett Baty 0-2 with a pair of fastballs up in the zone and finished him swinging with an 86 mph slider up and away. Detmers had a tougher battle against Rockies catcher Willie MacIver, throwing him his fastball, curveball and changeup as MacIver worked the count full. On the seventh pitch of the at-bat, Detmers unleashed an 88 mph slider at the top of the zone and caught MacIver looking for strike three.

“It’s definitely allowed me to just control the zone a little bit different than fastball-curveball-changeup,” Detmers said. “It gives the hitter a different look, especially if I’m throwing it for a strike and in the dirt. It just changed their eye level, gets them off the fastball and the changeup. It just opens up everything.”

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Reid Detmers: Angels 2021 Minor League Player Of The Year

The 22-year-old lefthander excelled in the upper minors thanks in part to a new pitch.

MANUEL RODRIGUEZ AIMS FOR A HISTORIC FIRST

Like all prospects, Cubs righthanded reliever Manuel Rodriguez dreams of reaching the major leagues.

It’s not just about his own personal dream, though. Rodriguez is trying to become the first player born in the state of Yucatan, Mexico to play in the major leagues.

“It would be incredibly special to be the first,” Rodriguez said. “No one has ever done it.”

Most of the major leaguers from Mexico came from states near the U.S. border like Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua and Nuevo Leon. Others came from states further south like Veracruz, Sinaloa and Jalisco, in addition to major population centers like Mexico City.

But none have ever come from Yucatan, a coastal state that borders the Gulf of Mexico and is mostly known for its tropical rainforests and Mayan ruins.

Rodriguez, who was born in Yucatan’s capital city Merida, first showed promise when he won the Mexican League’s Rookie of the Year award in 2015 as the closer for Yucatan’s team at age 18. The Cubs signed him the following year and he steadily rose up their system, reaching Triple-A this season and earning a selection to the Futures Game.

While Cubs organization-mate Brennen Davis won MVP honors after hitting two home runs, Rodriguez showed well for himself. The 24-year-old righthander pitched a scoreless inning with no hits allowed, one walk and one strikeout while repeatedly reaching 99 mph on his fastball.

The velocity in particular stood out. Of the 20 fastest pitches thrown in the game, 19 were either by Yankees righthander Luis Medina or Nationals righthander Cade Cavalli, two pitchers well-known for being among the hardest-throwing pitchers in the minors.

The other pitch belonged to Rodriguez, a 99.6 mph fastball he threw for a strike to start off an at-bat against A’s top prospect Tyler Soderstrom. He ended up striking out Soderstrom on four pitches, getting him to swing through a 99.3 mph fastball at the top of the zone for strike three.

Rodriguez has a 2.76 ERA this year and is averaging 12.1 K/9 over 16 appearances at Double-A and Triple-A. If he can repeat more performances like he had Sunday, it won’t be long before he achieves his dream and becomes the first player from Yucatan to reach the major leagues.

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