Juan Soto is going to win the All-Star Break in many ways, but the most significant might be by virtue of being the most thirst-inducing thoroughbred at the auction. It makes sense that he took the Home Run Derby a few days after the Nationals announced they’re listening to offers. There are a half billion dollars on the line, and taking the slugger crown without breaking a sweat — or 20 home runs in a round — is the filter on the IG post.
This exact scenario won’t play out next season because Julio Rodriguez has a few more years until his payday, but if the rookie’s performance in the derby and this season is an omen of future massive contracts, the numbers that will begin to swirl in the event that he takes next year’s event, which is being held in Seattle, will be hard to contextualize.
The most impressive display of power Monday didn’t come off the bat of Soto or even back-to-back champ Pete Alonso. Rather it was the runner-up, who had rounds of 32 and 31 before running out of gas in the finals. In fact, Rodriguez did the heavy lifting in the semis, ending the Polar Bear’s reign with a booming second round while Soto dispensed with Albert Pujols.
There should be a clause in the derby that if you out slug your final opponent by almost 30 home runs (Rodriguez had 81 total to Soto’s 53), you win. Only Vlad Guerrero Jr. has cleared the fence more times in a derby (91) — and he also unfairly lost. (My suggestion: The last round should be an aggregate.) Before Monday, there had only been four 30-plus homer rounds, and now there are six, with Rodriguez the only player on that list twice.
The first-time All-Star’s first five swings of the semifinal bonus round left the park (6-minute mark), and the strokes were so identical you’d think they were looped.
The debut had current and former greats snapping photos and squinting at balls disappearing in the LA sky. Clayton Kershaw and his cut-off T-shirt enjoyed Julio’s first-round barrage that ousted fellow Dodger Corey Seager.
In attendance, presumably, because he has a free pass to all derbies — but also because Alonso was gunning for his record for most derby wins (three) — Ken Griffey Jr. had to snap a few shots of Rodriguez’s picturesque swing.
The comparisons to the favorite player of countless ’90s kids are already rolling in, and it’s a surprisingly responsible juxtaposition considering how easy it is to make — same team, same position, a couple of swings that are equal parts effortless and beautiful, and an ability to glide around the outfield — and how high of a bar Griffey set.
Here’s a blurb from Seattle Sports on the two Mariners phenoms’ first 81 games.
In Griffey’s first 81 games (75 starts), he put together a .282/.346/.463 slash line, good for a .809 OPS. He also slugged 13 home runs and drove in 43 runs.
Rodríguez, meanwhile, is slashing .275/.335/.489 (.824 OPS) with 15 home runs and 43 RBIs in 81 games (80 starts).
He’s third in the league in swiped bags, and could probably be the league’s preeminent base stealer if that was something MLB front offices still coveted. Perhaps the best part of his season though is the team’s success. Seattle entered the break on a 14-game winning streak, is 22-3 in its past 25 contests, and sits a half game behind the Rays for the first wild card slot. Catching the AL West-leading Astros might be difficult, but I don’t think fans are going to complain about how the organization ends a postseason-less streak that’s sitting at 20 years.
Baseball-Reference has Rodriguez listed at 6-foot-3, 228 pounds, but I find that hard to believe as the same site has Soto at 6-foot-2, 224. The Washington outfielder feels more like Alonso (6-foot-3, 245) than a slightly smaller Rodriguez. I guess that was the most startling aspect of the night.
The semifinals featured three beefcakes — Alonso, Soto, and Pujols — whose necks have the turning radius of a city bus. During Rodriguez’s 31-home run second round, they showed Alonso squatting what felt like 1,700 pounds, with the consistent clang of the plates hitting the floor sounding eerily similar to the Bear Jew prepping for a beating.
Then there was Julio, fluidity personified, making all those muscles seem frivolous. And when you can belt 81 blasts while seemingly exerting more grace than effort, you’re the real derby winner.