The Home Run Derby is a showcase as much as it is a competition. Winning it is nice, of course, particularly if you’re a young player for whom the million-dollar grand prize could double your salary. But making an impression might matter just as much. Ken Griffey Jr. didn’t win when he hit the home run off the Camden Yards warehouse in 1993. Josh Hamilton didn’t win when he brought a thunderstorm to Yankee Stadium in 2008. And Vlad Jr. didn’t win even after he hit an all-time record of 91 dingers over three rounds as a rookie in 2019. But all of them did what they were supposed to do, which is hit baseballs very far and make a bunch of people go “Wow.”
Juan Soto won the 2022 Home Run Derby on Monday night, adding yet another accomplishment to his budding career list while the rumors swirl about the bounty it might take to free him from the Nationals. But Mariners rookie Julio Rodríguez, at just 21 years old, was the hitter who stole the show, smashing 28 more dongs than Soto did over the course of the competition and dazzling everyone with a gorgeous swing that just couldn’t quite make it through the endurance test that is the home run bracket.
Rodríguez, a heavily hyped center field prospect out of the Dominican Republic, earned his spot as one of two Seattle representatives in the All-Star Game with an assured first half that saw him consistently hit the ball hard as hell and cause chaos with his speed when he got on base. His 16 home runs for his career don’t necessarily scream “must-see Derby TV” when more prominent sluggers like Kyle Schwarber and Pete Alonso were also in the mix. But the underlying numbers tagged Julio as a guy you’d want to watch meet the ball again and again and again. Based on limited samples (the tech for tracking this is only available in Houston and L.A.), Rodríguez’s average swing speed is the fastest in baseball at 96.2 mph, and that translates to the 11th-best average exit velocity in MLB.
He’s only getting better as he’s gotten more confident, too, as he’s admitted to taking a more conservative approach in the first few at-bats at the major-league level but has now, since he’s settled in, found the power in his swing. All but one of his 16 home runs have left the yard in games played after May 14. And while there are the unsurprising issues with plate discipline that keep Rodríguez’s strikeouts high and walks low at this early stage of his career, when he makes contact with the ball, he punishes that thing. There’s no easier stage to make contact than the Home Run Derby, so Monday night would essentially highlight all of his strengths at the plate and none of his weaknesses.
Rodríguez was the first of all the hitters to take swings in the opening round, and with 32 home runs he set a bar that nobody else cleared the rest of the night. After some hiccups in the first minute he seemed to enter a trance, pulling pitch after pitch to deep left field until he put up a number that Corey Seager could not match even though the Rangers shortstop had the best showing in any round of any other player besides his opponent. Then in the next match-up, Rodríguez delivered almost the exact same performance, eliminating two-time defending champ Pete Alonso with 31 big flies.
A tall, slim center fielder in a Mariners jersey attacking pitches with a smooth, deceptively powerful swing. Remind you of anyone? The Griffey comparisons weren’t hard to find with the man himself taking photos nearby, and they felt earned. It was breathtaking, watching him continuously summon the strength to loft the ball over 400 feet even in the final seconds of these exhausting rounds. And while Soto won the competition thanks to some impressive stamina and the luck of the draw, the way that he spent much of the night chasing after pitches and sending them all over the park couldn’t compare with the beautiful rhythm that Rodríguez and his pitcher Franmy Peña nailed right from the start. Bracket be damned, the guy that hits the most home runs is at least spiritually the winner of the Home Run Derby. And though Rodríguez only gets half as much as money as Soto won for surviving the whole thing, he’s the one who left the biggest impression.