Cody Bellinger Is on the Rebound

© Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

At 12-5, the Dodger are off to their hottest start since, um, last year’s 13-4 opening run, and they’ve done it by once again combining the league’s highest scoring rate with its best run prevention. After winning 106 games last season, it’s not a surprise that they appear to be a powerhouse again, but as opposed to last year, this time they’re doing it with the help of Cody Bellinger, who has shown signs of turning the page on a miserable, injury-marred 2021 campaign.

Thanks to a six-game stretch in which he hit three homers and collected three additional extra-base hits, Bellinger was the NL Player of the Week for the week of April 18-24. After generating some concern with a spate of strikeouts during spring training, he’s hitting .238/.294/.508, which may not look like much but in this new dead-ball era is still good for a 133 wRC+. His numbers looked a lot better (.273/.333/.582, 165 wRC+) before he went 0-for-8 across the first two games of the Dodgers’ current series in Arizona — the point at which I began mulling this piece — but such are the perils of analyzing early-season baseball. The samples are small and the stats unstable, but even with those caveats in mind, we can start by noting that Bellinger’s four home runs are as many as he had during the entire first half of last season. Some highlights from his latest jag:

In large part, Bellinger’s 2021 problems were traceable to the high point from his previous fall. After hitting what proved to be the decisive home run in Game 7 of the 2020 National League Championship Series against the Braves, he dislocated his right (non-throwing) shoulder — not for the first time — on a celebratory forearm bash with then-teammate Enrique Hernández. He continued to play through the Dodgers’ World Series victory over the Rays (though he went just 3-for-22), then underwent surgery in mid-November, and didn’t make his Cactus League debut until mid-March of last year.

Though he started in center field on Opening Day, Bellinger played in just four games before suffering a hairline fracture of his left fibula after being spiked on a play at first base on April 6. The injury sidelined him for nearly eight weeks, and while he had a couple of two-week stretches where he put up strong results, he mostly scuffled upon returning. In August, manager Dave Roberts pointed to Bellinger’s recovery from shoulder surgery, which affected the strength of the front shoulder in his swing, as having a prolonged impact on his performance.

Bellinger finished the year with an abysmal .165/.240/.302 batting line in 350 plate appearances. His 48 wRC+ was the third-lowest of any player with at least 300 PA, and he was particularly inept against lefties, hitting just .116/.208/.174 (12 wRC+) in 96 PA. He finally showed some signs of life in the postseason, putting together some particularly tenacious plate appearances and hitting .353/.436/.471 in 39 PA, highlighted by a key walk against Cardinals lefty T.J. McFarland that set up Chris Taylor’s walk-off home run in the Wild Card Game (RIP, exciting format) and then a game-tying eighth-inning homer off the Braves’ Luke Jackson in NLCS Game 3.

Amid that run, Brendan Gawlowski noted Bellinger’s adjustments at the plate, including his moving a bit closer to the pitcher, which gives breaking balls slightly less time to break, and adjusting his footwork a bit as well. By the look of the video clips above, he’s backed off to where he previously stood, and has returned to setting up with his bat more or less parallel to the ground before bringing it more upright at the start of his swing. That’s reminiscent of his stance from his MVP-winning 2019 season:

On the left he’s standing in against the Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg in 2019, in the center he’s facing the Braves’ Max Fried in last year’s NLCS, and on the right he’s up against the Braves’ Charlie Morton, off whom he doubled and tripled on April 20, after which Roberts noted his improved approach:

“Every time he steps in the box, regardless of handedness, who’s pitching, game situations, he’s conducting a professional at-bat,” the manager said. “He’s putting the barrel on the ball and being more like what we’ve expected from Cody.

“I would say. if anything, I think his (bat) path is a little bit flatter and longer through the zone. But I think that for him to understand game situations, feel good at the plate and see the baseball most importantly, I think that’s where we want to keep him.”

That’s a positive outcome for Bellinger after a lockout-compressed spring spent tinkering with his swing and racking up strikeouts galore — 17 in his first 25 plate appearances, though just one in his final 12. From The Athletic’s Fabian Ardaya on March 31:

Bellinger has said he’s seeking a “happy medium” between the slap-heavy, contact-based survival mode he was in for much of the postseason — when he was more of a regular contributor after being one of baseball’s worst hitters during the regular season. His bat position, once parallel to the ground during the first half of his MVP season in 2019, had dropped significantly, lifted at close to a 90-degree angle as he focused on a more compact path to making contact.

The early returns are moderately encouraging. When he makes contact, Bellinger is hitting the ball hard, with an average exit velocity of 90.4 mph, a barrel rate of 14.6% and a hard-hit rate of 53.7%; the last two of those would be career highs, and currently place him in the 86th and 92nd percentile, respectively. Both his .275 xBA and .526 xSLG highlight the fact that he should be getting better results based on his contact specs, though some of what he’s experienced is part of the broader league-wide trend involving the de-juiced ball, a subject that Baseball Prospectus‘ Rob Arthur and The Athletic’s Eno Sarris and Ken Rosenthal both explored earlier this week. Via Statcast, the majors’ .231 batting average is 20 points below its xBA, and its .368 slugging percentage is 64 points below its xSLG.

In Tuesday night’s loss to the Diamondbacks, Bellinger lined out to right field against Joe Mantiply in the seventh inning, on a ball that the broadcasters in both the Los Angeles and Arizona booths remarked upon:

That’s the Diamondbacks’ version; on the Dodgers’ broadcast, Jessica Mendoza used the word “smoked.” Bellinger’s 97.9 mph drive had a 24 degree launch angle, producing a .451 xBA and 1.141 xSLG. By the latter measure, it was his second-hardest hit ball that resulted in an out this year. The hardest came just the night before, when he hit a 110.7 mph, 25 degree fly ball to center field off Merrill Kelly, a drive with a .751 xBA and 2.443 xSLG. With regards to both balls, it’s important to note that direction matters — the second drive in particular is much more often a homer if it’s pulled than if it’s hit to center, but the numbers Statcast presents to the public don’t differentiate:

Via the numbers in The Athletic’s piece, barreled balls are carrying an average of two feet less relative to last year in ballparks that had a humidor before MLB mandated their installation in all 30 parks. Two feet might not have been enough for those drives to elude right fielder Pavin Smith and center fielder Daulton Varsho, but then again it might have.

Bellinger is hardly alone in getting robbed thus far, but already the contrast in his batted ball stats from this year versus last year is night and day:

Cody Bellinger Statcast Data
Year BBE EV Max EV Barrel% Hard-Hit% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2017 337 90.8 112.8 12.2% 45.7% .267 .247 .581 .525 .380 .356
2018 409 89.8 112.9 8.6% 38.6% .260 .231 .470 .424 .345 .321
2019 455 91.2 110.6 13.0% 45.7% .305 .315 .629 .628 .415 .425
2020 171 89.3 110.6 9.4% 41.5% .239 .281 .455 .493 .337 .369
2021 224 89.3 107.4 7.1% 34.4% .165 .208 .302 .357 .237 .281
2022 41 90.4 107.3 14.6% 53.7% .238 .275 .508 .526 .353 .360
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

One trend to note is the drop in Bellinger’s maximum exit velocity, a good proxy for his raw power; it ain’t what it used to be, and it’s not hard to spot where his shoulder injuries, plural, cut into that power. His batted ball stats before the well-documented May 3, 2019 dive on which he dislocated his shoulder and popped it right back into place included a .412 xBA and .820 xSLG, and his actual numbers were even better (.425/.867); he wasn’t going to maintain those, but they did drop over the remainder of the year (.297 xBA/.593 xSLG) and his average exit velo from that point in the season onward fell precipitously, from 93.5 to 90.1.

All of which supports the idea that Bellinger’s shoulder troubles have indeed cost him significant power, and it’s reasonable to wonder if he’ll ever restore it. Beyond that, the concern this year is that he’s struck out in 32.4% of his plate appearances, up from last year’s career-high 26.9% and his 2019 career low 16.4%; he shaved over 10 points off that rate from his rookie season to his MVP one, which was a big deal at the time.

Bellinger is not as disciplined a hitter as he used to be; from 2017-20, his chase rate was 27.8%, and his swinging strike rate 11.6%. He’s at 35.2% on the former this year, up half a percentage point over last year, and if we look back to his increase from his overall 2017-20 swing rate (45.0%) to his 2021-22 one (51.2%), it’s reminiscent of Sarris’ use of such changes as an indicator that a player might be pressing. It’s not hard to imagine that mindset in the wake of a hitter’s injury and recovery, the desire to prove one is back to normal and perhaps to overcompensate if one isn’t all the way there.

Having said that, we have enough data to sort through without dwelling inside Bellinger’s bell. One bit of good news is that this year’s 12.2% swinging strike rate represents a two-point drop from 2021 and is comparable to his first two seasons. On the flip side, he has become particularly vulnerable to sliders, with a 19.6% swinging strike rate this year, up three points from last year and up over six points from his 2017-20 rate. He used to pulverize such pitches when he made contact, with slugging percentages of .588 or above in three of his first four seasons, but he was down to .274 last year. On 14 such batted sliders this year he’s slugging .500, and his Statcast run value on the pitches is +2, up from last year’s -5, but we’re talking about results on a total of 39 such pitches.

At this stage of the season, before stats have stabilized, it’s important not to draw conclusions that are too firm. At the very least, it appears that Bellinger has returned to becoming a productive cog in the Dodgers lineup, a juggernaut in which every regular except for Justin Turner has a wRC+ of 101 or higher. For now, as the team continues to charge out of the gate while Turner, Mookie Betts (101 wRC+) and Max Muncy (103 wRC+) sort themselves out, that’s good enough. Hopefully we’ll see a better Bellinger at some point, but the stacked Dodgers lineup can certainly live with this version.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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6 months ago

It seems clear to me he’ll never repeat his 2019. I wonder what a realistic goal going forwards is for him. I’m glad to see he’s hitting the ball hard, but the chase rate and K rate are definite causes for concern.