Is Cody Bellinger’s Two-Strike Approach Sustainable?

Cody Bellinger
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Back in July, I dove into the pulled fly ball successes of Cody Bellinger and Isaac Paredes that led to them outperforming their Statcast expected statistics. Since then, I’ve paid particular attention to Bellinger. Much of that is due to his interesting free-agency case. His unique profile relative to previous free agents with this level of performance is fascinating. On the surface, 4.1 WAR and 134 wRC+ at age 27 from an athletic multi-positional player is typically deserving of a $150 million-plus contract. But Bellinger isn’t a typical player; the question of sustainability looms due to the nature of his performance, most notably highlighted by a 10th-percentile hard hit rate.

Doubting the stickiness of his performance is completely fair. Hitting the ball hard gives you more room for error; the further you are down the hard-hit-rate spectrum, the more reliant you are on other skills that are perhaps not as sticky. Spending nine figures on that kind of profile is scary! But the more I think about Bellinger’s profile, this question keeps popping back up in my head: if we hopped in a time machine and went to the year 2008, would we question for a second whether he deserves a big long-term deal? I know that’s a flawed thought, but it’s lurking in my brain because of the years of traditional coaching focused on the importance of putting the ball in play with two strikes and not worrying about what type of contact is made, or how hitting to contact and letting home runs happen by accident is the purest form of hitting.

But after thinking more, I reminded myself of how the data the public has access to now is useful for these exact reasons. We know better than we did 15 years ago about what variables have strong causal effects on performance and/or fluctuation — this can’t be ignored! We should want a hitter to make flush contact consistently, regardless of count. We should question and consider what makes Bellinger different or not.

Recently, MLB.com’s Mike Petriello investigated some of the questions around Bellinger, most notably his hard-hit rate and two-strike approach. Two months before that, Baseball Prospectus’ Craig Goldstein highlighted the concerns around Bellinger’s 90th-percentile exit velocity and how DRC+ hadn’t bought into his performance, particularly the home run output, because of the lack of hard hit. By DRC+, he ended the season at 112, a far cry from his 134 wRC+. In short, there has been plenty of pondering about Bellinger’s 2023 profile and whether it can be repeated. This piece will do largely the same thing, just from a different angle.

One of the main points of contention from Petriello and Goldstein was the likelihood that Bellinger can continue to slug (and especially hit home runs) at the pace he did in 2023, which will be heavily reliant on his ability to continue pulling the ball in the air. I don’t have much to add there. What hasn’t been addressed is the details of Bellinger’s two-strike approach. With a .312 wOBA, he was one of the best hitters in baseball with two strikes. Visually, his ability to manipulate his body and barrel to go down and get pitches or stay tall and shoot a liner to the opposite field was a clear improvement from years past. These are the types of things a hitter can’t do if their body is compromised, so it’s not surprising to see Bellinger show such a drastic improvement from previous years.

This is what that the old school coach continues to whisper into my ear: Bellinger’s .312 wOBA with two strikes is because he is battling! Ignore the .255 xwOBA, even though that gap is the largest in baseball in by a wide margin. But unfortunately, I can’t just ignore it. You mean to tell me that he can sustain this level of shallow outfield peppering with such low contact quality?

We’re not just talking about pulled fly balls here, either. Bellinger is living off dropping softly hit liners similar to elite bat-to-ball guys like Luis Arraez, Freddie Freeman, and Steven Kwan. If I’m going to be convinced that he can repeat his two strike successes, I need more to justify this gap and the lackluster underlying numbers — like, perhaps, whether he is consistently placing these batted balls in ideal spots and how often he is giving himself a chance to do so. Well, a 90th-percentile contact rate with two strikes is a good place to start. If you’re going to rely on finding holes, you might as well put the ball in play as much as possible.

Contact rates alone don’t say much about what Bellinger is doing with those batted balls, though. If his hard-hit rate takes a dip when he gets to two strikes, it becomes even more important that he is dropping balls in no man’s land with consistency. The fine line of shooting for singles is tough to toe, and not many can do it year-in, year-out. Petriello told us about Bellinger’s ability to convert weak contact into hits, so let’s focus on his non-hard-hit balls (aka, those hit under 94 mph) with two strikes and how he ranks relative to the rest of the league. Specifically, is he hitting these within the ideal launch angle distribution of 8–32 degrees? The following table sets the minimum batted ball events of two-strike batted balls hit less than or equal to 94 mph at 75. Here are the results:

SweetSpot Two Strike BBE (<= 94 mph)
Player SweetSpot BBE Total >= 94 EV SweetSpot% wOBA xwOBA xBA
Freddie Freeman 51 118 43.2 .412 .385 .405
Anthony Rizzo 32 75 42.7 .386 .431 .458
Adam Frazier 45 107 42.1 .452 .468 .499
Andrew Benintendi 54 132 40.9 .311 .403 .423
Nico Hoerner 58 146 39.7 .389 .435 .464
Nick Castellanos 36 91 39.6 .495 .487 .523
Jurickson Profar 43 110 39.1 .411 .435 .458
Josh Lowe 39 103 37.9 .558 .521 .565
Bryan De La Cruz 44 118 37.3 .534 .565 .601
Willi Castro 28 76 36.8 .341 .437 .460
Jake Cronenworth 40 109 36.7 .322 .375 .396
Bo Bichette 35 96 36.5 .429 .537 .566
Michael Massey 31 86 36.0 .422 .484 .507
Garrett Cooper 27 75 36.0 .425 .502 .539
Mauricio Dubón 39 110 35.5 .490 .454 .477
Steven Kwan 61 174 35.1 .414 .506 .544
Luis Arraez 56 160 35.0 .495 .508 .531
Ty France 36 105 34.3 .471 .556 .594
Luis Garcíaa 28 82 34.1 .410 .421 .438
Esteury Ruiz 36 106 34.0 .569 .541 .574
Marcus Semien 39 115 33.9 .491 .419 .432
Cody Bellinger 43 128 33.6 .506 .467 .505
Jeimer Candelario 33 99 33.3 .492 .330 .340
Adley Rutschman 49 148 33.1 .382 .510 .545
Jonah Heim 28 85 32.9 .328 .412 .419
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

This list cuts off at the top 25 by SweetSpot%. The entire group includes 141 players, with Bellinger ranking 22nd. Some names that stick out here are the aforementioned Freeman, Kwan, and Arraez, as well as good contact hitters with notable two-strike approaches like Rizzo, Bichette, and Semien. If you want to be a solid two-strike hitter, it makes sense to emulate the qualities of other players who are, too!

If we decrease the launch angle range to account only for line drives (10–25 degrees), then Bellinger’s position hardly moves (21 out of 141). Going to this range is important, because the higher the launch angle goes, the higher the exit velocity needs to be to convert a hit. If we’re focused on non-hard-hit balls only, then it makes sense to key in on line drives, since those are what a player hopes for when simplifying their swing and approach with two strikes.

So where does this leave us in terms of confidence that Bellinger can make this stick over time? Considering this is the first time in his career that he has flashed this ability while also performing well, I’m not sure. That’s frustrating, but all this analysis just comes to the same conclusion as others have. Not all analyses can definitive, though, and Bellinger’s might not be even with access to more data. But this does provide some context around whether his two-strike approach and soft hitting nature are at all similar to other great contact hitters. It seems fair to say so. Does this mean a team will pony up and pay the contract he and Scott Boras demand? That answer will only come with time.





Esteban is a contributing writer at FanGraphs. You can also find his work at Pinstripe Alley if you so dare to read about the Yankees. Find him on Twitter @esteerivera42 for endless talk about swing mechanics.

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Mac Quinnmember
4 months ago

Most terrifying free agent in a generation. The stat I keep harping on, and that Petriello mentioned as well, is the performance (or lack thereof) against 95+ mph pitches. 8th-lowest xwOBA out of 212 batters who had at least 400 PA — and while his results beat that, they weren’t great either, to the tune of a .221 avg and .282 wOBA. League average was .240 and .315 respectively.