The 2020s Have Been Rough for Cody Bellinger

The 2021 Los Angeles Dodgers might be having one of the greatest disappointing seasons in MLB history. Despite being on a 97-win pace, an accomplishment that nearly every team in baseball would celebrate most seasons, they find themselves in second place in the National League West, four games behind the surprising San Francisco Giants. They’re even underperforming their preseason expectations, a notable feat considering how rare it is for projection systems to forecast a team to have more than 97 wins.

One of the primary components of this terrific-but-underwhelming paradox is Cody Bellinger, 2019’s NL MVP. Just 24 at the end of the 2019 season and sporting an ultra-spicy .305/.406/.629, 7.8 WAR line, Bellinger was quite rightly considered one of the best young players in baseball. A slugging first baseman who somehow converted into being a solid center fielder, little seemed out of reach in those salad days. Yet just two years later, at the ripe old age of 26, Bellinger is currently a platoon player.

Entering the season, ZiPS projected Bellinger for a 133 wRC+, a notable bounce-back from the decidedly middling 114 wRC+ he posted in the shortened 2020 season. And ZiPS was actually the grumpy one here; the other projections housed here at FanGraphs pegged him for a wRC+ of anywhere from 141 to 148. The results haven’t been in the same galaxy as those forecasts, or even his 2020 results. Bellinger’s 65 wRC+ is a shining beacon of misery. To put this in context, Chris Davis put up a 63 wRC+ from 2017-20 and a 60 the last time he got significant playing time in 2019. You don’t want history to rhyme, let alone repeat, when the comparison is Davis.

Of course, one mitigating factor is that Bellinger has suffered a string of injuries over the last year. First, there was a dislocated shoulder while celebrating a World Series dinger. Then this season, he’s missed time with a hairline fracture in his left fibula and a hamstring strain. We’ve seen players struggle while coming back from shoulder injuries in the past, and his maladies this season haven’t allowed for much of a run. So case closed, he’ll be fine? Not really.

One thing that ZiPS builds into its projections is an attempt to correct for injuries in a general sense. While every injury is unique, using an adjustment factor improves the accuracy of the projections. Re-projecting players without any correction for a shoulder injury that results in at least 60 days missed time, ZiPS would over-project players by 22 points of OPS over the first calendar year of their return.

The problem, of course, is that Bellinger isn’t underperforming by 22 points of OPS; he’s underperforming by 320 points. The typical case is more like Ryan Klesko, who missed almost all of 2006 due to shoulder surgery. ZiPS projected a .778 OPS for Klesko in 2007. The system didn’t have any injury adjustment at the time, but if I apply it retroactively, ZiPS would have projected a .752 instead (his actual OPS was .744).

The calf and hamstring certainly don’t help the situation, but they’re also unsatisfying explanations. It’s smart to play a player with these problems at first base more often than in center to avoid re-aggravating the hamstring, but Bellinger was having issues hitting the ball hard before all this happened. I wrote about his struggles last year, which now pale in comparison to 2021’s issues:

The decline has been steady since the middle of 2019. Bellinger won the MVP, but it was largely based on the performance he accrued in the first half of the season. From a first-half OPS of 1.124, he dropped to a .917 after the All-Star Game. Last year, I talked about his out-of-zone swing percentage getting worse. That trend has slowly but steadily continued:

Left-handed pitchers have noticed the change. Southpaws generally don’t like throwing changeups to lefties (they make up about 4% of all pitches) because of the tendency even mediocre lefty hitters have of golfing something low and inside into the stands. But two types of lefty bats do see more changeups: hitters who are hard to fool with breaking stuff and players who are notably awful at hitting off-speed pitches. Bellinger saw the second-most off-speed pitches against lefties in his MVP season of any left-handed hitter, behind only Ryan McMahon (McMahon only has two career hits off an off-speed pitch from a lefty, most recently in May 2019). Bellinger edged out Freddie Freeman and Juan Soto. The reason was obvious: Bellinger had a .608 career SLG against lefty fastballs and over .450 against breaking pitches. Lefties go after Bellinger more directly now, and he’s only hitting .160 against their fastballs and whiffing at career highs.

While Bellinger’s having trouble with hard stuff from all pitchers, not just lefties, if you’re going to reduce his playing time given the team’s depth it makes sense to platoon him. Coming into the year, ZiPS projected Bellinger with an .883 OPS against southpaws off a .911 overall line. But if you treat Bellinger like the .209/.303/.393 hitter he’s been since the start of 2020, you would expect only a .675 OPS against lefties, well in the range where you’d consider a platoon.

Naturally, this has had a significant effect on Bellinger’s long-term outlook. Once projected to average 5.3 WAR a year from 2022-24, 40% of Bellinger’s projected value has been shorn off by his recent struggles:

ZiPS Projections – Cody Bellinger
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2022 .249 .345 .484 469 81 117 21 4 27 99 68 125 13 120 2 3.4
2023 .251 .349 .499 459 82 115 22 4 28 102 69 125 12 125 2 3.5
2024 .247 .347 .498 450 80 111 21 4 28 100 69 126 11 124 1 3.4
2025 .249 .350 .493 438 78 109 21 4 26 96 68 118 11 124 1 3.3
2026 .249 .349 .498 426 75 106 20 4 26 94 65 111 10 125 1 3.2
2027 .246 .345 .488 410 71 101 19 4 24 88 61 104 9 121 0 2.8

Those aren’t awful projections by any stretch, but they’re a dim shadow of Bellinger’s star peak in 2019. This isn’t doom, but it is evidence that Bellinger’s weak 2021 cannot simply be waved away as a small sample. He really has a career at a crossroads.

The Dodgers, at least publicly, have given the shoulder injury as the reason for his underperformance. From the Orange County Register this July:

Brown and Dodgers manager Dave Roberts both point to the same thing as the leading factor in Bellinger’s struggles this season – the surgery he had on his right shoulder last November.

“I think everyone needs to realize with the shoulder surgery he didn’t have the offseason that he normally has in the weight room and the ability to develop his strength in the way that he has in the past,” Brown said. “So you’re dealing with him trying to catch up or just maintain what he has. Then as he was building his strength, he gets hurt. He gets stepped on. So that goes. You can’t really do a lot when you have a cracked fibula or whatever it was. Too much movement of anything would rattle it. So he’s still in the development area of strength and conditioning, a tick off of where he’s been in the past.”

But as noted above, that explanation is unsatisfying whether or not it’s true. If it’s not primarily the shoulder injury — and I don’t think it is, given his 2020 performance — then there’s something seriously wrong. And if it is primarily the shoulder injury, a shoulder injury so severe that it’s causing a player to underperform expectations by 300 points of OPS, more than 10 times that of other batters with shoulder injuries, it’s one that should probably result in the player not playing at all.

Can the Dodgers win the World Series without the Cody Bellinger of 2019? Of course. But it would be a lot easier with him. One of LA’s biggest challenges now is figuring out what exactly is wrong with their young superstar.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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DLHugheymember
1 year ago

I’d say it’s some combination of the constant swing tweaks in advance of 2020 and 2021, the lack of a normal offseasons/spring trainings (2020 + recovering from shoulder most of this spring), and then the injuries this year. If a “normal” offseason and spring in 2022 doesn’t fix this, then I think we really need to shift our expectations down.

But dear god is it rough to watch him right now, because it doesn’t look like he knows how to hit a baseball.

Smiling Politely
1 year ago
Reply to  DLHughey

Would be ironic if he suddenly finds it again (2 HRs in his last 2 games, not that I’m buying that)

jtricheymember
1 year ago

It is at least possible that Bellinger is figuring something out. Very small sample but he is making better contact in the last week and his 2 HRs in the last 2 days are his hardest hit balls of 2021.