The Bellinger Tolls For the 2019 NL MVP

Cody Bellinger
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Three years ago, everything was coming up Cody Bellinger’s way. The NL Rookie of the Year in 2017, he broke out in a big way in ’19, smashing 47 home runs with an OPS over 1.000 and edging out Christian Yelich for his first (and only) MVP hardware. Bellinger had even taken to playing excellent defense in center field, not something typically on the curriculum vitae for a young first baseman. Entering his age-24 season, everyone expected that he’d be a star for the next decade or so and a building block for the Dodgers as players like Corey Seager were approaching free agency.

The ZiPS projection system, known for being the grumpy devil’s advocate as most such systems are, didn’t see any particular reason for concern, either. If you wanted Los Angeles to sign Bellinger to a lucrative contract extension, guaranteeing he wore Dodger blue for a long time, you had a loyal friend in ZiPS:

ZiPS Projection – Cody Bellinger (Pre-2020)
2020 .291 .389 .583 549 106 160 33 5 39 118 87 126 15 155 2 6.8
2021 .290 .392 .594 535 106 155 33 5 40 119 89 126 14 159 2 6.6
2022 .284 .392 .580 529 105 150 32 4 39 115 93 130 14 155 1 6.4
2023 .282 .393 .582 521 105 147 31 4 39 114 94 132 13 156 1 6.3
2024 .277 .390 .576 509 101 141 30 4 38 110 93 131 11 154 1 5.9
2025 .276 .390 .564 493 98 136 29 4 35 105 91 123 11 151 0 5.5
2026 .275 .388 .559 476 93 131 28 4 33 100 88 115 10 149 0 5.2
2027 .271 .381 .543 462 86 125 26 5 30 93 82 109 9 143 0 4.6
2028 .266 .373 .523 440 79 117 24 4 27 84 75 99 7 136 -1 3.8
2029 .260 .363 .494 419 71 109 21 4 23 75 67 88 6 126 -1 3.0

In rest-of-career WAR, Bellinger ranked third among position players, behind just Juan Soto and Ronald Acuña Jr.

Now, if this were a comedy movie, this is the point in the trailer at which you hear the record scratch, the narrator describes the humorous change of fortune, and then the music changes to an upbeat pop hit song with clips of how Bellinger gets back everything he lost and learns about the incredible power of friendship. But it’s not. Since that NL MVP season, he has hit .200/.271/.380 in over 1,000 plate appearances, only finishing above replacement level by virtue of the fact that he at least still remembers how to play defense. This is less Pixar and more Darren Aronofsky.

For a while, some underlying explanations gave hope. In 2020, the bullish explanation was that Bellinger had over-tinkered with his swing. In ’21, blame was placed on a shoulder injury from the previous postseason, one which required surgery and left him with a lot of physical weakness in his arm. After a course of weight training, Bellinger felt that his shoulder was back to where it was last August. We’re now a calendar year from when he said that, and he’s hit .195/.249/.368 since.

ZiPS is now even more negative on Bellinger than his seasonal line. As painfully mediocre as his 80 wRC+ is, the z-stats that ZiPS uses agree with Statcast’s x-stats in that they think he’s actually overperforming his hit data. Statcast gives him an xSLG of .360, 40 points below his actual figure, and ZiPS is even more bearish, pegging his zSLG at .351. As such, his long-term projection now looks very bleak, with little mitigation outside the defense:

ZiPS Projection – Cody Bellinger
2023 .221 .303 .406 471 74 104 21 3 20 82 55 138 14 90 2 1.6
2024 .222 .306 .415 410 65 91 19 3 18 74 49 122 12 93 2 1.5
2025 .222 .307 .420 419 67 93 20 3 19 75 51 121 11 94 1 1.6
2026 .223 .306 .422 417 65 93 20 3 19 74 49 114 11 94 1 1.6
2027 .222 .303 .408 392 60 87 18 2 17 68 45 104 9 90 1 1.2
2028 .218 .296 .401 357 53 78 16 2 15 60 39 90 7 86 0 0.8
2029 .215 .289 .388 307 44 66 13 2 12 49 32 73 6 81 0 0.4
2030 .214 .286 .363 234 31 50 9 1 8 35 23 52 4 74 -1 0.1
2031 .207 .272 .339 174 22 36 6 1 5 23 15 35 3 64 -1 -0.3

After the 2019 offseason, Bellinger’s top offensive comp was Hall of Famer Frank Robinson; now, it’s Brant Brown. ZiPS gives Bellinger only a 65% chance of ever having a wRC+ above 100 again.

Bellinger’s offensive decline is among the largest for a young star in baseball history. To see who had a comparable dropoff at the plate, if anyone, I took every player from 1901 to 2019 who had a 150 wRC+ in at least 400 PA in a year in which they were 25 or younger, then compared their next three seasons. Two players were eliminated from the dataset as they did not play in the next three seasons — the only time Wally Judnich gets to be in the same sentence as Ted Williams. That left 215 total player-seasons and 130 unique players:

Next Three Years, Players 25-and-Under, wRC+ of at Least 150
Name wRC+ PA Next Three Yrs wRC+ Next Three Yrs Dropoff
Cody Bellinger 161 1026 79 82
Bryce Harper 197 1814 132 65
John Olerud 179 1503 116 63
Adrián Beltré 161 1970 102 59
Harry Lumley 166 1194 111 55
Jack Fournier 171 473 117 54
Mickey Mantle 217 1937 166 51
Mookie Betts 185 1502 136 49
Boog Powell 176 1598 127 49
Joe Medwick 180 1917 131 49
Mitchell Page 157 1511 109 48
Rocky Colavito 179 1988 131 48
Jeff Burroughs 158 2024 111 47
Arky Vaughan 194 1882 147 47
Sixto Lezcano 165 1277 123 42
Juan Gonzalez 164 1429 122 42
George Burns 153 904 112 41
Mike Greenwell 157 1921 116 41
Heinie Zimmerman 162 1672 121 41
Alex Bregman 167 1082 126 41
Willie Horton 167 1470 126 41
Bobby Murcer 176 2005 136 40
Sherry Magee 168 1607 128 40
Jimmy Sheckard 161 1770 123 38
Tony Lazzeri 158 1819 120 38

Bellinger’s dropoff was the largest of the group, and he was the only player among the 130 who dipped below a wRC+ of 100 over the next three seasons. By and large, these players continued to be stars; the average career WAR for that group is 61.1, and that’s with more than a dozen other players still active. Even not counting mortal Hall of Fame locks like Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, and Adrián Beltré, there are 46 players in this group in Cooperstown. Beltré may represent the best-case scenario for Bellinger, as someone who was still a solid player despite the offensive drop-off from his breakout year, making up for an ordinary bat with Hall of Fame defense, before eventually finding his personal renaissance in his 30s.

It’s understandable that the Dodgers, a team that has repaired all sorts of seemingly broken players, have been stymied so far by the collapse of Bellinger’s offense. After all, there’s a reasonable case to make that, among young superstar hitters, the magnitude of his fall has been unprecedented. It may be someone else’s problem soon, with the Dodgers not even allowed to offer him less than $13.4 million for the 2023 season, suggesting that he’s a prime candidate to be non-tendered this offseason. Next time a young star signs a long-term contract that trades a reasonable amount of money in order to mitigate risk, remember the tale of Cody Bellinger, who has seen his dream become more of a requiem for one.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for 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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1 year ago

This is presumably meaningless, but one thing that I always thought was a bit off about Bellinger’s breakout 2019 is that it was basically one ridiculous, transcendent month followed by five months that were certainly good, but much more All-Star level than MVP level. Again, I’m sure that’s meaningless, it just sticks out because the crazy month was the first month of the season, so there was really nowhere to go but down the rest of the year.

1 year ago
Reply to  Anon21

Tell me you don’t know anything about cody bellinger without telling me you dont know anything about cody bellinger.

Yes, his April was out of this world but he was still a plus plus offensive player the rest of the way with an OPS+ of 164, 152, 147, 131 and 141 in subsequent months . Tell a player his worth month was being 31% better than the league and he’d be happy.

He won rookie of the year in his first season, had a 3.7 WAR his second and a 7.7 after that. Even in 2020 with covid he had a 1.6 in 56 games and a wRC+ of 113 and his woba was inline with his career norms and he was a plus offensive player but his babip tanked for reasons related to his injury.

What’s basically wrong with him now is he’s opening up too soon and moving his head too much as he follows through, making it hard for him to adjust to off speed pitches (head movement) and popping up/flying fastballs as he doesn’t get good enough leverage to drive the ball (opening up too soon)

HIs issues are fixable, he just needs to be more consistent. It may come down to what helped fix Muncy, bellinger is in a comfortable batting stance but its’ not producing results.

He shouldn’t have changed his stance after 2019 cuz like dde, you won an mvp, why the hell would you change anyting

1 year ago
Reply to  Tymathee

Reading comprehension not your strong suit? I didn’t say he was bad after April, I said he was All-Star level rather than MVP level. I stand by that. He was 16th-highest in fWAR after April in MLB and 7th in the NL, in a scrum with about 15 NL guys who did about as well or better. Still a deserving MVP recipient since April did happen and he was amazing, but it just stands out to pack so much of your overall production into one month.

Ukranian to Vietnamese to French is back
1 year ago
Reply to  Tymathee

You say we don’t know anything about the Bellinger Code, but you don’t say what you know about the Bellinger Code.

Yes, his December is the best in the world, but he still adds to the offense for the rest of the series with OPS+164, 152, 147, 131 and 141 in the following months. Tell the player that his month is 31% of the tournament and it will be finished.

He won an hour as a rookie in his first season, with a VAR of 3.7 in the second and 7.7 after that. As of 2020, with Tsovid, he has 1.6 in 56 games and 113 HRC, and his goal fulfills his professional standard and is more of an attacking player, but his baby has been suspended due to injury.

We can’t make it, but we can’t. goals for him, and you should find evidence of pitches (head movement) and fastball floaters, because he did not get enough good pitches (too early)

I can see problems with AI, but they need to be fixed. It can beat the guide, but it can’t lead to the outcome.

It’s still bad weather for the snakes in 2019, but you won the MVP, damn it, you’re going to mess it up

Pike Parker
1 year ago

How does WAR translate to VAR? In between France and the Ukraine, was there a stopover in Transylvania?

1 year ago
Reply to  Pike Parker

If you’re driving, you’d go through Germany for sure, and that would do it. My guess is that you probably would want to drive through Frankfurt and Dresden, since that would deposit you further away from the border with Belarus.

That said, I always thought of a translation as a more instantaneous type thing, with the only stops being in Vietnam and France.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

The trans-European highway E50 connects France and Ukraine (where it’s the largest highway in the nation). After passing through Germany, the E50 moves through the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The three largest ethnic minorities in the Czech Republic are Ukrainians, Slovaks…and Vietnamese.

Last edited 1 year ago by tz
1 year ago

The first rule of Bellinger Code is – you do not talk about Bellinger Code,

1 year ago

I can’t believe they suspended his baby. His baby can’t help it.

1 year ago
Reply to  wobatus

Hope his baby didn’t catch Tsovid.

1 year ago

The Bellinger Code: It’s Bad Weather for the Snakes.

1 year ago
Reply to  Anon21

IDK about that. His April was ridiculous, but he went .998, .967, .962, .918, .891 OPS (.944 OPS in total) in the 5 months after. That’s pretty consistently awesome

Cave Dameron
1 year ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

Bellinger had 4.7 WAR in those 5 months. Project that out to a full season and he’s at 5.6 WAR.

1 year ago
Reply to  Cave Dameron

The truth is usually in the middle.

A 5.7 WAR season propped up by a .944 OPS is absolutely going to garner MVP votes. It probably won’t and shouldn’t win, but it’s finishing top 5 most seasons based on the strong offense leading the profile.

Can’t everyone just be right? I feel like both sides aren’t realizing that they’re in agreement because they’re too busy defending their point, but both are correct. He did have a RIDICULOUS April – dude hit .431 with a 247 wRC+ and a 1.397 OPS – it did propel him to win the MVP. He doesn’t hit the magic .300 without April, and he surely doesn’t win the MVP without April because Yelich was having a monster season himself and Bellinger needed every single bit of that April to win it over Yelich. But, he was also awesome the rest of the year, playing at what can be considered MVP level-adjacent, and would have surely still finished top 5 in 2019 if his April was another normal 2019 month. He really only had Story/Arendado/Marte/Yelich as competition that year, and two guys getting a Coors boost on a terrible team are always going to cannibalize each other’s chances, giving the rest of the field a slight boost..

1 year ago
Reply to  dodgerbleu

>The truth is usually in the middle.

Properly prorating Bellinger’s numbers (4.7 WAR in 130 games from May 2019) gives 5.9 war, 5th highest among NL hitters.
While I agree that the truth is usually in the middle,
I feel no qualm saying that referring to a hypothetical 5.9 war season as “much more All-Star level than MVP level” is just wrong.

1 year ago
Reply to  tung_twista

I 100% agree, it’s wrong.

But, I think it’s semantics. He’s trying to illustrate how important April was. He’s correct in that point. The rest of the season at an All-Star level is moot. He dug in as a response to the tone of the message that started off by telling him he doesn’t know anything. It was at that point logic started to falter, and the conversation became argumentative. He dug in to defend his first point which was attacked but also correct.

Then he replies questioning the other posters reading comprehension, and all hope was lost. That conversation is set on fire. It’s not recoverable.

My comment was meant to comment on that dynamic. It didn’t need to become combative because both were right in their points, but the way they challenged the other person, they never had a real chance of seeing eye-to-eye, they’re going to argue just to argue now..

1 year ago
Reply to  dodgerbleu

Ok, I might be underselling his rest-of-year performance. 6 WAR with an offense-heavy profile is firmly in the MVP conversation, but would represent a weak winner by historical standards. As I said, it doesn’t mean anything and certainly takes nothing away from his deserving award, just a weird quirk of what will likely stand as his best career season.

1 year ago
Reply to  Anon21

Is an MVP having one amazing month really a weird quirk? I would think a lot great seasons have a super great month in them.

1 year ago
Reply to  maguro

I do think it’s kind of weird to pack nearly 40% of your seasonal production into 1/6th of the games. Compare to a similar (but superior) “young player goes nuts with the bat” MVP campaign such as Harper 2015: he had monthly wRC+ of 161, 262, 210, 172, 156, and 219. One month clearly better than the rest, but every single month at a level you’d expect of an MVP winner.

Bryson Brown
1 year ago
Reply to  maguro

Miguel Tejada comes to mind