Dodgers’ gamble on Cody Bellinger is paying off handsomely

We make a lot of predictions, claims and opine about all things Dodgers here on this weblog. Sometimes we’re right, sometimes we’re not. This is the latter.

I was completely wrong about Cody Bellinger. Well, not completely. What I’m referring to is an article I wrote about his MLB prospects on April 20. I said he needed more time in Triple-A and the Dodgers didn’t need to rush him. He was promoted to make his MLB debut five days later. He now leads the National League in home runs and, barring anything unforeseen, is here to stay.

But before you throw dirt on my baseball writing grave, admit to yourself: You didn’t see this coming. You know how I know? Because no one saw this coming. And if someone said he/she did, that person is lying.

Here’s a bit of what I wrote back in April.

“I’m as big a Bellinger fan as you’ll meet, and I think he’s going to be an offensive force in the majors. I just don’t see the need for the Dodgers to rush him (and there’s no evidence they’re going to). His swing is big. It’s pretty to look at, but it’s susceptible to missing pitches. He got exposed a little bit in Spring Training this year after hitting quite well in Arizona last year. Keeping him in the minors will help him learn the nuances of hitting and using what he has to his best advantage. Also, getting some more work at the top level of the minor leagues can only help. Coming into this season, Bellinger had all of 12 Triple-A plate appearances and an additional 44 in the PCL playoffs. He’s at 57 this season for a grand total of 113. For comparison, Seager had 465 Triple-A plate appearances before he was promoted to the majors, and he was a more advanced hitter then than Bellinger is now.”

That last graf is where I got hung up. The Dodgers didn’t exactly rush Corey Seager to the majors, and no one would argue that Seager wasn’t a better overall prospect than Bellinger. Despite that, the Dodgers rolled the dice on another 21-year-old being productive, and it’s working.

I also looked at some past Dodger prospects who have come up in their age-21 seasons. None of them have been as productive as Bellinger has been so far. He’s on an almost 6-win pace (WAR/600 PA).

“That’s quite the list. It’s also a list of players who actually didn’t contribute much in their debut seasons. The best player in terms of wRC+ and WAR is Seager, who had a 176 wRC+ and a 1.5 WAR in 27 games. He also started in the postseason that year. Beltre played in 77 games and produced a 75 wRC+ and a 0.2 WAR. Everyone else struggled to produce, mostly because the playing time wasn’t there and, well, because they were playing Major League Baseball at age 21 (or 19, in Beltre’s case). It’s fair to say Seager was the best prospect (at their respective times) on this list. Beltre and Konerko were highly rated, but they were never rated No. 1 overall. To be fair, the only publication doing prospect rankings that far back was Baseball America, but Konerko and Beltre ranked second and third in 1998. Point being, Bellinger is a premium prospect, no doubt, but he isn’t on the level of a Beltre, Konerko or Seager. Those were the crème de la crème of prospects; Bellinger is in the next tier. That’s no disrespect to him, it speaks more about the seemingly can’t-miss level of prospect like that trio. So, to expect Bellinger to come up and automatically produce might be a little optimistic.”

Seager was on an almost 8-win pace in 2015. To date, Bellinger owns a .269/.340/.658 triple slash, has a 153 wRC+ and has been worth 2.1 WAR that has already surpassed Seager’s mark in ’15. That’s downright incredible. It’s also a bit unsustainable. At least, that level of power is. A .658 slugging percentage is what Albert Pujols posted in 2009 and Ralph Kiner posted in 1949. One is a future Hall of Famer, one is already in. Unless you think Bellinger is a future Cooperstown inductee, it might be best to temper expectations (just playing the odds here).

If you look at ISO, his .389 mark would be 13th-best all-time since 1900, wedged between Lou Gehrig (.392, 1927) and Babe Ruth (.386, 1928). Furthermore, his HR/FB% of 33.9 would be the 5th-highest ever. What’s interesting to note about that is three of the top five are all from this season. There’s no data on this before 2002, but if any Dodger is even going to come close to these numbers, it’s Bellinger.

Having said all that, what he is doing this season — in his first 215 plate appearances — is remarkable. He has helped to spark a Dodger offense that had a .246/.335/.401 triple slash with a 99 wRC+ from the beginning of the season through April 24. Since he debuted on April 25, the Dodgers have a .257/.337/.443 slash with a 108 wRC+ — 6th-best in baseball. It hasn’t all been Bellinger’s doing, but his production, especially the power, is second to none on the club.

“In the end, if Bellinger is brought up to help out the Dodgers in left field, then he needs to be playing consistently. That means, against both lefties and righties and he needs to be starting every game against righties and some against lefties. It doesn’t make sense to start his clock early (if he’s up before September) just for him to play three or four times a week, so throw him into the fire and see how he handles it. And if he struggles, it isn’t the end of the world”

This has happened, and it has been a pleasant surprise. It doesn’t hurt that Bellinger is hitting .267/.327/.667 with a 155 wRC+ against lefties. His line against righties is almost identical to that. He’s showing he’s an everyday player at the highest level of professional baseball. And he’s just 21 years old.

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What we’re seeing here is what we should have expected in Bellinger’s third or fourth MLB season, not his first two months in the majors. It’s clear he didn’t need the extra seasoning at Triple-A, but it wouldn’t have been the worst thing for him. It may have been the worst thing for the Dodgers, though. I’m happy to admit I was wrong. But let’s not act like anyone knew this was coming.

Thanks to some injuries, Bellinger is getting his shot, and he isn’t throwing it away.

About Dustin Nosler

Dustin Nosler

Dustin Nosler began writing about the Dodgers in July 2009 at his blog, Feelin’ Kinda Blue. He co-hosts a weekly podcast with Jared Massey called Dugout Blues. He is a contributor/editor at The Hardball Times. He graduated from California State University, Sacramento, with his bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in digital media. While at CSUS, he worked for the student-run newspaper The State Hornet for three years, culminating with a 1-year term as editor-in-chief. He resides in Stockton, Calif., and has yet to be shot.