Three years ago, Cody Bellinger was in a much better place. Hell, three years ago, we were all in a much better place. Now, we’re still dealing with COVID-19 (and will be because people are selfish, unempathetic, willfully ignorant and have been radicalized against SCIENCE … but I digress), a tumultuous economy and the prospect that Bellinger may have played his last game for the Dodgers.
Bellinger was on the fast track to superstardom. He won the 2017 National League Rookie of the Year, the 2018 NLCS MVP and the 2019 NL MVP. He has come up with some big moments in the postseason, including the game-tying home run in Game 7 of the 2020 NLCS that helped propel the Dodgers to the World Series. He drove in the game-winning run in the 2021 NLDS against the Giants. Big-time moments for him!
At 27 years old, he should have been on track to have his jersey number sit between Sandy Koufax and Roy Campanella (and, really, it should be Fernando Valenzuela and Campy … retire No. 34, Dodgers!), and be in line for one of the richest contracts the game has ever seen. Instead, Bellinger started just two of the four Dodger postseason games in 2022 and was on the bench against Joe Musgrove — right-handed pitcher — in the last game of the Dodgers’ disappointing season. With an arbitration salary figure of $18.1 million and one year from unrestricted free agency, it’s becoming increasingly likely the Dodgers non-tender Bellinger. And you know what? It’d be justified.
I’m as big a Belly fan as there is. I followed his ascent through the minors, was excited for his prospects as a big leaguer and thought he’d be a Dodger for life. That could still happen, but I’m not going to put any money on it.
Things started to go south for him, really in the second half of his MVP campaign. After hitting .336/.432/.692 in the first half of ’19, he regressed to the mean a bit by hitting .261/.370/.544. That line would be plenty good for an average season for a player of Bellinger’s ability. But since then, he has been — in a word — awful.
From the start of the 2020 season through the end of the 2022 season, he hit a paltry .203/.272/.376 with a 78 wRC+. He’s also seen his plate discipline and strike zone judgment take a massive downward swing since his MVP season.
That has been part of his problem. He also isn’t hitting the ball as hard as in previous years. After topping out at 91.1 MPH average exit velo in ’19, he has averaged 89.3 MPH over the last three seasons. It’s been consistent, but below his capability and just slightly above league-average. His maximum exit velo has been 107.4 and 107.3 MPH the last two seasons after being a consistent 110+ MPH guy. His average launch angle increased over the last two seasons — 22.2 degrees in ’21, 20.3 degrees in ’22 — after being between 16.2 degrees and 17.9 degrees for the other four seasons of his career. Decreased exit velocity and a higher launch angle is going to mean more outs … when contact is made.
The shoulder injury he sustained after hitting that go-ahead homer in the ’20 NLCS is partly to blame, but I’m not sure that accounts for the massive decrease in plate discipline. Sure, pitchers aren’t going to be as afraid of him if they know he can’t do what he did in the first three years of his career, but Bellinger has always had a hole in his swing, and pitchers are more willing to exploit it, especially if they don’t think he’ll be able to adjust and punish those offerings — or mistake pitches.
A couple things working in Bellinger’s favor is his defense and speed. In three of his last four seasons, he has been in the 90th or better percentile in outs above average (100th percentile in 2020). His speed percentile ranking has fallen from the 90s to the 70s, but he’s still plenty fast. With the Dodgers not having a surefire replacement for him in center field, they could roll the dice on him for one more season and kick the proverbial can down the road. If they cut bait, then a platoon of Trayce Thompson/Chris Taylor/James Outman is a realistic possibility. That’s hard to fathom for a team like the Dodgers, but perhaps they put those financial resources they save in center field into the starting rotation and figuring out shortstop.
Bellinger’s tenure with the Dodgers has been a tale of two halves. The first half of his career, he was a fan favorite and franchise cornerstone. The second half has been riddled with poor performance, injury and subpar play, if you consider expectations.
If I’m Friedman, I probably take a chance on Robert Van Scoyoc and Brant Brown getting Bellinger back to at least average form, but I’m not Friedman. The Dodgers have until Nov. 18 to decided about tending him a contract. He could also be traded by that time. We’ll see what happens. And whatever happens, Bellinger has certainly given Dodger fans some good and not-so-good memories.