Los Angeles Dodgers’ first baseman Cody Bellinger is still basking in the afterglow of a stellar rookie season. After watching him unanimously win NL ROY, have we seen the extent of Bellinger’s abilities or was last year just the beginning of something special?
The Dodgers have been gifted with yet another young superstar-in-the-making. Cody Bellinger: you know the story, he was the top power-hitting prospect in baseball and burst onto the scene as an injury call-up. Cody never looked back as he set the NL record for most home runs by a rookie with 39. The impressive part is that it took just 132 games and 480 plate appearances.
Overall, he hit .267/.352/.581 with 39 long balls, 26 doubles, and ten stolen bases while striking out 146 times. His biggest problem was striking out, which he did 26.6% of the time. But it wasn’t like he was a full free-swinger. Don’t get me wrong, chasing terrible pitches will always be part of his game, but he only swung at pitches out of the zone 27.4% of the time where 30% is considered average.
Bellinger’s problem was that he made contact on outside pitches 56.5% of the time. So pretty much, he didn’t chase too many times, but when he did, he struggled to make contact leading to increased strikeout totals. In addition, at the beginning of the season, he’d strike out on a lot of fastballs down the middle either looking or swinging through them.
A big culprit of his strikeout totals was his long swing. There’s no secret that Cody’s swing is longer than average. It’s seen as a negative because it allows for more holes and weaknesses in the mechanics of it, but he makes up for it with tremendous bat speed. Eventually, though, it will catch up to Bellinger. The more compact his swing can become, the better it will be for him.
The book on Bellinger in the playoffs, especially the World Series, was that he could not hit a curveball to save his life. He actually did pretty well in the regular season against the curve, but still struck out 30 times in 59 plate appearances. That got even worse in the playoffs where he went just 2-12 with eight strikeouts. Cody needs to improve his pitch recognition. It’s fair to assume that, with his experience and extra work during the offseason, it’ll grow, as will his patience.
If Bellinger wants to take the next step forward in his development, a swing change might be needed. Not as drastic a change is needed as last year because he did have success, but there are a few things Cody needs to adjust in order to improve. The key for any young player, especially after a year in which you come out guns blazing, is to adjust. After your first taste as a rookie, teams will eventually adjust to you and exploit your weaknesses. Because there is virtually a full year’s worth of tape on Bellinger, teams will learn to adjust back to him. It’s up to the player to make the necessary adjustments and then it’s on the competition to adjust back.
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There is no reason to doubt that Bellinger will put the work in to at least repeat what he did last season. But even replicating last year will be a challenge. A sophomore slump is a possibility and no one should dismiss it. If he replicates last season, no one would, nor should they, complain. He was on track for 48 home runs and 32 doubles last season. Combine that with a .933 OPS and there isn’t anything to complain about.
Cody was on fire at the beginning of last year. He started to slow down mid-way through the season, readjusted, then slowed down again towards the end. His struggles continued into the postseason where he scuffled to a .219/.254/.453 slash line with three home runs and playoff record 29 strikeouts in 15 games (67 plate appearances). Seriously, ouch! Now is the time for Cody Bellinger to fix his woes.
Another underrated aspect to consider is his defense. Last year, defensively Bellinger spent time in all three outfield spots (mostly left) and at first base. In 2018, though, he is firmly entrenched at first base and can now settle in there relaxed without the shadow of Adrian Gonzalez hovering over him. The constant uncertainty of where he will be playing each game is gone and he can focus on manning first base when he’s not swinging the bat.
If Cody Bellinger puts the work in, he will take another step forward with his work ethic, mentality, and physical gifts. He projects to be an and elite talent in 2018. Expectations will be sky-high and, while he may not meet every lofty one of them, expect Bellinger to elevate his game.