Cody Bellinger is one of the Dodgers who has yet to get going, which has handicapped the offense as a whole. And it is looking more than just a temporary slump.
The Dodgers had numerous players that had seasons that you could describe as career-years in 2017. But Brandon Morrow has left while pivotal players like Cody Bellinger, Chris Taylor, and Austin Barnes have regressed strongly. But to Taylor’s credit, he has been playing well over the last twelve-or-so games. And Barnes is only a backup at this point due to Yasmani Grandal’s strong play.
But Bellinger, the unanimous NL Rookie of the Year who caught the league by storm in 2017, is supposed to be extremely valuable but has been anything but what we grew accustomed to in 2017.
He hit .267/.352/.581 (142 OPS+ with 100 being league-average) with 39 home runs in just 132 games. But entering Tuesday night’s game, he was hitting .234/.301/.437 (102 OPS+) with eight home runs, which puts him on pace for about 20 home runs in 132 games. He proceeded to go 0-3 with a walk.
There is no doubt that he has been a black hole in the lineup, and it is notably worse since he was batting cleanup for most of the season until recently. You cannot have your best power hitter, who happens to hit in the middle-of-the-order, be this bad.
His season has been the tale of two different months. April was a productive one, albeit nowhere near the level of production of last year, while May has been horrific. He is mired in a 3-for-41 slump dating back to May 17, and his monthly OPS is below .670.
Dave Roberts has had to move him down in the lineup, and even that has not helped him. It looks like his terrible World Series showing has taken a toll on him and caused him to take a handful of leaps backward. When you are that talented and put on a historic rookie showing, you expect him to only get better because of the high ceiling and room for improvement due to him being just 21 years old.
Remember, one of, if not the, biggest argument for “Bellinger over Judge’ was the fact that Belli was 21 and Aaron Judge was 25 in 2017. Well so much for that. Judge has only gotten better while Bellinger has gone the other way. He has either been exposed and failed to adjust or cannot handle everything being thrown at him.
On the season has a whole, his strikeout rate of around 23%, down from 26.6% a year ago. But that number, before last night, was up to 25.5% during May. He then proceeds to rack up two brutal strikeouts in four plate appearances. This has led to a decrease in his BB/K ratio, which is a trend you never want to see from a young player.
And when he does put the ball to bat, he has not made the most of it. His BABIP of .270 (as of Tuesday afternoon) is a decrease from his .299 BABIP (league-average) from 2017. In part, it is because of his steep decline in hard-hit percentage and a drop in his fly-ball rate.
He was in the top-10 in baseball with a 45.4% hard-hit rate and 12.2% barrel rate last year, courtesy of Baseball Savant. But that number is below 36% and coupled with an increase in soft-contact. His flyball rate is down 3.9%, according to FanGraphs, but his infield flyball rate is up from 8.4% to over double that of 17.4%. Again, trends that will only lead to lesser production.
His HR/FB rate has more than halved to 12.5%, after sitting at 25.5% in 2017. As a rookie, his ability to smack the long ball in quantity, even while being slim, was predicated on elevating the ball consistently with a fast uppercut swing and making hard contact.
He is swinging at more pitches this year, and to his credit, his chase rate has decreased. And when he does chase, he is making more contact. But he has become much less effective at pitches in the strike zone, especially against the fastball.
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Major League hitters make their living hitting the fastball, and when you cannot even make contact, let alone get a hit, with the ones thrown in the zone in a comfortable area, there is something that needs dire fixing.
The metrics are saying that he is not in just a bad stretch of games, but trending towards being in a legitimate sophomore slump. We were spoiled by Corey Seager not regressing, and it is time to realize that Bellinger is no Seager (outside of speed and home runs). But at the same time, we know how good Bellinger can be. There is no doubt that he is closer to the player he was last year than the one he has been in the present.
Maybe it is just a bad month, and he will recover with a fresh June. Perhaps it is just mental. Maybe the league finally caught up to him and is exploiting him and his long swing. Whatever it is, he is not even in the same stratosphere as his rookie-self, and that is scary when you go from age 21 to age 22.
Something needs to be fixed, and if the struggles continue, a stint down in triple-A needs to be seriously considered to help him out. Because when you have a historic year at such a young age and have this much talent, habits should never get worse.
At worst they should stay the same but start to improve as you age. The Dodgers will not ‘be back’ unless Bellinger improves because in the long-run it will only hurt them.