The Dodgers needed Cody Bellinger to turn their season around in 2017. But in 2018 the Dodgers needed Cody Bellinger to turn his season around, and his inability to do so is part of the reason the team failed to win the World Series for the second season in a row.
When the team called up Belli-Bomb in late-April two seasons ago, he struggled early on, collecting just one hit in his first three games. But from April 28th on, Bellinger was one of the best hitters in all of baseball, going on to earn himself National League Rookie of the Year honors and an All-Star appearance.
Bellinger put up video game numbers in 2017, smacking 39 home runs with a .267/.352/.581 triple slash line, not to mention ten steals. He was so feared at the plate that he led all of baseball in intentional walks.
2018 held less promise though, as he was unable to repeat his insane rookie campaign. Bellinger hit just 25 home runs and his pace of doubles went down slightly, as he hit 26 in 548 at-bats in 2017 versus his 28 in 632 AB’s in 2018.
The drops in his slugging percentage and ISO are the most telling numbers. Bellinger’s slugging fell from .581 to .470 and his ISO plummeted down from .315 to .210.
To put these numbers in a team and league context, Bellinger ranked fifth in all of baseball in ISO in 2017, above hitters like Nolan Arenado and Freddie Freeman by a wide margin and his SLG% was 8th-best in baseball, sandwiching him between elite hitters Jose Ramirez and Joey Votto. In 2018, Bellinger’s ISO was 41st among qualified hitters and his SLG% 45th, still not bad, but nowhere near his dominant 2017 standing.
One possible cause of Bellinger’s worse 2018 could have been his far-lower barrel rate. Bellinger ranked 32nd in 2017 in terms of Barrels/PA while finishing just 124th in 2018 according to Baseball Savant. His average exit velocity also dropped between 2017 and 2018, as he finished 41st in this measure in 2017, while finishing 85th in 2018.
Thus, even though his BABIP rose from .299 to .313, his home runs dropped because he replaced about 7% of his 2017 flyballs with groundballs and line drives, hitting 4.7% more ground balls and 2.3% more line drives. This increase in BABIP didn’t lead to a higher batting average though as one would hope and generally expect, as his batting average actually dipped from .267 down to .260.
This disparity between his batted ball data over the course of his two Major League seasons demonstrates that he is still adjusting to MLB pitching. His approach at the plate was noticeably different, as demonstrated by his batted ball data, his increased BABIP, and his lower barrel rate and .99 groundball-to-flyball rate led to a 10% drop in HR/FB rate, which mostly explains the lack of home runs.
But his strikeout and walk numbers remained mostly constant. Bellinger had a 10.9% walk rate and 23.9% strikeout rate in 2018 (a mark identical to that of Yasmani Grandal), both of which were good for 30th among qualified hitters. Compare these to his 2017 marks, 11.7 BB% (28th in baseball) and 26.6 K% (16th in baseball just above Chris Taylor) and you’ll see how he sacrificed a little power for fewer strikeouts.
This is evidenced further in his plate discipline statistics. Bellinger made 2.8% more contact in 2018 compared to in 2017 and lowered his swing-and-miss percentage by .9% according to Fangraphs.
Bellinger’s performance in key moments was another facet of his game that suffered last season. Bellinger’s Fangraph’s CLUTCH rating, which compares a player’s performance in high leverage situations with their performance in neutral situations went from +1.02 in 2017 to -2.30 in 2018.
This shortcoming can be further evidenced by his splits. In high leverage situations, Bellinger struck out nearly 19% and had extra-base hits just 6.25% of the time last season compared to getting an extra-base hit just over 9% of the time in all other situations, though he did strikeout 24.6% of the time in these low and medium leverage situations according to Fangraphs.
These statistics demonstrate that Bellinger may have been pressing in high leverage situations, as he did not want to strike out and thus sacrificed his ability to get extra-base hits and drive in runs. If he can alter this approach in 2019, he should have better results in important moments.
As most everyone could tell, he definitely became less formidable at the plate (he even saw more first-pitch strikes in 2018 as a result of his inability to hit them out of the park). This kept the Dodgers from being as competitive as they could have been. If 2017 Cody Bellinger had been paired with Manny Machado, Justin Turner, and Max Muncy, the Dodgers would have had a much easier time winning the division and advancing through the playoffs.
Obviously, when comparing Bellinger’s final 2017 numbers with his final 2018 numbers, one would be left with an empty feeling, longing for what could have been. But his 2018 was not a complete waste. He still was valuable, just in less flashy ways that kept him out of the spotlight.
Bellinger was the only Dodger to play 162 games in 2018. His ability to stay on the field was even more valuable since he played for the oft-injured Dodgers. Bellinger also exhibited classic Friedman-era defensive versatility. Bellinger played centerfield and first base for the Dodgers last season, though he mostly manned center once Muncy really took off.
And unlike many multipositional players in today’s game, Bellinger was a defensive stud in any way you choose to judge defensive skill. In his 785 innings at first base, Bellinger led the national league in fielding percentage amongst first basemen with a .997 mark, putting him ahead of perennial Gold Glovers at the position like Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt.
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In the outfield, Bellinger was perfect on routine chances, making 100% of plays categorized as “Routine” by Inside Edge Fielding on Fangraphs. He didn’t make any catches on any balls with less than a 60% catch probability but his youth and speed make him likely to improve defensively over the next few seasons as he completes his transition from the infield out to greener pastures.
And these same reasons that lead me to believe Bellinger will improve defensively, his youth and speed, are amongst the reasons I think Bellinger will get back to being a top-30 hitter in all of baseball in 2019. He still is a fan-favorite and a city favorite and most importantly is a clubhouse favorite.
Bellinger is heading into his age 24 season as a household name among baseball fans across all 30 teams. If he can bring a 30 homer, 15 steal season in 2019 with a .270 average and a characteristically high walk rate, while of course staying healthy and becoming more flashy defensively, he could be one of the most important Dodgers in 2019.
To clarify, when determining what grade to give Bellinger’s 2018 season, I thought of it in terms of how much of his potential he reached, the same strategy I used when grading Joc Pederson, Rich Hill, and Pedro Baez. Therefore, I decided that if his 2017 was an A+ then his 2018 was about 75%-80% of that.