The Curious Case of Cody Bellinger
As the former NL MVP struggles, Dodgers ready to send him to the bench.
As I said in my introductory newsletter, I’ll be writing about the Dodgers once a week going forward. This has been a weird and maddening season for Los Angeles, made even more bizarre by the fact that I can’t really call it a disappointment with a straight face. The Dodgers have the third best record in MLB. They are on pace to finish with 97 wins. The odds are 99% they will make their franchise record ninth straight playoff appearance. They just traded for Max Scherzer and Trea Turner.
Their bullpen looks pieced together by chicken wire, duct tape, and prayers. Their potent offense seems built to roll off ten runs in one inning then go scoreless for the next three games. Clayton Kershaw is out until September. They sit four games behind their rival Giants in the NL West with 50 games left to play. Everyone but Giants’ fans think the Dodgers will ultimately overtake San Francisco in the standings to win their ninth straight division title, especially with Scherzer and Turner added to the mix. Scherzer, who will take the ball tonight in Philadelphia, was electric in his first start for Los Angeles.
I don’t know. The Giants roster is made up of a bunch of random veterans on second chance day passes to the show. They are, all at once, overachieving, and putting together the most satisfying season in a decade for their fans. Kevin Gausman as Cy Young candidate? Sure. LaMonte Wade Jr. with an OPS of .862? You bet. If I had told you before the season that LaMonte Wade Jr. would have an OPS that was 271 points higher than Cody Bellinger on August 10, your first question would have been “who is LaMonte Wade Jr.?” Then you would have asked me if Bellinger died.
At press time, Bellinger is still alive. He’s just having one of the worst seasons for a Dodger star that I can remember. According to Dave Szymborski at Fangraphs, the 26-year-old centerfielder was projected to post a wRC+ of 133 this season. For the purposes of this discussion, you don’t need to know what weighted runs created means to follow along. His actual wRC+ stands at 63, which is less than half of its projection. This means that Cody Bellinger has literally not been half the player he was just two years ago when he won the NL MVP.
There are a few reasons why. First, Bellinger dislocated his shoulder celebrating his National League pennant winning home run last October. He played through the injury in the World Series but required offseason shoulder surgery that wiped away his ability to lift weights the way he normally does. Teams don’t disclose what players weigh in the middle of the season, and many often lose weight as the grind of 162 games in six months wreaks havoc on the body. Bellinger looks skinny in the batter’s box. Baseballs he used to hit for home runs now often die at the warning track.
It didn’t help that he got stepped on by an opponent during the season’s first week and broke his foot. Whatever conditioning and lifting program he picked up at the beginning of the season got completely obliterated as he sat for the next month while his foot healed. Then he came back and hurt his hamstring, twice. Now here we are in August and he’s hitting .175 on the year. This is the same player whose 1.398 OPS in April of 2019 was the best opening month OPS of any player in the last hundred years. Same guy. I double-checked.
So, injuries have not helped him. But they don’t explain all of his terrible season. He has not been able to catch up to high fastballs at all, but he keeps swinging at them. And when he does the bat looks a foot lower than the ball. His closest offensive comparison is Chris Davis, who hit a ton of home runs for the Orioles then fell into the bad place.
When the Dodgers are healthy they employ Max Muncy at first base, Trea Turner at second, Corey Seager at shortstop, Justin Turner at third, Will Smith at catcher, Mookie Betts in right, and AJ Pollock in left. Bellinger and his excellent defense were supposed to be locked into centerfield for the next several years. But super utility man Chris Taylor has been the Dodgers best player this season. He needs to be in the lineup every day. Unless Bellinger improves, and fast, the MVP from two seasons ago will watch a lot of the stretch run in August and September from the bench.
This is an incredible turn of events, but what can the Dodgers do at this point? They don’t have to win every game from here on out to make the playoffs but going into October as the wild card only guarantees them one measly game. They need to catch the Giants to give themselves a much better chance of being the first MLB team to repeat as world champions in 21 years.
He’s got a little bit of a reprieve before he heads to the pine. Justin Turner injured his groin over the weekend and he will need a minimum of a few days to heal. The Dodgers could move Muncy to third and play Pujols at first in his absence, but the club doesn’t like to start Pujols against righties and the Phillies will throw two righties against them in Aaron Nola and Kyle Gibson tonight and tomorrow night. Chris Taylor doesn’t often play third base but he has proven to be a witch who can handle any defensive position with ease. It’s possible that against righties Taylor could see time at third with Bellinger in center. Or the Dodgers could play Matt Beaty at first, Muncy at third, Chris Taylor in right (for AJ Pollock), and Bellinger in center. But Pollock is also having a tremendous year. He needs to be in the lineup every day.
It’s not all bad news for Bellinger. He showed signs of life over the weekend by hitting home runs on consecutive days. If he can hit in August, September, and especially October, this season will not be a waste. Even if he is benched he will still get ample opportunities to contribute against righties and also in games where he spells banged up players, especially Betts in right field.
It’s getting late for Bellinger to turn it around. If the Dodgers can win another title without his potent bat in the middle of the lineup it will be one of their toughest feats yet.