July 6, 2022

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Belli handling the heat much better in '22

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In two years, Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger went from the National League’s Most Valuable Player to one of the least valuable players (in terms of wins above replacement) in the sport.

The 26-year-old still has a ways to go to get back to the MVP-level player he was in 2019, but a handful of recent at-bats show he’s at least moving in the right direction.

• April 16: Single on Hunter Greene’s 99.9 mph four-seam fastball
• April 16: Single on Hunter Greene’s 101.3 mph four-seam fastball
• April 18: Double on Sean Newcomb’s 94.7 mph four-seam fastball
• April 18: Homer on Jackson Stephens’ 95.3 mph four-seam fastball

Four fastballs. Four pitches above 94 mph. All hits, including two against Greene’s blazing heater, which matched Bellinger’s previous career total for hits on pitches 99 mph or above.

In 2019, these at-bats wouldn’t have been notable for the left-handed slugger, who posted a .327 average with 30 homers and a .667 slugging percentage against fastballs (four-seamers, two-seamers/sinkers and cutters) that year.

But last season, he was one of the worst hitters in the Majors against fastballs.

Lowest batting average vs. fastballs, 2021
Min. 200 PAs ending on fastballs
.150 — Cody Bellinger
.184 — Justin Upton
.184 — Martín Maldonado
.187 — Jackie Bradley Jr.
.190 — Alec Bohm

Against pitches 94 mph and above, he went 11-for-91 (.121) with two homers, 36 strikeouts and a .242 slugging percentage. He didn’t do much damage against other pitch types, either, and his overall numbers cratered.

Bellinger finished with -1.5 wins above replacement, per Baseball-Reference, tied for the fifth-worst bWAR total among MLB position players. Just two seasons prior, he was an 8.6 bWAR player, leading the NL in that department.

His quick rise and fall was historic — no other position player in AL/NL history has had a season with 8.0 bWAR or higher and another with -1.0 bWAR or lower before their age-26 campaign.

He’s one of only 12 players to record both an 8.0 bWAR season and a -1.5 bWAR season at any point in their careers, joining Hall of Famers Craig Biggio, Minnie Miñoso, Reggie Jackson and Ron Santo, plus Albert Pujols, Andruw Jones, Darrell Evans, Johnny Callison, Pete Rose, Snuffy Stirnweiss and Willie McGee.

Most of the other players on the list had their -1.5 bWAR season in their late-30s or early-40s, many years after they had their last 8.0 bWAR season. Bellinger did it at 25 and only two years after his 8.0 bWAR season.

Opponents have started off this season feeding Bellinger a steady diet of fastballs. He’s seeing a fastball nearly 68% of the time, one of the highest rates in MLB.

Highest % of fastballs seen, 2022
Min. 150 pitches seen
73.2% — Ryan McMahon
71.1% — Charlie Blackmon
68.2% — Daniel Vogelbach
68.2% — Mike Yastrzemski
67.8% — Cody Bellinger

So far, he’s handling them a lot better than he did in 2021, going 7-for-25 (.280) with two homers and a .560 slugging percentage.

“I don’t know the exact answer,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts told MLB.com’s Juan Toribio on Tuesday. “I know he’s been working hard and his swing is getting shorter. There’s been 95, 100 and the swing looks good. He’s getting the barrel to it, he’s having good at-bats and I know he’s gaining that confidence.

“Obviously, he knows that he’s been thrown a lot of fastballs. So as far as the approach, knowing that there’s a high probability that he’s gonna get fastballs, that’s one part of it. But I think that just kind of being able to shorten the swing, getting the barrel to the ball, is the most important thing.”

It’s possible having an injury-free offseason allowed Bellinger to get back on track mechanically. The outfielder underwent surgery on his non-throwing shoulder after dislocating it during the 2020 NLCS against the Braves, then missed time in 2021 with a hairline fracture in his left fibula and a non-displaced left rib fracture, but he arrived at Dodgers camp last month feeling fully healthy.

After persevering through a frustrating Spring Training slate in which he hit .139 with 18 strikeouts in 36 at-bats, Bellinger has re-emerged as a positive contributor for the Dodgers — through his first 12 games, he has produced a 156 OPS+ and 0.5 bWAR.

Granted, there are still some causes for concern, such as Bellinger’s lofty 31.3% strikeout rate and 42.9% ground-ball rate, but his ability to counter opponents’ attempts to attack a weakness can only be viewed as a win.

“Obviously, information is out there everywhere,” Roberts said. “And players are more aware of it than they’ve ever been. So these are facts. So how are you going to combat that? You got to prepare for it. So he’s done a good job in this last series against the Reds. He did a really nice job. And [Monday against the Braves] as well.”

Bellinger was especially susceptible against high heat last season, struggling to catch up when pitchers went up the ladder on him. On fastballs in the upper third of the strike zone, he hit .118 in 51 at-bats.

Instead of trying to overhaul his stroke to better catch up to these pitches, he’s simply swinging at them less and taking more of his swings on pitches lower in the zone, where his signature uppercut swing can thrive.

Bellinger’s swing rate on fastballs in the upper third of the zone is 52.6% in 2022, compared to 83.2% a year ago. He’s offered at 22.2% of the elevated fastballs he’s seen outside the zone, down from 31.0% in 2021.

Three of the four aforementioned hits — one of his singles against Greene, the double against Newcomb and the homer against Stephens — came on fastballs lower in the strike zone, as did his home run on a 92.7 mph four-seamer from Twins right-hander Dereck Rodriguez on April 13.

Even if he’s not getting the type of consistent lift under the ball that he would want, which could be a byproduct of swinging at fewer elevated pitches, Bellinger’s batted-ball metrics are encouraging. His hard-hit rate is up 12 percentage points to 46.4%, while his barrel rate is up 3.6 points to 10.7%.

Again, Bellinger isn’t all the way back to the offensive force he was in 2019. But there seems to be a much better chance of him eventually rediscovering that version of himself than there was last season.

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