Bellinger has been below average the last two calendar years.
A few weeks ago, Randy Holt took a deep dive into the vanishing power of Christian Yelich. Today, we’re looking at another former MVP and current himbo who is a shell of his former self: Cody Bellinger. While Yelich has still been okay without the 35 percent HR/FB rate that carried him to the league’s highest honors in 2018, Bellinger is playing his way off the Dodgers’ postseason roster.
In 202 plate appearances this year, the star of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla has hit a miserable .165/.262/.284 for a 55 wRC+. He has just five home runs this year, six if you count the one erased by Justin Turner’s unforced TOOTBLAN. Despite his generally excellent defense, Bellinger has been below replacement according to FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference. Baseball Prospectus gives the rosiest outlook on Bellinger’s season thus far, but Bellinger has only amassed 0.5 WARP and a 73 DRC+.
The obvious explanation for Bellinger’s woes is that he isn’t 100 percent healthy. Bellinger has made two separate trips to the Injured List this season. He first suffered a hairline fracture in his left fibula that kept him out of action from early April to late May. Then, Bellinger went down in June with hamstring tightness. Before Tuesday’s opening bout with the Astros, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said Bellinger was in right field “as a way to try to keep him healthy,” which sounds like a tacit admission that he’s not at full strength.
Dave Roberts said Cody Bellinger is in RF as a way to try to keep him healthy and give Mookie Betts another day on the infield. Roberts said Betts came up "a little sore" after Sunday's game.— Bill Shaikin (@BillShaikin) August 3, 2021
When Bellinger gets healthy, he’ll return to form. What that form is, however, is up in the air. Bellinger has been trending down for a while now. Just take a look at his 15-game rolling wOBA over the last three seasons.
Of course, when you start in the mid-.500’s there’s nowhere to go but down, but it’s easy to forget how much Bellinger’s MVP case relied on an absurd first half. Bellinger hasn’t approached that peak in over two years. From August 3, 2019, to August 3, 2021, Bellinger slashed just .219/.316/.420 for a 97 wRC+. That’s a total of 645 plate appearances, or roughly a season’s worth, where Bellinger has been a tick below average.
After he struck out looking against Kendall Graveman on Tuesday, Andrew Simon pointed out that Bellinger has struggled against hard heat this season. Bellinger is 1-for-30 with 19 strikeouts against pitches 95 mph or more.
Cody Bellinger is now 1-for-30 with no XBH and 19 strikeouts this season vs. pitches 95+ mph after that big K vs. Kendall Graveman.— Andrew Simon (@AndrewSimonMLB) August 4, 2021
That’s not a new development either. Bellinger’s numbers against hard fastballs were down in 2020 as well. Bellinger posted an obscene .380 wOBA against pitches 95 mph or more in his MVP season, but in the shortened 2020 season, that was down to .237. Pitchers are catching on to this strength-turned-weakness. Though Bellinger is seeing slightly fewer fastballs in 2021 than at any other point in his major league career, a higher percentage of those fastballs are from pitchers who light up the radar gun.
Bellinger’s wOBA against only counts pitches that ended the at-bat. Total run value credits a hitter positively for taking a ball or getting a hit. It penalizes a hitter for swinging and missing, taking a strike, and making an out. Looking at Bellinger’s rolling run value against hard heat, this drop-off happened near the end of 2019. He’s had periods as bad as this before, but never ones quite so long.
Bellinger’s struggles aren’t limited to fastballs either. He isn’t hitting anything of late, especially sliders. Typically a great breaking ball hitter, Bellinger has only mustered a .302 wOBA against sliders and a .274 wOBA against curveballs over the last two seasons. He’s not just hitting breaking pitches with less authority, he’s chasing them more often, too.
Across the board, Bellinger’s discipline has degraded from 2019. Per Baseball Savant, Bellinger’s 29.1 percent chase rate is 5.4 points higher than his MVP mark. At 29.1 percent chase rate is still fine. It’s helped him to an 11.9 percent walk rate but also contributed to a career-worst 27.2 percent strikeout rate.
Currently, the only thing keeping Bellinger on the postseason roster is that no one on the bench is trying to take his spot from him. Zach McKinstry was optioned to the minors after posting a .285 wOBA. DJ Peters was designated for assignment and claimed by the Rangers. Billy McKinney is still on the roster, but he’s hit about as poorly as Bellinger with worse defense.
Bellinger’s absence is one of the many reasons the Dodgers are still looking up at the Giants in the standings and facing a one-game play-in against the Padres. Adding Trea Turner and Max Scherzer at the deadline made the Dodgers stronger, but they still need Bellinger back.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.