Cody Bellinger has struggled through most of his sophomore season – a sophomore slump, some might say. He’s mired in a 10-for-72 (.596 OPS) batting stretch over his last 20 games and, despite leading the team in home runs, is still struggling in the power department.
Now, it’s difficult because the only frame of reference we have is Bellinger’s 39-home run rookie season. He also had an isolated slugging mark of .315, which was fifth-best in baseball. He was one of five major leaguers to eclipse the .300 ISO mark.
This season, Bellinger has eight home runs and a .196 ISO. The league-average ISO this season is .160, so Bellinger is still above-average in that area, but after last season’s performance, well, his mark is a bit disappointing.
He’s probably just in a slump, but some have theorized that maybe Bellinger playing “out of position” could be contributing to his struggles. While Bellinger has said in the past he’s plenty comfortable defensively in the outfield — even in center field — his offensive production hasn’t been nearly as good when he played out there compared to when he plays first base.
Last season, he started 33 of his first 43 games in the outfield because Adrian Gonzalez was still a thing. During that time, he hit .212/.282/.441 with an 83 wRC+. In the 10 games at first base, .333/.417/.952 with a 241 wRC+. Yes, it was in 48 plate appearances and may not have meant much at the time, but it was still impressive. He only had 45 plate appearances while playing outfield the remainder of the season, and he hit .162/.311/.324 with a 72 wRC+. In 315 plate appearances playing first base, Bellinger hit .293/.377/.623 with a 155 wRC+.
His struggles this season have been apparent, but Bellinger is still hitting better while playing first base.
- As 1B: .256/.320/.456, 112 wRC+
- As OF: .163/.265/.349, 73 wRC+
Now, this could all be coincidence, arbitrary and a case of small sample size. But there’s also something to be said about player being comfortable on defense. Bellinger is an incredible defensive first baseman and he’s obviously very comfortable there. He’s a solid outfielder – probably 55-grade at best, which is plenty good – but for whatever reason, he struggles at the plate in the outfield.
With Max Muncy doing Chris Taylor-like things and Justin Turner back, there’s a need to get his bat into the lineup. That requires Bellinger going to center field so Muncy can play first base. But if Bellinger continues to struggle offensively while playing the outfield and Muncy continues to be pretty decent – and let’s face it, the regression monster is lurking – then how much of a net gain is it? The talk of Muncy playing second base would allow Bellinger to go back to first base and, in theory, start hitting better.
The Dodgers’ offense hasn’t been terribly consistent this season. Bellinger’s production has been part of the problem. Maybe the defensive position is playing into the struggles, but it isn’t the only factor. He’s still missing too many hittable pitches and is not producing against curveballs (.282 xwOBA vs. .342 last season), which was a source of trouble for him in the World Series.
If he gets going, the Dodgers’ offense will benefit. It remains to be seen if he can get going while playing outfield, though. And with the Dodgers potentially needing to get creative in the trade market in a couple months (hello, Jose Abreu), Bellinger’s production as an outfielder could, and probably should, be highly scrutinized.
Until then, let’s just hope he starts hitting again, because baseball is really fun to watch when Bellinger is crushing baseballs.