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Cody Bellinger’s hot start courtesy of improved plate discipline

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Early season fluke or signs of a step forward?

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Colorado Rockies Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Dodgers drafted James Loney in the first round of the MLB Draft way back in 2002. He routinely drew comparisons to Mark Grace — a high average, below-average power first baseman. He had a few good seasons for the Dodgers before he was traded in the Nick Punto deal.

Fast forward to 2013 when the Dodgers popped another first baseman — this time in the fourth round of the draft. His name was Cody Bellinger, and the immediate comparison he drew was that of Loney. He was a skinny, defensive-minded first baseman whose power may or may not develop. Well, we all know that power has developed. He smashed 39 home runs in his first season and followed it up with 25 — a disappointment for some.

It is true that his 2018 season was a step back from his 2017 season, but he still posted a 3.6 fWAR (down from 4.0 in his rookie year). Still, his ‘18 left folks wanting more.

Bellinger’s third season, however, is off to a torrid start. Through Monday, he was hitting .435/.490/.978, a 266 wRC+ and an MLB-best (tied with Jay Bruce) seven home runs. Now, let me state the obvious: Bellinger will not keep up that pace. No player could and no player ever has. And while it’s a little too early to really determine what has led to the hot start, there are some signs contained within his plate discipline stats that tell a big part of the story.

Bellinger Plate Discipline

Year O-Swing% Contact% SwStr%
Year O-Swing% Contact% SwStr%
2017 27.4 69.6 13.2
2018 28.3 72.4 12.3
2019 17.6 83.1 7.1

As you can see, Bellinger’s most important plate discipline stats have taken a big leap, leading to his hot start. These will probably regress to the mean a bit, but the numbers aren’t as outlandish and unsustainable as his isolated slugging (.543), BABIP (.394) and HR/FB% (46.7). Last season, a 17.6 chase rate would have been second-best in baseball behind Joey Votto. I’m not sure Bellinger can do that, but the contact rate would have been 32nd-best in the majors and his swinging strike rate would have been in the Top 25, ironically tied with a player he drew comps to after his power developed in Anthony Rizzo.

If you’re wondering why Bellinger is hitting as well as he is early on, this is the evidence. But to get to this level, he had to put work in during the winter, and it appears he did just that.

The Dodgers passed on signing Bryce Harper. You know how I feel about that. And I’m not saying Bellinger is going to be the next Harper, but he does have the talent to be the anchor of a lineup. He can be a No. 3-4 hitter who is the most feared on the team. He has that ability to be that guy. At just 23 years old, it’s crazy to think he could get even better over the next handful of years.

We should probably pump the brakes just a bit because it’s very early in the season and things could change dramatically, but what Bellinger has done thus far has been incredible and could be a sign of things to come.