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2021 Dodgers in review: Cody Bellinger

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NLCS: LA Dodgers vs. Atlanta Braves Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

For Cody Bellinger, 2021 was something he had to endure more than anything. A frustrating combination of injuries, waiting, and working through one of the worst seasons by a former MVP in MLB history.

Bellinger’s 2021 began, in a way, in Game 7 of the 2020 NLCS, when his seventh-inning home run provided the go-ahead home run that lifted the Dodgers to the World Series. During the celebration of said home run, Bellinger dislocated his right shoulder. Surgery in November necessitated a subsequent rehab that got his season started underwater.

A slow and steady rehab meant Bellinger wasn’t a full participant until the final two weeks of spring training. Once the season actually started, Bellinger was the first Dodger to hit the ball over the fence in 2021. But his would-be opening day home run became a single after Bellinger passed Justin Turner on the bases, confusion provided by left fielder Raimel Tapia nearly making a spectacular catch.

That non-home-run was a harbinger of misfortune to come.

In just the fifth game of the season, with the Dodgers leading by seven runs in the ninth inning, Bellinger beat out an infield dribbler, only to get spiked by covering pitcher Reymin Guadan at first base. Initially, Bellinger was thought to have left calf contusions, but after he didn’t improve, further testing showed a fractured left fibula that knocked him out for 46 games.

Effects of the shoulder surgery sapped Bellinger’s power, much like we’ve seen in the recent past with Shawn Green, Adrián González, and Matt Kemp. Bellinger’s isolated power (which is slugging percentage minus batting average) was .137 in 2021, down from his .274 career mark through 2020. His previous low ISO was .210.

Exacerbating the power loss was Bellinger was a loss of plate discipline. His strikeout rate (26.9 percent) was the worst of his career, after cutting his K rate to 16.6 percent in 2019-20 combined. Bellinger’s walk rate was 8.9 percent, a full two ticks lower than his previous career worst. His contact rate in the strike zone was 77.8 percent, more like his first two years (77.5 percent in 2016-17) rather than the 83.1-percent mark of 2019-20.

On top of that, Bellinger spent two more stints on the injured list, once with a hamstring strain suffered while trying to avoid getting hit by a pitch, and another when brand new outfielder Gavin Lux collided with him and cracked one of Bellinger’s ribs. Bellinger’s season felt cursed.

The resulting line was a stunning .165/.240/.302, a 48 wRC+ in 350 plate appearances. Among the 262 major league batters with at least 300 plate appearances, Bellinger ranked 261st in batting average, 260th in on-base percentage, and 257th in slugging percentage.

This came only two years after Bellinger won National League MVP. His Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement was -1.5.

Amazingly, a former MVP eventually putting up a season below replacement level is far more common than I thought. Among position player MVPs, 43 of them put up a season with negative WAR in at least 200 plate appearances. The vast majority of these were former greats at the tail end of their career, far removed from an MVP season. Carl Yastrzemski at age 43, Ichiro Suzuki at 41, Pete Rose at 41, 42, and 45 are examples of these.

That group of former MVPs put up a combined 68 negative-WAR seasons. Only four of them did so before age 30. Bellinger, at 25, is the youngest.

Former MVPs with negative-WAR seasons before age 30

Player Pos Age Year Yrs after MVP PA HR BA/OBP/SLG OPS+ WAR
Player Pos Age Year Yrs after MVP PA HR BA/OBP/SLG OPS+ WAR
Cody Bellinger CF/1B 25 2021 2 350 10 .165/.240/.302 45 -1.5
Zoilo Versailes SS 27 1967 2 626 6 .200/.249/.282 51 -1.6
Zoilo Versailes SS 28 1968 3 436 2 .196/.244/.296 59 -1.1
Andrew McCutchen CF 29 2016 3 675 24 .256/.336/.430 104 -0.3
Don Mattingly 1B 29 1990 5 428 5 .256/.308/.335 81 -0.3

Only four players had a negative-WAR season within two years of winning MVP. Shortstop Zoilo Versailes won American League MVP with the Twins in 1965, then had his two bad years in 1967 with Minnesota and 1968 with the Dodgers. The only player to have a negative-WAR season closer to his MVP year than Bellinger was Don Baylor, who won 1979 AL MVP with the Angels followed by a relative clunker in 1980.

Players with below-replacement-level seasons within 2 years of winning MVP

Player Pos Age Year Yrs after MVP PA HR BA/OBP/SLG OPS+ WAR
Player Pos Age Year Yrs after MVP PA HR BA/OBP/SLG OPS+ WAR
Don Baylor OF/DH 31 1980 1 380 5 .250/.316/.341 83 -1.5
Zoilo Versailes SS 27 1967 2 626 6 .200/.249/.282 51 -1.6
Cody Bellinger CF/1B 25 2021 2 350 10 .165/.240/.302 45 -1.5
Bob O'Farrell C 31 1928 2 240 2 .200/.362/.270 67 -0.3

The worst negative-WAR season by a former position player MVP came in 1999 from 40-year-old Willie McGee at -2.8 WAR, 14 years after his MVP (over Pedro Guerrero, among others) and nine years after robbing Eddie Murray of a batting title.

Bellinger still provided value through his defense in center field, though with Max Muncy out for the postseason, Bellinger was asked to play first base in six of his 10 starts in October.

Perhaps more importantly, Bellinger found himself at the plate in the playoffs. His walk rate improved to 12.8 percent and he singled home the winning run in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the NLDS. Bellinger hit .353/.436/.471 in 12 postseason games, a complete flip of the regular season.

It’s difficult, but I think when you hit rock bottom there’s a lot of opportunity for openness and change,” manager Dave Roberts said during the NLCS. “To his credit he lowered his hands, understood that he needed to hit the ball more square, more flat, get the loop out of his swing. ... All the credit goes to him and the hitting guys who grind every single day.”

Bellinger will try to carry over that October success into 2022, when he’s a year further removed from shoulder surgery, and with a full and healthy offseason.

2021 particulars

Age: 25

Stats: .165/.240/.302, 48 wRC+, 10 HR, 350 PA, -0.8 fWAR, -1.5 bWAR

Salary: $16.1 million

Game of the year

Bellinger’s postseason resurgence culminated in Game 3 of the NLCS. After such a bad regular season at the plate, Bellinger was one of the Dodgers’ best hitters during the playoffs. Down 5-2 in the eighth inning, the Dodgers were staring down a potential 3-0 series deficit. But after Will Smith and AJ Pollock reached base, Bellinger crushed a high fastball from Luke Jackson.

“Not a hitter’s pitch right there,” Bellinger said. “Just one of those things. The ball’s coming in hard, some shadows you’re dealing with. I saw it well, and just tried to barrel it up, and tried to get Will [Smith, on second base] home.”

After Bellinger’s tying home run, the rally continued with two more hits and a stunning Dodgers win.

“Pure elation. Joy,” Roberts said.

Roster status

Bellinger has four years, 160 days of major league service time. As a former “Super Two” player, Bellinger is eligible for salary arbitration for the third of four years. Bellinger is projected to earn $16.1 million in 2022 by Tim Dierkes at MLB Trade Rumors, which is the same salary he made in 2021.