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An argument for the Dodgers to non-tender Cody Bellinger

Or “In light of the NLDS failure, the Dodgers are likely to non-tender 2019 MVP Cody Bellinger.”

The obligatory Cody Bellinger is striking out photo. Angels Stadium. July 16, 2022.
The obligatory Cody Bellinger is striking out photo. Angels Stadium. July 16, 2022.
Michael Elizondo / TrueBlueLA

A variation of this essay has been in my to-do pile for most of the year. Frankly, this topic is just boring to me and flies in the face of Eric’s lone directive to me as a writer here: write about interesting stuff. This topic is boring to me because the solution to the problem is known. And at this point, the MVP season of 2019 feels like a lifetime ago. My griping aside, I really did not want to write this essay. But as this series breaks down what went wrong for the Dodgers; overall, you cannot really have this discussion unless you mention Cody Bellinger.

James Outman literally hit for two cycles in the span of a week (and no one in the organization seemed to think that merited him a second look in the Show in 2022), and Jerry Hairston, Jr. practically pled with Bellinger on SportsNet LA (twice!) to fix his batting stance, the time has come to finally address the elephant in the room.

Cody Bellinger has been an absolute net liability for the Dodgers for at least the past two seasons. As such, it’s time for the Dodgers and Bellinger to go their separate ways.

For most people who defended Bellinger to me throughout the year, they would consistently make two arguments: you don’t give up on a past MVP so quickly and you do not give up on someone who has produced in the postseason. So we will address each argument in turn.

“You don’t give up on a past MVP so quickly” or Who’s afraid of Cody Bellinger’s bat?

As I am not a major league hitter, I will defer to Jerry Hairston Jr., so that he can explain the problem with Cody Bellinger. This video breakdown is from mid-July of this year:

As you can see, the answer as to how to fix Bellinger’s swing is known and has been known for a good while: his hands are consistently in the wrong position to hit. While Hairston is not a Hall of Famer, his breakdown of Bellinger’s swing seems pretty logical from a laymen’s point. Furthermore, when Bellinger finds a swing approach that he might stick to, he continues to tinker, and, as such, he does not (or cannot) display the muscle memory to keep consistently hitting.

Again, Hairston from mid-September of this year:

The frustration that Hairston displays in both examples is palpable. I am sure that you have felt that way too toward Bellinger throughout the past couple of years.

Hairston breaks down how Bellinger’s hands are not in the right position to hit, so Bellinger is usually late to the ball. As a consequence of this detriment, I have noticed that when Bellinger does make late contact he’s either rolling over the ball (hello, hitting into the shift) or getting under the ball (hello, weak pop-up). However, there was a lot of swing and miss in Bellinger’s swing in 2022.

In the three seasons since Bellinger won the MVP award, he has struck out 286 times, including 150 strikeouts in 2022. In case you were wondering, the mark of 150 strikeouts is tied for the 13th worst in the National League (hello, Trent Grisham). The “leader” is Kyle Schwarber with 200 strikeouts. Out of curiosity, when I saw the total number of Bellinger strikeouts over the past three seasons, I wondered if someone like Tony Gwynn, who was infamously difficult to strike out, struck out that many times in his twenty-year career. The answer is yes, as he struck out 434 total times during his career.

It’s deja vu, all over again

Based on the above reasoning, this topic is not all that interesting to write about. The entire Cody Bellinger saga borders on frustrating, etc. when you realize that Bellinger himself fixed the problem of his swing for the 2021 Postseason. Because he was god-awful offensively in the 2021 regular season.

He went from weak pop-ups and no power whatsoever to postseason success.

As you can see, Hairston called it: Bellinger’s hands are upright and he can get in the proper position to make solid contact. If you do not like that angle, here is his crowning achievement during the 2021 playoff run. If I had not seen it live, I still would not believe it. Look at the position of his hands; it sure looks like Hairston is right on the money as to Bellinger’s swing.

Even though Atlanta bounced the Dodgers in the NLCS, the one silver lining was that it seemed Bellinger had finally figured out his offensive woes. But sadly, during spring training of 2022, even though there was optimism about Bellinger’s approach, the results were lackluster at best. From the end of Spring Training:

The only place Bellinger spent more time than on the injured list was in the batting cage. He tried to compensate for his weakened shoulder, then got lost. He opened his batting stance. He closed his batting stance. He lowered his hands. He raised his hands. He flexed his arms. He straightened his arms. He looked overmatched by everyone from Max Scherzer to the pitching machine. That .165 average was the second-worst figure in the sport among people who played at least half a season. In the playoffs, he went into what manager Dave Roberts called “survival and compete mode,” sacrificing power and just trying to make contact. He dropped his hands and hit .353 with one home run in 39 postseason plate appearances. But this spring his hands are back up by his shoulders.

“His setup looks different every time I see him,” [former Dodgers reliever Joe] Kelly said. “He’s trying to figure it out. Maybe a little bit too much [tinkering]. But he’ll figure it out.” “Be a good hitter first,” Roberts told [Bellinger]. “Don’t chase the slug.” He added that Bellinger needed to keep trying to simplify his stroke and that he thought it was just a matter of timing. The more pitches he sees, the better he will feel. Trust the work, he said, not the results. Roberts reassured Bellinger, but he did not have to do much comforting.

[emphasis added.]

Bellinger started the season with some fire, even winning Player of the Week honors going 7-for-23 (.304) with three home runs, two doubles, and a triple while knocking in seven runs during the week of April 18 to April 24, 2022. I even got to see some offensive fire from Bellinger while I was freezing in Minneapolis.

After the first 15 games of the season, Bellinger was an offensive team leader as he was hitting .273/.333/.582 with a team-high four home runs and a 164 OPS+. He had eight extra-base hits in his first 15 games after recording 21 in 95 games with a .542 OPS last season.

But after that stretch, apparently, Bellinger abandoned that approach and went back to a flatter approach, as you can see below:

Cody Bellinger on deck. Angels Stadium. July 16, 2022.
Cody Bellinger on deck. Angels Stadium. July 16, 2022.
Michael Elizondo / TrueBlueLA

Even with the glimmer of promise during the first few games of the season, it was another mirage. Bellinger finished 2022 with a stat line of a .210/.265/.389 with 19 home runs, 27 doubles, three triples, 19 home runs, 68 runs batted in, 14 stolen bases (out of 17 tries), 38 walks, and 150 strikeouts. That’s a .654 OPS. These stats are a minor improvement from the disaster of 2021 but are still worse than the truncated 2020 season.

From Frank Robinson to Brant Brown

Believe it or not, I am not the first writer to notice that Cody Bellinger has gone from comparable to Juan Soto and Bryce Harper to Carlos Quentin (yes, THAT Carlos Quentin) or Michael Conforto. In late August 2022, writer Dan Szymborski was even harsher in his assessment of Bellinger:

After the 2019 offseason, Bellinger’s top offensive comp was Hall of Famer Frank Robinson; now, it’s Brant Brown. ZiPS gives Bellinger only a 65% chance of ever having a wRC+ above 100 again.

[Author’s note: Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) takes the Runs Created statistic and adds some key factors into the equation, such as the era (trends around the league) or ballpark effects. It’s then adjusted so that a wRC+ of 100 represents a league-average hitter.]

Bellinger’s offensive decline [-82] is among the largest for a young star in baseball history. To see who had a comparable dropoff at the plate, if anyone, I took every player from 1901 to 2019 who had a 150 wRC+ in at least 400 PA in a year in which they were 25 or younger, then compared their next three seasons. Two players were eliminated from the dataset as they did not play in the next three seasons — the only time Wally Judnich gets to be in the same sentence as Ted Williams.

Szymborski listed that Bellinger had a larger drop in wRC+ by a comfortable margin than Bryce Harper (-65), John Olerud (-63), and Adrián Beltré (-59). Mr. Szymborski noted that the identified players continued to be stars, even if somewhat diminished. the best-case scenario for Bellinger would be to emulate Beltré, as while his offensive output declined to ordinary levels, his defense improved until he found an offensive renaissance in his thirties.

As other writers have mentioned, and as how coaches have not gone to the media to slam Bellinger or his approach, it’s not as if the Dodgers were not trying to help Bellinger regain his form. But that did not keep the Dodgers from benching Bellinger in late August. In fact, this benching commenced before my last game in Milwaukee.

From Rich Rovito of the AP on August 16:

“I just wanted to give him a little bit of a reset,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “He’s been grinding a lot.” Bellinger is batting .206 with 15 homers and 50 RBIs. He started in center field Monday night against the Brewers, going 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, and has two hits in his last 19 at-bats.

[Author’s Note: I can attest to that statement as I was there for that game, which had a lovely moment with Mookie Betts and also with Gavin Lux. Bellinger’s only hit in this stretch in my presence, which would have counted Game 1 in Milwaukee and the three games in Kansas City was a home run a position player in a 13-3 Dodger blowout victory. It was also a back-to-back homer with Joey Gallo who also hit a massive home run off a position player.] Rather than show you Bellinger striking out in Milwaukee, let us bask in a happy moment from a terribly muggy night.

Mr. Rovito continued:

Chris Taylor shifted from left field to center for Tuesday’s game, with Joey Gallo joining the lineup in left. Roberts is hopeful Bellinger can work through his struggles in time to help the Dodgers in September and beyond. Los Angeles has the best record in the majors. “He’s a guy we’re counting on,” Roberts said.

At the end of the 2022 regular season, Bellinger seemed to be locked in a quartet of Joey Gallo, Chris Taylor, and Trayce Thompson for playing time in the outfield. Bellinger was essentially in a de facto platoon situation where he would start in center field and bat ninth against right-handed pitching...until he wasn’t. Regardless, it has been three painful-to-watch seasons for Bellinger. At this point, he could be below average offensively and the Dodgers would probably take that along with Bellinger’s glove. As all of the above has shown, he can’t even rise to the offensive level of below average.

In fact, Bellinger’s production has become so anemic that even during the current postseason run, a revisionist narrative has arisen around Bryce Harper. Harper has finally, finally lived up to his potential during the PhilliesWorld Series run and will likely never have to pay for another beverage or meal in Philadelphia for the rest of his life, regardless of the final outcome.

For starters, this “narrative” contradicts what actually happened. The Dodgers did not sign Harper for one main reason: Harper turned them down as the Dodgers offered a short-term, high-annual-value contract, and Harper wanted the stability of a long-term contract. The prevailing sentiment in 2019 was that the Dodgers were going to be just fine because they had their own MVP candidate in Bellinger. Moreover, while fans may have wanted Harper, he was not yet living up to his potential, hitting worse than Bellinger, Joc Pederson, and Alex Verdugo. On November 1, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Dodgers allegedly offered Harper a four-year, $185 million dollar deal, averaging an eye-popping $45 million a year. Moreover, this “narrative” of “Harper over Bellinger” mistakes the player that the Dodgers would have missed out on had the Dodgers signed Bryce Harper the last time he hit the free agent market: Mookie Betts. But that topic is a topic for a different time.

You do not give up on someone who has produced in the postseason or “The writing is on the wall.”

We have established that Cody Bellinger’s bat has been subpar since his MVP campaign in 2019. So what does that fact have to do with The One-Win Team? Like most Dodgers in the NLDS, Cody Bellinger did next to nothing offensively. However, Bellinger gets a minor pass as to the offensive futility as he was benched in favor of Trayce Thompson (and Chris Taylor) for Games 3 and 4 of the NLDS, even against the right-handed Joe Musgrove in Game 4.

Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register wrote about Dave Roberts’ decision to bench Bellinger after the Dodgers were eliminated from the playoffs (paywalled):

“He was upset,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said of Bellinger’s reaction when he told him he would not be starting Saturday. “He was upset. He wanted to be in there. He expected to be in there. All year long I’ve played him against right-handed pitching, and he wanted to be in there. But he also said he’ll be ready for whatever we need.”

Roberts cited Bellinger’s career numbers against Musgrove (2 for 17) as one reason for his decision and Musgrove’s reverse splits as another – he has actually been more difficult for left-handed batters (a .203 average and .622 OPS) than right-handed (.254 and .720).

“And there’s a lot of spin,” Roberts said of Musgrove, who throws his slider and curveball 43.5% of the time. “I just feel that tonight to win one game, I just felt that Trayce (Thompson) and Chris (Taylor) just had a better chance. Obviously Cody wants to be in there, but this is a decision that I had to make, I chose to make.”

Roberts’ decision-making will be discussed in the finale of this series. Unlike most of Dodgers’ Twitter, I did not hate the move to bench Bellinger under these circumstances. Truthfully, I was more surprised that Miguel Vargas and Joey Gallo were riding in the pine ahead of Thompson, who looked overwhelmed by the gravity of the moment. It happens.

For those of you keeping score, in Game 3:

  • Thompson went 1 for 3 with a run scored, a BB, and 2 Ks
  • Taylor went 0 for 4 with 2 Ks

And in Game 4:

  • Thompson went 1 for 4 with a K
  • Taylor went 0 for 3 with 3 Ks
  • Bellinger went 0 for 1 after pinch-hitting for Taylor

One of the core reasons that the Dodgers lost to the Padres is that the depth of production from the lineup, which was a strength all year, got quite shallow in this series. Roberts, and the Dodgers’ front office in general, tend to stick with players even to the point where it becomes comical (see Baez, Pedro, see Kimbrel, Craig, etc.). Normally, you would expect the Dodgers to trot Bellinger out during the postseason based on his history. However, they did not, which is out of character and raises a giant red flag.

Plunkett pointed out that Bellinger has made $33 million dollars since 2021 while hitting .193 with an OPS of .611. Bellinger is facing his final year of arbitration and forecasts that Bellinger will get a slight raise to 18.1 million dollars for the 2023 season if the Dodgers tender him a contract. Under the rules of the collective bargaining agreement, a player’s salary can indeed be reduced at arbitration by a maximum of 20%. Based on my research, I have yet to find a single example of a player taking a pay cut at arbitration.

As such, I would be extremely surprised if the Dodgers tendered Cody Bellinger a contract. I can see other teams willing to take a flyer on Cody Bellinger for less than his current previous salary. Oakland, Kansas City, and Minnesota immediately jump to mind. I had a lot of fun watching Bellinger over the years, but all good things have to come to an end. We might have seen the last of Bellinger in a Dodgers uniform.