Cody Bellinger’s Struggles Aren’t Just Small Sample Woeson August 17, 2020 at 7:00 pm

Cody Bellinger’s Struggles Aren’t Just Small Sample Woes

I’d be a liar if I said the Los Angeles Dodgers are struggling. At 16-7, they have been as dangerous as expected and currently hold the best record in the National League while leading in both runs scored and ERA. But the offense still isn’t firing on all cylinders, with Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy, and Joc Pederson all off to fairly slow starts. This is an especially concerning development for Bellinger given that he was responsible for approximately eight wins in 2019, hitting .305/.406/.629 with a 162 wRC+ and 47 homers while besting Christian Yelich for the NL MVP award.

Outside of hitting a couple home runs against the Angels on Friday, Bellinger’s 2020 has been his most forgettable campaign in the majors. A triple-slash of .187/.245/.341 (57 wRC+) has left him hovering around replacement level, and in a 60-game season, we’re only a week away from the halfway point.

Baseball is a game of adjustments, and even during an MVP campaign last year, Bellinger found pitchers adjusting to him with (slightly) successful results. On the morning of June 1, 2019, Bellinger’s OPS stood at an awe-inspiring 1.208; his batting average had fallen below the .400 line just a week before. You wouldn’t call the .262/.372/.561 (136 wRC+) he hit over the rest of the season an actual problem, but it was distinctly below his early-season standards. It wasn’t a complete sea change, but pitchers gradually started throwing him more breaking pitches as 2019 progressed, a trend that has continued in 2020. When Bellinger surged in April and May of last year, only 20.9% of his pitches were breaking pitches, a number which increased to 25.6% from June to September and to 28.7% in 2020, passing the 30% line so far in August.

And pitchers haven’t yet been punished for this approach. Bellinger has swung at 51.6% of all breaking pitches in 2020, compared to 34.2% in April/May 2019 and 41.9% from June on. Swinging at more breaking pitches has resulted in fewer hits than before; after getting 14 hits against the bendy stuff in April/May, including five homers, he only managed 16 over the next four months and he has just two in 2020. Since June 1, 2019 in 122 games, Bellinger has just two hits against curveballs, with none coming in 2020.

No longer receiving as favorable mix of pitches, Bellinger has responded by expanding his strike zone with decidedly mixed results. His 33.5% O-Swing% in 2020 is the highest of his career, and he’s been especially aggressive on 0-0 counts, where he’s least likely to see a breaking pitch. Overall, he’s gone from swinging at 26% of his first pitches in 2019 to 36% this year, well above the league-average of 28%.

Manager Dave Roberts talked at length about Bellinger’s early-season issues last week.

Opposing teams are pitching him differently this season as well, Roberts said, in that they are each pitching him different “whether it’s top of the zone, these guys (the Padres) are trying to crowd him. Some guys are trying to spin him.”

All of it is working lately.

“There’s many pitches that he’s not getting to this year that he should, and that he has, and that he will,” Roberts said. “When you’re not mechanically right you miss pitches and then they start to expand. Then, at times you chase. That’s just kind of the whole thought behind any hitter, especially when they’re struggling.

While Bellinger is actually posting career-highs for contact percentage — he’s connected with 88% of pitches offered at in the zone, a personal best — the quality of that contact has been worse. His barrel percentage has dropped to 5.3% (13% in 2019) and his average exit velocity has dropped by 3 mph since last season.

This may sound gloomy, but there’s some good news! Even with an approach that isn’t as conducive to ruling the known galaxy as his approach last year, Bellinger’s also been a bit unlucky when it comes to hits. His .181 BABIP is an unsustainably low number for a player making any type of contact. Over the previous five seasons, the BABIP for pitchers as hitters has ranged from .207 to .244, putting an effective floor on how poor any professional hitter can be at cashing in on contact. For Bellinger to actually be a .181-BABIP hitter, I wager he’d have to be holding the bat on the wrong end.

So where should Bellinger’s BABIP be? From his hit data, the zBABIP calculation within ZiPS suggests a BABIP of .264. That’s certainly off his .302 from last season and his .297 career mark, but it leads to more normal offensive numbers overall. ZiPS sees Bellinger as a .253/.306/.429 hitter thanks to six extra hits (four singles and two doubles), and though that’s hardly a line to get excited about, it doesn’t jump out at you as eye-poppingly horrible for 98 plate appearances. Nor is there a long-term consequence in the projections from such a slow start, with Bellinger’s sub-.600 OPS only shifting his ZiPS 2021-2025 outlook from 30.0 WAR (fourth in the majors) to 29.7 WAR (also fourth in the majors).

Bellinger also has the benefit of being able to work out his issues on a team with the least reason to panic. ZiPS currently projects the Dodgers with a 99.1% chance of making the playoffs, while this year’s playoff format means there isn’t a massive edge for winning the division relative to qualifying via a Wild Card spot. If I instruct ZiPS to assume that Bellinger will have a .181 BABIP the rest of the season, their projected probability of making the playoffs drops to…99.0%. To have a 50/50 chance of Bellinger’s issues causing the Dodgers to miss the playoffs, we would have to simulate the year 2020 a healthy 664 times. And repeating this year 664 times sounds like the most horrifying sequel to Groundhog Day imaginable.

As I said at the beginning, baseball is a game of adjustments, and at this point, there’s no reason to think that Cody Bellinger won’t eventually adjust and get back to his normal form. Just like his .180/.265/.390 line in May 2018 didn’t ruin him, neither will his slow start to 2020. And with one of the most patient teams in baseball, Bellinger will receive plenty of opportunities to find his 2019 swing.

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