Cody Bellinger’s Uneven 2020 Season Continueson October 20, 2020 at 4:00 pm

Cody Bellinger’s Uneven 2020 Season Continues

October hasn’t been the kindest month to Cody Bellinger. Though he’s established himself as one of the game’s top sluggers while helping the Dodgers reach the World Series in three of his four major league seasons, and collected some big postseason hits here and there, his overall postseason numbers have generally fallen far short of what he’s done during the regular season. Even after a disappointing, abbreviated 2020 campaign, he’s had his ups and downs this fall, though he finished the NLCS on just about the highest possible note, clubbing a no-doubt solo home run that capped the Dodgers’ Game 7 comeback and sent them to a pennant:

[embedded content]
My goodness. Bellinger walked towards first base so slowly and indirectly while admiring the blast that it seemed like he might make a stop to feed the parking meter or grab a hot dog — no extra mustard needed. Statcast measured the exit velocity on that one at 107.4 mph but estimated its distance at “only” 400 feet, the byproduct of its steep 33-degree launch angle.

Bellinger is now hitting .250/.365/.545 in 52 plate appearances during this postseason, good for a 141 wRC+ and a reasonable approximation for his regular season career line (.273/.364/.547, 137 wRC+). It’s a far cry better than the totality of his 2017-20 postseason numbers (.196/.269/.380, 73 wRC+), that’s for sure.

It’s also considerably better than his 2020 regular season numbers. Bellinger hit just .239/.333/.455 for the wee season, and while his struggles were somewhat concealed by the MVP-caliber performances of newcomer Mookie Betts and mainstay Corey Seager, it was still a considerable dip from his 7.8 WAR, .305/.406/.629 (162 wRC+) showing in 2019. Among former MVP winners besides Betts, he was hardly alone in having a rough 2020; Giancarlo Stanton missed most of the regular season with injuries, both Jose Altuve and Kris Bryant produced far below their usual levels due to ailments as well, Christian Yelich never really heated up, and even Mike Trout was off a bit, particularly on the defensive side.

Some of the dip in Bellinger’s numbers owed to his exceptionally slow start; he hit .139/.205/.167 for a -1 WRC+ in 39 plate appearances over his first eight games, and while that size of a sample normally would come out in the wash over a full season, it represented 16% of his plate appearances for the year, the prorated equivalent of about a month’s worth of play. Throw that out and Bellinger produced 1.6 WAR while hitting .260/.358/.514 (136 wRC+) the rest of the way, again more or less on par with his overall career level.

Some of Bellinger’s performance also owed to bad luck. Back to considering July along with August and September, via Statcast he produced an expected batting average of .284 and an expected slugging percentage of .497, yet he was way off the mark with his actual numbers, and for the second year in a row, his wOBA was notably below his xwOBA:

That’s not a great season, mind you; Bellinger’s exit velocity and barrel rate were both only in the 60th percentile, down from last year’s 83rd and 90th percentiles, respectively; the exit velo was a career low. His expected stats were in the 81st to 85th percentiles, down from the 100th percentile — the “me and Mike Trout” percentile — across the board.

Fortunately for the Dodgers, Bellinger has been more productive in the postseason. He collected hits in every game of the Wild Card and Division Series, including a solo homer in Game 2 of the latter, and a triple, a single, and three RBI in the clincher. Aside from a fielder’s choice RBI that opened up the scoring in Game 3 before it turned into a rout, those runs merely extended the Dodgers’ substantial leads, but the performance was a step in the right direction. And then of course there was Bellinger’s defense, most notably this incredibly clutch catch to rob Fernando Tatis Jr. of a potential go-ahead homer in Game 2:

[embedded content]

Bellinger went hitless in his first eight plate appearances in the NLCS, but with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 2, as the Dodgers had cut an 8-3 lead to 8-6, he mashed a triple to right field off Mark Melancon, not only pulling his team to within one run but stopping just 90 feet short of tying the game himself. Alas, an AJ Pollock groundball stranded him and sent the Dodgers to defeat, but he was in the middle of their Game 3 onslaught, drawing a first-inning walk off Kyle Wright that set up Joc Pederson‘s three-run homer, clubbing a solo shot himself off Grant Dayton to start the second inning, and hitting an RBI single off Dayton in the third. He also robbed Ozzie Albies of an extra-base hit with a leaping catch at the warning track in the first inning, exciting even if it was low-leverage given the 11-0 score.

Bellinger went hitless in Games 4 and 5 of the NLCS; the latter was his first three-strikeout playoff game since 2017, and it felt like he was summoning the ghosts of that brutal stretch. He had three four-strikeout games plus one three-strikeout game in the postseason of his rookie year, including four K’s in Games 3 and 6 of the World Series against the Astros, followed by three more in Game 7.

Fortunately for the Dodgers, Bellinger closed the NLCS with a flourish, driving in their third first-inning run against Max Fried in Game 6 and then homering the next night. Between the two games, he also drew three walks and saw a total of 43 pitches in eight plate appearances; only Betts (44 pitches in 10 PA) saw more.

While Bellinger’s slash line is certainly improved relative to the regular season, his Statcast numbers make a much less emphatic case:

While his exit velocity is up significantly relative to the regular season, his xAVG and xwOBA are actually down — the former by a lot, the latter by only a bit. Basically, he’s hit a lot of balls hard, but rather harmlessly. Five of his groundballs have been hit at 95 mph or faster, but based upon angle and speed, two of them, including one of 102.8 mph, had an xAVG well below .200. Of his 19 balls in the air, nine had an xAVG of .107 or lower; four of those were hit between 92 and 97 mph, but they were either hard-hit popups or cans of corn.

It’s worth noting that I actually began writing this piece the morning after the Dodgers’ big Game 3 blowout. I figured that with Bellinger on the upswing, the time might be right for a closer look, though when Marcell Ozuna, another subject who had my attention, collected four hits in Game 4, it made more sense to delve into his postseason. What I noticed while writing about Bellinger at the time was that even with a .281/.361/.594 batting line — better than his current postseason line, in fact — he had just a .401 xSLG and .289 xwOBA. Though he went just 2-for-12 in the four games after that, he scorched four balls at 100 mph off the bat or better, two of which went for outs. His 103.2 mph deep drive to center field in Game 4 had an xAVG of .893, and the fact that it turned into an out speaks to Cristian Pache‘s outstanding range. Likewise for Ronald Acuna Jr., who in the second inning of Game 7, ran down a 107.4 mph Bellinger rocket that had a .657 xAVG.

All of which serves to remind that we’re looking at small samples (41 batted ball events for Bellinger’s postseason) that may not be entirely representative. Back to that second table above, however, note that his expected and actual performance have converged as the sample has grown, with the underperformance of his xwOBA decreasing from 28 points to 19. His combined numbers still put his season much closer to his 2017 and ’18 performances than last year’s.

As to why…again, there’s more than one explanation. He’s been anemic against lefties, hitting .216/.301/.365 (86 wRC+) against them during the regular season, about as bad as he was in 2018 (88 wRC+); he was at .280/.386/.596 (150 wRC+) last year. That said, his .252/.350/.504 (129 wRC+) against righties also represents a career worst, and it’s well off last year’s .317/.416/.645 (167 wRC+). With the exception of offspeed pitches from righties, his performance against various pitch types from hurlers of either hand took a significant step back, in some cases dropping around 100 points year to year (note the differing scales here):

One thing that particularly stands out as I futz around with various Baseball Savant searches and splits is the extent to which Bellinger has been thoroughly demolished by certain pitch types in the postseason. This is split by handedness but aggregated across the 2017-20 postseasons for the sake of larger samples:

Some of Bellinger’s postseason problems likely owe to velocity, in that for the four-seamers, the right-handed average velo has increased from 93.7 mph to 95.1, and the lefties from 92.7 mph to 93.8. Bellinger’s performance against high-velo four-seamers has generally followed the year-to-year contours of his overall performance; for 97 mph and higher overall, he’s managed a .296 xwOBA during his regular seasons, which is basically league average, but for the postseasons, that drops to .128. Yikes.

I’ll resist the temptation to publish a 2020-only grid, because the sample sizes for some of the postseason pitches are ridiculously small; for example, of the 15 sliders he’s seen from righties in the postseason, he has a .690 xwOBA, entirely based on balls and strikes but without a single batted ball event and just one plate appearance ending with such a pitch. Limiting the picture to just four-seamers, his xwOBA against righties has dropped from .328 in the regular season to .152 in the postseason, that while the average velocity has increased from 94.1 mph to 96.1. Against lefties it’s .407 in the regular season and .167 in the postseason, with the average velo increasing from 92.5 to 93.1. Ten of his PA against righties have ended with the four-seamer, with the triple off Trevor Rosenthal his only positive result, while 13 such PA against lefties have ended with four-seamers, with two hits off Dayton (one of them a homer) and a walk against Will Smith his only positives.

Having spent a fair amount of time looking for needles in haystacks, I don’t think any one factor fully explains Bellinger’s year-to-year struggles or even worse October results except that baseball is a game of adjustments, and he hasn’t always been able to counter accordingly. Even so, his huge hits during this October run are a big reason why the Dodgers are in the World Series again, and I suspect that if he can add a few more of them, his past struggles will be forgotten.

Read More

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *