How this one-time MVP found new life in Chicago

May 13th, 2023

had been something like the weakest regular hitter in the game from 2021-22, so when he signed a one-year deal with the Cubs last winter, it was well understood by both sides to be a low-cost gamble that would, at the very least, help Chicago improve some of baseball’s worst 2022 center field defense. (See Bellinger and the Cubs play the Twins at 8 p.m. ET Friday on Apple TV+.)

Six weeks into the season, the deal has paid off and then some. Bellinger is hitting .288/.360/.530, good for an OPS+ of 141 that makes him 41% above league average as a hitter. His April was so good that it was his best month in four years. Throw in the defense that’s been as advertised, and he rates as one of baseball’s dozen most valuable position players, at least so far as FanGraphs is concerned.

So he’s “back,” right? Well, no -- not in the way you think. This version of Bellinger is a quality player, but one that in many ways hardly resembles the ascendant superstar who won the NL Rookie of the Year Award in 2017 and the NL MVP Award in 2019. As he nears his 28th birthday this summer, we’re seeing yet another of the seemingly endless iterations of Bellinger. Will this one last?

The best version of Bellinger, the one we saw in 2019 when he hit 47 homers and won a Gold Glove Award, hit the ball with both elite power (86th percentile in hard-hit rate) and great contact (78th percentile in strikeout rate. The worst version of Bellinger, the one we saw in 2021 when he hit .165/.240/.302, didn’t do either of things well, failing to hit the ball hard (20th percentile in hard-hit) or really even very often at all (17th percentile in hard-hit rate).

The current Bellinger is somewhere in between. He’s still not hitting the ball all that hard (27th percentile hard-hit rate, in the range of Lane Thomas and Wilmer Flores), but he’s doing a great job of making more contact, to the point that he’s got one of the 10 best strikeout rate decreases in the game. He’s a good hitter now; just a different one.

(Wait: how do you get to a .530 slug while hitting the ball that softly? Some very funny defense and even funnier defense and fortunate bounces have helped, as well as his own still-strong running speed. Based on the quality of his contact alone, Statcast’s expected slugging for Bellinger is .422; the gap there of more than 100 points is the largest in baseball of anyone with 100 batted balls. Of course, even that .422 expected number is 80 points better than he had in 2022.)

Even so, there are clear improvements we’re seeing. What are they? It’s … complicated.

If it’s so difficult to describe what the 2023 Bellinger is doing differently, that’s in part because it seems like he’s always doing something differently. Here’s a story from early 2019 about swing changes from 2018; here’s a tidbit from July 2020 about changes headed into the abbreviated season; here’s one from late 2021 about changes headed into the postseason; here’s one from 2022 about his attempts to change coming off that disappointing 2021; true to form, Bellinger and his new team entered 2023 talking about swing changes.

"I think it's more of a relaxed look in the box," Cubs hitting coach Dustin Kelly said in February. "He's always [had] kind of a tall, upright stance. But there's a little bit of flexibility in there as he starts to make his move toward the pitcher, and kind of gets into his heel strike."

It gets deeper than that, way deeper. If you’re interested in 3,000 or so good words on the subject, Tieran Alexander made a compelling case that the infamous 2020 World Series shoulder injury wasn’t the cause of Bellinger’s problems so much as the 2021 fractured leg that he played through, a physical issue that potentially affected his swing for months.

We’re not swing doctors, but Bellinger is presumably healthy now -- his 84th percentile Sprint Speed is better than it was in either of the last two seasons, and he worked with a physical trainer for the first time this past winter. Rather than delve too deeply into the specifics of his heel strike, let’s break his season down into the two most basic elements of hitting: making contact, and not making contact.

1. It’s only a little about the kind of contact he’s making

As we said, he’s not hitting the ball harder than last year, and that’s down considerably from his peak. His ground-ball rate isn’t meaningfully different. One of the fancier Statcast metrics indicates that the quality of his contact, while better than either of the last two years, is still only the fifth best of his seven seasons. To put some 2023 comparables here, his contact quality is something like Gleyber Torres or Jonathan India.

That’s fine, and “fine” is a massive improvement over the last two seasons. It’s just that even if we include Spring Training and postseason, the 10 hardest-hit balls Bellinger has had over the last four years all came in 2020. His home run on April 16 back at Dodger Stadium is his only 2023 batted ball to crack the top 35 of that list.

It’s only May, of course. But if we’re looking for the elite thump of old coming back, it’s not quite there yet.

2. It’s a lot about how much contact he’s making

OK, so maybe he’s not pounding the ball like he used to. But he’s still having a very good season to date, and it’s mostly about this -- that his 18% strikeout rate is both A) a lot better than the 27% rate he had the last two years and B) very similar to the 17% rate he had from 2019-20. While making contact doesn’t by itself lead to success -- look no further than Cleveland’s weakest-in-baseball offense -- it’s a meaningful sign of improvement in this case.

For example, have you noticed how well he’s doing at not swinging through offspeed pitches, a pitch type against which he’d posted just a .158 average last year?

Yet where this is most interesting iswith two strikes, where Bellinger is having the best production of any season of his career, having cut his swing-and-miss rate to a career-best 13% -- or half what it was last year. His production before two strikes, meanwhile, is middle of the pack based on his own track record -- far less than the 2017-19 peak, far better than the 2020-22 downturn.

We’re almost five years to the day since the Athletic ran an article that included the headline “What’s behind Cody Bellinger’s struggle at the plate?” There have been innumerable ups and downs since then. There probably always will be. So if “back” means “back to the MVP winner we saw in 2019,” then no, probably not. If “back” means “back to a quality player on a winning team,” then yes, an above-average center-field defender with an average-to-above bat (as most projection systems see him now) is a pretty nice player to have. The Cubs seem plenty happy to have him.