Bellinger making dazzling first impression on the North Side

April 30th, 2023

MIAMI -- As the book closes on April, potentially one of the best comeback stories in baseball is just getting started. The Cubs bet on over the offseason and he has backed up the club's belief out of the gates.

On Sunday afternoon at loanDepot park, Bellinger launched a pitch off the facing of the second deck beyond left field. The center fielder's latest blast was not enough to dodge a 4-3 defeat and series sweep to the Marlins, but it continued Bellinger's eye-opening showing over the first month.

"He's a guy that's going to be a reason for our success," Cubs manager David Ross said, "if he keeps swinging the bat the way he is."

The Cubs have featured one of the National League's top offenses -- their 117 weighted runs created plus currently paces the Senior Circuit -- with a surprising amount of power early on. Bellinger has been a key part of providing production in that department.

Sunday's shot was his seventh across March-April, marking his most in a month since August of 2020. Factor in his .975 OPS before May and this is Bellinger's best monthly showing since March-April of '19. He was voted the NL's Most Valuable Player that season.

Bellinger smiled when asked if April went just about as well as he could have hoped.

"Yeah, definitely. I've been feeling good," Bellinger said. "Every day is a new day, so I've just got to continue going."

In Bellinger's first three Major League seasons, he was the NL's Rookie of the Year ('17), an NL Championship Series MVP ('18), an All-Star ('17 and '19), a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Award recipient ('19) and MVP ('19). He then picked up a World Series ring with the Dodgers in '20.

A wave of injuries in recent years sapped his power and consistency, leading Los Angeles to ultimately make the decision to non-tender him this past offseason. After posting a .928 OPS across the '17-19 seasons, Bellinger watched his production sink to a .648 OPS over '20-22.

Once Bellinger hit the open market, the Cubs swooped in with a one-year, $17.5 million deal. The contract addressed clear needs: Defense in center and lefty power. For Bellinger, this was a chance to re-establish his value.

One month in, he is making good on the opportunity in all facets.

"I definitely thought this would be an all-year process," Ross said recently. "I'm happy he's gotten off to a good start. But, I think we're all going to go through peaks and valleys throughout this journey.

"The more you're able to get off to a good start, I think it just helps the mental side."

Bellinger has played an above-average center field, running balls down in the gaps and making a handful of highlight-reel snags. On April 15, when Bellinger made his return trip to L.A., the rousing cheers morphed into boos after he robbed a home run from Jason Heyward with a leaping catch at the wall.

Between that road series against the Dodgers -- during which he received a hero's welcome from fans and a tribute video from the team -- and the recent birth of a daughter, it has indeed been a memorable opening month for Bellinger.

The production has made it even better from Chicago's standpoint. Through 24 games, Bellinger has hit .297/.371/.604 with 10 walks, 13 extra-base hits and 18 RBIs. The stable front-four of the Cubs' lineup has allowed him to thrive in the Nos. 5-6 slots for the most part.

The homer off Andrew Nardi on Sunday marked Bellinger's fourth this season -- second in as many games -- off left-handed pitching. He had six homers in 339 plate appearances versus lefties in the '20-22 seasons combined.

"I'm staying with my approach against them," Bellinger said. "I'm seeing them well. I have throughout my whole career, whole life."

Health has been the key component for Bellinger, but he has made a few slight swing adjustments under hitting coach Dustin Kelly. There have been tweaks to his lower half and hand positioning, but Kelly has emphasized the importance of keeping things simple.

The repeated mantra for Bellinger has been to "be athletic" in the batter's box. Bellinger has made it work and, as the calendar turns to May, he knows not to get too caught up in early, small-sample results.

"Routine, approach," said Bellinger, when asked for the keys to his strong April. "Good or bad, it's realizing that the next day is the most important. And really, just staying within myself and just being in the moment."