Dodgers remain confident Belli can rebound

2019 MVP struggles at plate as he tinkers with swing mechanics

March 27th, 2022

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Cody Bellinger arrived at Dodgers camp with plenty of optimism. After struggling with injuries and constantly fighting through mechanics last season, Bellinger felt fully healthy after building up strength in his right shoulder over the course of an entire offseason, something he couldn’t do in 2020 after undergoing surgery. 

Over the first few days, Bellinger thought the ball was bouncing off his bat for the first time in a few years. But during Cactus League games, Bellinger’s optimism has turned into public pessimism regarding the 2019 National League MVP. 

After punching out four times during Saturday’s game against the Royals, Bellinger has 14 strikeouts in 19 Cactus League at-bats. He went down looking twice and struck out on three pitches in his first turn. 

“I think he’ll be the first to tell you that it wasn’t good,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. “[Saturday] was the first night that I felt things sped up on him.”

In September, Bellinger hit rock bottom at the plate. He was, statistically, one of the worst hitters in the Majors last season. Bellinger was unplayable at times due to his performance at the plate. Because of his struggles, he became a platoon player in center field until other injuries forced the Dodgers to play him every day. It was the most drastic dip of a player who, at the time, was just two seasons removed from his MVP season. 

As his batting average kept plummeting and his strikeout rate surged last season, Bellinger finally decided to make some changes during a September series against the Cardinals. The changes involved moving his hands lower, giving him a chance against velocity, particularly up in the zone. 

The move helped Bellinger see positive results. In the postseason, he showed signs of life, becoming one of the few consistent hitters for the Dodgers. He was the hero in Game 5 of the NLDS against the Giants and in Game 3 of the NLCS against the Braves.

Bellinger seemed to keep the new mechanics through the offseason. But once Cactus League games began, Bellinger went back to his older stance, moving his hands back up to his shoulder. The stance has more moving parts, but the intention is to help the outfielder create some more power. It also could create more holes in his swing.

With the late-season success in 2021, why did Bellinger feel the need to change his mechanics again?

“I think there’s a happy medium involved,” he said. “My shoulder and body are feeling stronger than they did in the postseason. I’m feeling more comfortable where I’ve had a lot of success in the past. It’s all about finding that approach.”

Despite the major struggles, Bellinger insisted Sunday that he’s feeling better than what the results have indicated. He maintains that his health is the most important part. Bellinger believes the results will turn once he gets his timing down.

Bellinger joked that he’s just “getting the [strikeouts] out of the way now.

“That’s what Spring Training is about, obviously,” Bellinger said. “You don’t want to do what I’m doing, but I feel better than what the stat sheets are showing.”

On Sunday, Bellinger and Roberts had another brief talk. The message remained the same. Roberts and the Dodgers want Bellinger to work on “being a hitter first” and not try to do too much. Roberts acknowledged that, at times, Bellinger can get too caught up on the science of his mechanics instead of trusting his ability.

“There is such a thing as too many mechanics,” Roberts said. “He’s working really hard every single day with our hitting guys. But when you get into a game, go out there and compete and try to be a good hitter. He agreed. And there was a big smile from him saying, ‘I’m glad it’s Spring Training.’ It’s the truth. Some guys ramp up earlier than other guys. We’re on the same page.”

As of now, Bellinger’s status as the team’s everyday center fielder isn’t in danger, according to Roberts. Spring Training stats will vanish on April 7, and the Dodgers will need to see more offensive production from Bellinger. That hasn’t happened consistently since the end of the 2019 season.

Bellinger and the Dodgers are still confident it’ll turn around soon. The season doesn’t start until April 8. But if the former MVP is unable to find his form, it could be the Dodgers’ turn to make some adjustments.