Cody Bellinger's confounding 2020 start

August 19th, 2020

Plenty is going well for the Dodgers this year. Mookie Betts is off to a great start, Clayton Kershaw appears to be back to full health, and oh yeah, the team has the best record in the National League, again.

But the team’s reigning NL MVP, Cody Bellinger, is not off to the hottest of starts. Through Tuesday, he’s hitting .175/.245/.320 with four homers and -0.2 WAR per Baseball-Reference.

It’s a question likely echoing throughout Southern California early in this shortened season: What’s going on with Bellinger?

This isn’t brand new

Bellinger had a strong season in 2019, but there’s no question his first half was stronger than his second. After hitting .336 before the All-Star break -- including .404 through the Dodgers’ first 49 team games -- he hit just .263 after the break . His on-base percentage and slugging percentage fell off, too, from .432 to .371 and .692 to .546, respectively.

His expected stats, which are based on quality of contact, showed a similar trend. Bellinger posted a .369 expected batting average (xBA) and .722 expected slugging percentage (xSLG) in the first half, compared with .277 and .551 in the second half.

Those are still good numbers, of course, but not on the same level. Bellinger’s first-half pace may have been otherworldly and unsustainable, but the difference is stark enough to be worth noting.

As the dive in Bellinger’s expected stats suggest, he stopped hitting the ball quite as hard, and his launch angle wasn’t as optimal. In the first half, Bellinger had a 92.2 mph average exit velocity. In the second half, it was 89.6 mph. In the first half, he had a 51.3% hard-hit rate -- meaning more than half of the contact he made had at least a 95+ mph exit velocity. That ranked eighth in the Majors (min. 100 batted balls). In the second half, he had just a 38.6% hard-hit rate, a steep dropoff, and one that landed him tied for 114th of 252 players on the second-half list.

In the first half, 46.4% of Bellinger’s contact was in the sweet spot -- with a launch angle between 8 and 32 degrees -- highest in the Majors (min. 100 batted balls). But in the second half, he had just a 31.2% sweet spot rate, ranking 193rd of 252 players with at least 100 batted balls after the All-Star break.

Overall for the season, he had a 40.1% sweet spot rate, which was 12th in the Majors (min. 350 batted balls), but there’s no question that type of contact was less prevalent for him in the second half.

His 2020 start

Early on in 2020, it hasn’t just been second-half Bellinger that’s shown up, but rather an even lower level of production from the star. In his first 19 games through Aug. 13, he hit .165 with two homers and a .266 slugging percentage. His .244 xBA and .383 xSLG indicated he should’ve been having somewhat better results, but still nowhere near the MVP level we’ve come to expect from him.

He had just a 26.9% hard-hit rate in that span, which ranked 217th of 256 players with at least 25 batted balls through Aug. 13. That’s well below the league average of 36.5%. Bellinger has never had a hard-hit rate lower than 38.9% for a full season, and was above 45% in both 2017 and 2019.

And he wasn’t making sweet spot contact either, with a 20.9% sweet spot rate, far from his 40.1% rate overall from last season.

His last few games

Bellinger appeared to be returning to MVP form during the first two games of the Dodgers’ weekend series at the Angels. He had his first multi-homer game of the year on Friday, then followed it up with another two hits on Saturday.

Although he has gone 0-for-10 in his games since, it appears that he’s making much harder and better contact. In five games since Aug. 14, Bellinger has a 66.7% hard-hit rate to go along with a .312 xBA and .647 xSLG in a small sample. On Sunday, Bellinger made contact three times -- with two hard-hit batted balls and another at 90.2 mph. On Monday, he drew two walks, hit a hard groundout and flew out to the center field warning track. On Tuesday, he had one batted ball, a hard-hit fly ball.

Yet none of those balls was hit at an optimal launch angle, and Bellinger’s sweet spot rate is only 25.0% in that recent stretch. In other words, it’s clear that Bellinger isn’t quite where he needs to be. Still, there has been some evidence of progress.

If Bellinger can continue the turnaround, the Dodgers’ lineup -- already one of the best in the league -- will be that much scarier. Even with Bellinger scuffling until lately, the Dodgers lead the Majors in runs scored (141) and run differential (+63). Betts already has a three-homer game this season, and 10 different Dodgers players have hit multiple home runs. The Dodgers are doing their normal deepest-team-in-baseball thing again this year, and that’s without Bellinger even back to his 2019 first-half form yet. If he does get there, watch out, West divisions.