Bellinger pivots: 'I will be a handshake guy'

Dodgers' center fielder arrives confident after offseason shoulder surgery

February 25th, 2021

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- After dislocating his right shoulder in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series against the Braves while celebrating a home run with former teammate Enrique Hernández, jokingly vowed to retire from forearm-bashing with teammates.

“Never again,” Bellinger said, with a smile. “I will be a handshake guy for the rest of my career, that’s for sure. I’m done with that.”

Despite the shoulder issue, Bellinger played the outfield for most of the World Series against the Rays, aside from serving as the team’s designated hitter in Game 4. Though he was out on the field, his production in the World Series wasn’t all there, hitting just one homer with three RBIs in the six games.

Following the season, Bellinger, who has dealt with multiple shoulder dislocations in the past, elected to undergo arthroscopic surgery on his right (non-throwing) shoulder. The decision to undergo the surgery now was purely made with an eye toward the future, according to Bellinger.

“To continue to have the risk of it popping out is bad for the labrum, and it’s dangerous,” he said. “If it would’ve popped out a few more times, I don’t know for sure, but I think the recovery is even longer. So for me to get it out of the way, and get ready for Opening Day, was worth it.”

While the recovery time for the procedure is about 10 weeks, Bellinger said he’s ahead of schedule. He’s been rehabbing at Camelback Ranch for a few weeks already. On Tuesday, he took some dry swings and hit off a curveball machine, and he followed that up by standing in during batting practice Wednesday.

Bellinger is currently scheduled to take part in Cactus League games around March 15, which should give him enough time to get ready for Opening Day. When he underwent the procedure in November, he knew it would be a tight window to make it back for Opening Day, but he enters camp with no doubt about taking the field on April 1 against the Rockies.

“I will 100% be ready for Opening Day if everything goes as planned,” Bellinger said. “As of now, I will 100% say that with confidence.”

With the hope that the shoulder issue is behind him, Bellinger aims to have a better season in 2021 than he did in ‘20. After taking home the 2019 NL MVP thanks to a monster season, Bellinger hit just .239 and finished with a .789 OPS last year, both career lows. The power numbers were still there, hitting 12 homers in 56 games, but the star outfielder wasn’t hitting the ball nearly as hard.

Bellinger barrelled the ball 13% of the time in 2019, but that number dropped to 9.4% last season. His average exit velocity also decreased from 91.1 mph in ‘19 to a career-low 89.3 mph in ‘20. A healthy shoulder should help.

“Baseball. It happens,” Bellinger said. “Obviously it wasn’t what I wanted to do, but I feel really good right now, and that’s all I’m worried about right now. It feels good to be healthy.”

When Bellinger does get into games, the plan is to continue to play him mostly in center field. He’ll take grounders at first base, according to manager Dave Roberts, but his primary position will continue to be center field, where he led the Majors with 8 Outs Above Average.

But the most important thing for Bellinger and the Dodgers this spring is his health. And all signs point to Bellinger being the Opening Day center fielder. If that happens, he’ll be celebrating with handshakes.

“His body is just really in a good place right now, from the core to the shoulder to the lower half,” Roberts said. “He’s in a great headspace. He’s on a great program with our guys. … He’s on track.”