Bellinger blossoming into bona fide superstar

April 23rd, 2019

As part of Young Stars Week, MLB is celebrating one of the game’s most dynamic emerging talents each day from April 22-26. Up next is 23-year-old Dodgers first baseman/outfielder Cody Bellinger.

After a hot first week of 2019, Dodgers color commentator Orel Hershiser made a very early declaration that looked like he’d be in the National League MVP conversation come the end of the season. How about starting with Player of the Month?

It seems like that honor is where Bellinger’s headed through his first 23 games. His .424 average tops MLB, as do his .882 slugging percentage and 36 hits. His 11 home runs trail just Christian Yelich’s 13. Bellinger has been extremely difficult to retire, having reached base in exactly half of his 100 plate appearances.

Bellinger’s value has extended beyond his bat, too. With the ability to play an excellent defensive first base and to hold his own at all three outfield spots, Bellinger fits right in on a Dodgers squad that emphasizes versatility. Bellinger’s abilities were on full display on Sunday when he robbed Yelich of a home run in a Dodgers-Brewers showdown, shortly before winning the game with a ninth-inning solo shot.

This year’s version of Bellinger is looking every bit the player whose performance merited unanimous NL Rookie of the Year selection in 2017, and then some. Whatever frustration the 23-year-old might have felt during a comparatively down '18 seems to have been left there. He’s a reformed hitter: The holes in his long, left-handed swing appear to be gone, in no small part thanks to work with the team’s trio of offensive instructors, headed by hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc. For Bellinger, though, it’s also a matter of mental clarity.

“Understanding what I want to do, and knowing why I feel good, and knowing why I don’t feel good,” said Bellinger. “Just going into the cage and trying to find it every day, and trying to stay locked in.”

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts attributes Bellinger’s torrid start to improved swing mechanics, but he believes it’s a strong work ethic that will let Bellinger keep thriving.

“Consistency in the preparation and the approach,” Roberts said of what’s keyed Bellinger. “Obviously, the results have been consistent as well. But I think that’s what’s leading up to those results is, for me, the most impressive. And I think that’s something that can sustain the success.”

Bellinger, of course, won’t keep hitting at his current level for the entire season; a .397 BABIP suggests that he’s due for some regression. But his expected weighted on-base average of .550, just shy of his actual wOBA of .559, per Statcast, indicates that his success thus far has been earned.

Bellinger’s overall approach at the plate has changed in ways that set him up to continue being an offensive menace, too. His strikeout rate has slashed in half, down to 12 percent from his career average of 24.2 percent. His walk rate is up a few ticks, too, in part due to pitchers approaching him more cautiously and in part due to improved discipline -- he’s swinging at just 21.7 percent of pitches out of the strike zone, down nearly six percent from last season. And when he swings, he’s missed less often than anyone in the NL, with a league-best contact rate of 87.7 percent.

It’s been an illustrious career for Bellinger already. En route to breaking the NL rookie record with 39 home runs, he showed off his power on the national stage in the 2017 Home Run Derby. Bellinger was also an All-Star in '17 and nabbed MVP of the '18 NL Championship Series by hitting the Game 7-deciding home run. But now, he’s looking like a bona fide superstar, a force to be reckoned with on both sides of the ball. And he’ll be just 24 in July -- baseball could be hearing a lot from this guy for a while to come.