5 questions about Bellinger's fascinating free agency

November 15th, 2023

Less than one year ago – Nov. 18, 2022, to be exact – the Dodgers chose not to tender Cody Bellinger a contract for 2023, deciding that his enduring struggles over two previous injury-plagued seasons (.193/.256/.355) made the prospect of paying him approximately $20 million in arbitration untenable.

Twelve months – and one tremendous .307/.356/.525 (4.1 WAR) rebound season in Chicago – later, Bellinger stands as one of the most desirable free agents on the market, expected to receive a contract of something like $150 to $200 million over the next five-to-eight years as arguably the best position player available, setting aside Shohei Ohtani.

It’s a tremendous turnaround story, a credit both to Bellinger himself and to the Cubs' coaching and training staff for the work put in to revive a career that was seemingly headed in the wrong direction. But there’s a pretty large question hanging over his head, and it’s not just about wild ups-and-downs of the last few seasons. It goes something like this:

How could a player who just hit 26 home runs with a .525 slugging percentage have a hard-hit rate lower than 90% of other hitters, similar to Miami’s Jon Berti? How could he have a barrel rate lower than three-quarters of other hitters, similar to Detroit’s Akil Baddoo?

It’s not to say that his production “isn’t real” or “didn’t happen.” It was real. It did happen. But interested suitors would feel a lot better about that production persisting if it came with underlying metrics more akin to Kyle Tucker or Freddie Freeman – or even 2017-19 Cody Bellinger – than, say, Alex Verdugo. It’s a question that’s worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

You may not care about how Bellinger got to that 133 OPS+, but teams looking to sign him certainly will be, because they care more about what he will do than what he has done. Let’s try to answer some of the same questions they will.

1. How do you even slug .500 with a 10th percentile hard-hit rate?

It’s rare. Really rare. In the eight seasons of Statcast, we’ve had 281 player seasons where a hitter has slugged .500 or better in a season where they took at least 450 plate appearances. Exactly three players have done what Bellinger just did, to slug .500 or more in a year with a hard-hit rate of 31.4% or under.

  • Zack Cozart, 2017
  • Jose Altuve, 2017 & 2022
  • Eduardo Escobar, 2019

Cozart’s 2017 was a career year in one of the most homer-happy seasons in Major League history; he never slugged even .460 in any other year, and was out of the Majors two seasons later. Escobar’s year was in the most homer-happy season ever. Altuve has made a (possibly Hall of Fame) career out of serving fly balls down the line with just enough length to get out.

So … how? In part, Bellinger possesses the speed to turn otherwise unremarkable singles into doubles, perhaps never displayed better than on this 94 mph hit against Colorado:

It helps your stat line, too, when the outfielder falls down on a double (77 mph), or when three fielders nearly run into one another on a double (87 mph), or when hitting the ball anywhere near Kyle Schwarber for a double (68 mph), but those flukes aren’t really unique to Bellinger.

It’s not so much about pulling the ball in the air, because his 2023 rate was more or less his career average there. Ultimately, the 88-point gap between Bellinger’s .525 slugging and his Statcast expected slugging (.437) is one of the largest in the eight seasons since Statcast came online, and what do you do with that? We can look backwards to see what’s happened with similar situations, to start.

There were 17 others with a gap that large in a season that preceded a full season – so excluding 2019 and 2023 (for now). Fifteen of the others failed to match the first season’s expected slugging in the second season, primarily being either career seasons where it was clear everything had gone the right way (Bryce Harper’s 2015, Scooter Gennett’s 2017, Cozart’s 2017) or first-year splashes that were never repeated (Aledmys Díaz’s 2016, Miguel Andújar’s 2018).

The one exception here who did manage to reach that expected slugging the next year was responsible for both of the remaining two seasons, that being Didi Gregorius in 2016 and ‘17, when he took extreme advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short porch.

Ultimately, this group of 17 slugged .520 in their overperforming years, had an average expected slugging of .419 in those years, and then slugged .434 in the next season, so you can see which number the next year came closer to. (This year, Bellinger was joined by Geraldo Perdomo, TJ Friedl, Isaac Paredes, and, as always, Altuve. It will be interesting to see how each of them slugs in 2024.)

All of which probably tells you two things about Bellinger: 1) that he’s doing some real things not fully captured by those advanced metrics, namely in “hustle doubles” and just getting the ball in play, and 2) it’s really, really unlikely he’d slug .525 again with this batted ball profile. It’s worth noting, though, that even his expected slugging number jumped 83 points from 2022. He was, by any definition, improved as a Cub over what he was as a Dodger.

2. How real is the two-strike approach?

This is a huge part of the Bellinger story, that he shortened up with two strikes.

“If you watch video, there's just a little less movement,” then-Cubs manager David Ross said in August, regarding Bellinger’s two-strike approach. “[You’re] just watching him try to play pepper. The ball travels a little bit deeper. It seems consistent. The ball goes to the other side of the field, on the ground sometimes. Or [he’s] staying inside it and finding that kind of bleeder that [goes] down the left-field line.”

Of course, we’ve been hearing that about him since at least 2018, too, so it’s not necessarily new. Is there anything to it?

Before two strikes:
- .338/.394/.654 and a 36% hard-hit rate
- 77th-best wOBA of 172, minimum 200 plate appearances

With two strikes:
- .279/.313/.411 and a 25% hard-hit rate
- 7th-best wOBA of 228, minimum 200 plate appearances

That’s a noticeable drop in hard-hit on two strikes, though it’s important to note that this is true for the entire sport: hard-hit across the Majors drops from 41% before two strikes to 36% on two strikes, since it’s not unusual to trade power for contact at this point. Still, Bellinger’s drop is twice as large, which seems not coincidental.

Forthcoming Statcast bat speed data will tell you that his average swing speed was 70.7 mph before two strikes and 68.5 mph on two strikes, which is a drop of a little, but maybe not all that much. There’s no real difference in the length of his swing. There is some evidence that he’s pulling it less, that the swing is flatter, which goes right to Ross’ comments. It’s a solid two-strike approach that not enough hitters seem to embrace.

Let’s take out the two-strike swings, then. On the whole, Bellinger’s 31% hard-hit rate is 10th percentile. Just comparing all pre-two-strike counts, his 36% hard-hit rate jumps to … 20th percentile. So does the two-strike approach hurt him in these metrics? Yes; does it meaningfully change the hard-hit profile? No.

Yet there’s something else happening here, too. Before two strikes, you’d rather miss the ball entirely than make weak contact. But with two strikes, the opposite is true. So …

3. What if he just converted strikeouts into weak contact?

“He’ll sacrifice some power to put the ball in play,” a scout told Sahadev Sharma of the Athletic recently. “I buy that that’s behind some of the average to lesser exit velocities.”

A key point not to be lost here is that Bellinger made far more contact in 2023 than in years past, cutting his strikeout rate from 27% to 16%. Only Ronald Acuña Jr. had a better improvement, and that carried with it some historical context. Since “hard-hit rate” is generally considered to be “of the balls you hit, how many were hit hard,” what if he’s just being penalized for that extra contact? If the weak contact was instead no contact, would that then artificially make his hard-hit rate look better? And if it’s hurting his hard contact, is that a tradeoff that is even worthwhile?

We know these two things:

  • On softly hit balls, the quality of Bellinger’s contact was the second-best of his career, behind only 2019, and there was little to no overproduction or “good luck.”
  • On hard-hit balls, the quality of Bellinger’s contact was better than only his previous two down seasons, and there was considerable overproduction, which is likely where the hustle doubles and poor opposing defense comes in.

If that’s intentional, there’s some value to it in a post-shift world. But if the hard-hit overproduction doesn’t persist – and it never had like this, in any previous season – it’s a lot to rely on those softer-contact balls to keep finding holes.

4. What about the hard fastballs? 

As the 2023 season went on, it became clear that while Bellinger was crushing offspeed pitches (.437 BA / .648 SLG) and breaking balls (.287 BA / .590 SLG), the production against fastballs wasn’t quite as good, and teams began to adjust accordingly.

Put it this way:

  • Against pitches 95+ mph
    Minus-8 batter run value, 204th of 218 batters (tied again with Verdugo)
  • Against pitches 94 mph and under:
    +26 batter run value, 16th of 486 batters

Bellinger absolutely smashed spin and non-elite velocity, but as teams began to attack differently with more fastballs, Bellinger hit a decent-not-elite .265/.312/.465 (.777) from Aug. 15 to the end of the season.

It’s a reversal from 2019, when he was one of the game’s elite fastball hitters. It’s not that he can’t adjust again; he’s proven himself to be capable of all sorts of tinkering and adjustments. It’s just going to be fascinating to see how teams attack him in the first month of 2024.

5. What does this all mean for the future?

Let nothing we’ve said here dissuade you from the truth, which is that the 2023 version of Bellinger, however you may choose to view him, was massively better than the 2021-22 version that made the Dodgers not even want to guarantee him a roster spot.

Ultimately, it’s hard to look at the underlying metrics and think that he can continue slugging .500+ for years to come, without some changes to exchange some weak contact for more power (and, likely, less contact). But he may not need to, either. Statcast’s underlying metrics said his 2023 was similar to his 2018, when he hit 25 homers with a 110 OPS+. Baseball Prospectus’s version, with a very different methodology, came out with a similar answer of 112, where 100 is average.

None of that is the 133 OPS+ he just put up. It may not need to be, though. Bellinger is still two years away from turning 30, and if he’s “only” 10-to-15 percent better than average as a hitter, with a good two-strike approach, with the ability to play above-average defense at both center field and first base, in a relatively unimpressive market for free agent position players, he’s going to rightfully strike it big – if not quite as big as a player with a more consistent track record and underlying metrics might have.