What Cody Bellinger Has Worked On, What Makes Him So Intriguing, and What You Want to See
As the first Spring Training game draws near (tomorrow!), it is becoming increasingly clear, at a gut level, that the guy I’m most interested to see out there is Cody Bellinger.
Whether he is the most impactful change – on paper – the Cubs made to the roster this offseason is almost beside the point. He’s not. But his *POTENTIAL* impact is right up there with anyone the Cubs added, including Dansby Swanson and Jameson Taillon, each of whom got more substantial contracts. It’s just that the likelihood he reaches that extreme potential again is probably pretty small. Still, because it exists, and because he’s on the first new team of his career, I just can’t wait to watch it play out.
It’s unsurprising, then, that other folks see the same interesting storyline. Bellinger has already been pegged once as the guy to watch on the Cubs, and he gets a similar label at ESPN – the “most intriguing” player on the Cubs this year:
Chicago Cubs: Cody Bellinger
I have no idea. The Cubs have no idea. They are, however, willing to spend $17.5 million to find out if a change of scenery will help the former MVP rediscover his swing. Certainly, his progression from MVP to struggling hitter while still in his young prime years is unprecedented. Bellinger has hit .193/.256/.355 the past two seasons, although he was a little better in 2022 than the year before. One key area, aside from the mechanical tweaks he has been working on: His chase rate since 2019 (his MVP year) has gone from 23.8% to 27.9% to 30.7% to 31.7%. Swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone will be step one. Step two: Better contact in the zone.
Fun fact: Bellinger will at least help in center field, where the Cubs were last in the majors in defensive runs saved in 2022 and 27th overall over the past three seasons. But if the Cubs just wanted defense, they could have traded for Michael Taylor.
Because of the highly-publicized dinger yesterday, which had his teammates excited, there is a renewed focus on how/whether Bellinger can bounce back with the Cubs. Over at Cubs.com, you can read about how the Cubs have tried to help Bellinger get back to where he was before the many injury issues popped up. It’s less about trying to rework his swing or improve his mechanics or anything like that, and instead is just about helping him get more “athletic” in the box, and follow his lead on where he wants to go with his swing. It doesn’t sound like there’s a lot of change happening.
We might notice a difference or two this year when comparing his setup and swing to last year, but I imagine success or failure is mostly going to be attributed to whether Bellinger can be in a good place physically (in terms of health and body conditioning) to make the swing work. It’s easy to forget that he’s always had a long swing that, on the one hand helped generate so much of his power, but on the other hand reduced his margin for error if there was any physical degradation. Him simply getting back to feeling fully physically comfortable could go a long way to getting the performance back on track.
Over at The Athletic, Sahadev Sharma offers up an additional consideration on how and why things went so wrong for Bellinger with the Dodgers, and why there could be a little optimism right now:
But even as he worked his way back to being healthy, every movement he made was analyzed. When one potential solution didn’t provide a satisfactory result, another was presented. On and on it went, with little time to really work through it all — he hadn’t had a fully healthy offseason until this past winter. Because the Dodgers were constantly in contention and the pressure was always on, it was as if he was trying to make changes on the fly and didn’t have time to take a breath.
While Bellinger has shown in the past that he can handle the spotlight, there was constant pressure to get right on offense. Problems can snowball when a player isn’t physically right and that can lead to the player overthinking the situation. Add in the information overload and it can be a struggle.
Having a finally fully healthy offseason to work, in a new organization, and having more runway to do it – the pressure of the always-competitive Dodgers is an interesting angle to the last two years – could help Bellinger get more settled, physically and mentally.
Ultimately, some of your signals on Bellinger if things are improving with the Cubs (based on where things were at his best, and where they’ve gone): the max exit velocity would bounce back up, the average launch angle would drop a little bit, he would be handling breaking pitches much better, he’ll be swinging outside the strike zone MUCH less, and he’ll make just a little more contact in the strike zone. Even modest bumps in all those areas could go a long way to improving the offensive results.
We’ve talked about the *REALISTIC* best case scenario for Bellinger with the Cubs, and no, it isn’t him getting back to his MVP heights. When guys fall off this dramatically over a multi-year stretch, even at a relatively young age, they tend not to bounce all the way back in their big league career. That isn’t to say it couldn’t happen, but if it did, Bellinger would be held up as one of the most extreme outliers in baseball history. Instead, the realistic best case here is a guy who is solidly above-average overall at the plate – maybe even approaching All-Star level, when you combine the defensive ability – and he and the Cubs would be thrilled for that to come to pass.
All that said, it’s going to take a pretty big step forward for Bellinger to get back to even average at the plate. Here’s hoping that’s possible in a new place, after a solid offseason. Although an average-offensive Bellinger wouldn’t wind up being the most fascinating or intriguing or whatever story on the Cubs this year (God I hope not!), it would definitely help the Cubs win some games.