It's TBD on Whether He's "Back," But I Like Where Cody Bellinger's Season is Headed

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It’s TBD on Whether He’s “Back,” But I Like Where Cody Bellinger’s Season is Headed

Chicago Cubs

Dibs on Cody Bellinger!

This morning, Brett and I were divvying up all the awesome Cubs things to write about after a great team win in Oakland. He gets Patrick Wisdom. I was happy to take Cody Bellinger, who had the first five-hit game of his entire career.

He was even feeling himself so much he tried to steal a base. He was unsuccessful. But he tried! I secretly love what that says about his confidence in the moment.

Anyway, before last night’s game, Cody Bellinger had been hitting just fine. His overall slash line at the time was .245/.317/.453 (104 wRC+), which, with plus defense center field, made him a very valuable player. And, as we had mentioned a bunch, if you generously cut out his first series of the year β€” played in the cold of Wrigley Field against two excellent starters (Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff) β€” the overall production jumped up considerably (148 wRC+).

But a five-hit game in early April means you don’t have to play the generous cutoff game anymore. Cody Bellinger’s full-season (65 PAs) slash line is just fantastic all on its own: .310/.369/.517 (135 wRC+) with a 9.2% walk rate and an astounding 13.8% strikeout rate.

Here’s a look at all five hits, one of which (the double) would have been a homer in a few different ballparks.

And he wasn’t just getting BABIP lucky last night, either. According to Statcast, only one of his singles probably should have been an out:

2nd Inning 1B: 80.8 MPH exit velocity, .810 xBA
4th inning 2B: 102.1 MPH, .660 xBA
5th inning 1B: 79.9 MPH, .020 xBA
7th inning 1B: 91.8 MPH, .950 xBA
8th inning 1B: 105.7 MPH, .740 xBA

So it’s time to dig in a little. Let’s see if Bellinger is earning his overall production with his plate discipline and with the quality of his batted balls.

Plate Discipline (PitchInfo)

Strikeout rate and walk rate are two of the first stats to stabilize in terms of the number of plate appearances you need to see in a sample to be comfortable about the direction. According to FanGraphs, it’s 120 PAs for walk rate (so it’s still early there for Bellinger), but just 60 PAs for strikeout rate. Cody Bellinger has stepped up to the plate 65 times so far this season, and his 13.8% strikeout rate is one of the best in the business. But what about the underlying plate discipline that leads there? Let’s take a look.

This season, Cody Bellinger is swinging at just 28.1% of pitches out of the zone. That’s still higher than his career average (25.4%) but solidly better than his two horrible seasons in 2022 (29.9%) and 2021 (31.6%), and it is almost exactly league average for 2023 (28.2%). He’s also swinging less overall, though, so this probably isn’t the main culprit driving his improved plate discipline.

For that, we look at contact.

This season, Bellinger is making contact with 86.2% of pitches in the strikezone, well above his career mark (79.2%) and WAY above what he posted in 2022 (81.7%) and 2021 (77.8%). It is also slightly better than the league average. That’s all very good.

However, I don’t love seeing that his out-of-zone contact rate is also much higher than usual (that’s usually where bad contact is bred), but the overall contact rate is hard not to enjoy: 84.1% this season, 74.6% for his career.

I think he’ll need to make a few better swing choices (become a little more selective) if we want to see the walk rate stabilize in an above-average range, but a lower-than-expected strikeout rate may be here to stay. Maybe not quite this low, but very low for him.

Contact Quality

Unfortunately, all that contact on pitches out of the zone does seem to be making an impact on the quality of Bellinger’s contact.

So far this season, Bellinger’s average exit velocity (86.9 MPH) and hard-hit rate (34%) are both quite low (league averages: 88.9 MPH, 39%). Fortunately, his 17 degree launch angle is pretty great and helps drag his barrel rate to an exactly league-average 8%.

But make no mistake, Statcast has him as pretty lucky so far.

Batting Average: .310
Expected Batting Average: .262

SLG: .517
Expected SLG: .452

wOBA: .382
Expected wOBA: .341

2023 BABIP: .319
Career BABIP: .278

In fairness, you’d expect a bounce in Bellinger’s BABIP thanks to the new shift limitations – he was often called out as one of the guys who was likely to benefit quite a bit – but not quite 40+ points.

But I also don’t want to get too down on Bellinger. Maybe he hasn’t performed been quite as well as his results suggest, but even the expected stats aren’t terrible. After all, he hasn’t posted a .341 or better wOBA since 2019. And when he posted a .345 wOBA in 2018, he was a 3.4 WAR player. That would still be a HUGE win for the Cubs this season!

And, hey, if we want to play the game, his average exit velocity, hard hit rate, launch angle, and barrel rate are all slightly better since the Brewers series. He also just looks so comfortable at the plate. And there’s nothing that says he needs to be the fully finalized form of himself here on April 18.

Accept the results, be happy the underlying data is trending in the right direction relative to the last three seasons, and hope he continues to improve.

Oh, and while I’m not going to get into the data because the sample is even smaller, I will note that he’s been a lot better against left-handed pitching this season, especially in terms of his strikeout rate, which is another good sign that he’s just comfortable at the plate.

We have a long way to go, and maybe it hasn’t been as good as it seems, but as of today, I like where Cody Bellinger’s season is headed.

Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami