Cody Bellinger Has Been As Good As We Could've Hoped

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Cody Bellinger Has Been Even Better Than We Could’ve Realistically Hoped

Chicago Cubs

Although the circumstances of the Cubs adding a 27-year-old Cody Bellinger for $17.5M and the Dodgers adding a 33-year-old Jason Heyward for the league minimum were extremely different, their stories were closely connected this winter. They were, after all, two former star outfielders cut from their respective teams a year early, effectively swapping jerseys in the same offseason. I get it. The story writes itself.

And so far, it’s working out for both of them. Jason Heyward has five hits in his last three games, including two doubles, and already has three homers on the season. Throw in a 14.5% walk rate and you’ve got a pretty good player, albeit in limited duty (126 wRC+, 0.5 WAR over 62 PAs).

Cody Bellinger’s (Re-)Breakout

But with all due love for Heyward and his continued grind, it’s going much better for Cody Bellinger and the Chicago Cubs — and over a larger sample, too (105 PAs).

  • .297/.371/.604; 158 wRC+ (14th in MLB)
  • 7 HRs (t-7th)
  • 1.4 WAR (9th)
  • 22 runs scored (t-6th)

My favorite part? Bellinger has an outstanding .604 SLG (7th) and .308 ISO (t-8th), despite a 16.2% strikeout rate! That’s the 35th lowest strikeout rate in baseball, far better than the league average (23%). If you want to say it, you can: By results only, Cody Bellinger has been one of the top-10 position players in MLB to start the season. It’s true.

And as the season goes on, he’s made better and better swing decisions …

… While staying relatively consistent on his swing rate and contact rate on pitches in the strike zone:

Meanwhile, the power is still on the upswing:

In other words, he’s slugging like the game’s best sluggers and he’s avoiding strikeouts like some of the game’s best contact bats. All while playing plus defense in center field. In terms of pure results so far this year, this looks like the MVP-version of Cody Bellinger from 2019.

At The Athletic, Cubs hitting coach Dustin Kelly, whose time in the Dodgers organization overlapped with Bellinger, explains what they’ve been working on to revive his career:

“Some of what we’ve talked about has been his bat path and creating a little longer plane in the zone and staying behind the ball and on top of the ball,” Kelly said. “That’s helped. There’s a threshold for everybody with how high they can go with that four-seam fastball. He’s done a really good job of setting his sights at the top of where he knows he can get to and not really not chasing up above that.”

Expected Performance

Now, things are a little less rosy under the hood than they look on the surface (.410 wOBA vs .358 xwOBA), but that’s hardly a cause for concern.

Bellinger has probably been “lucky,” sure, but we’re talking about dropping him from his MVP-caliber results to roughly All-Star level. You’ll take that – and the way he has looked at the plate – with a smile. It’s still 90th percentile outcome territory.

Better Than We Could’ve Hoped

In fact, one month into the season, I’d say Bellinger has exceeded any reasonable person’s most optimistic hopes from the offseason. Even if “returning to MVP form” was always theoretically possible, the most likely outcome was just the guy he was from 2020-2022: a below-average bat, with solid defense in center field.

The hope, I’d argue, was that he’d be close to a league-average bat, which would make him a valuable player given his base running and defense. A bridge player with some upside. Fine.

Instead, the Cubs basically have an MVP candidate on their hands right now (at least, in terms of results). I doubt that’s where he’ll stay – if only because I understand in the predictive power of Statcast’s expected statistics over a larger sample – but even that is as good as we could’ve hoped, and trending up.

“There’s been a lot of hard work put in throughout the whole offseason,” Bellinger said via The Athletic. “I’m pretty confident. The body’s feeling good. I’m glad to be in this locker room and have the opportunity to go out and help this team win every day. That’s about all you can ask for.”

Any Chance of a Reunion?

All this lovely stuff said, I think the chances of extending this relationship beyond 2023 is slim-to-none.

When he was seeking out new teams as a free agent this offseason, Bellinger purposefully avoided the multi-year offers he had on the table. Instead, he sought out a true one-year “pillow” contact to restore his value, and re-enter free agency this offseason. That’s exactly what the Cubs gave him. The mutual option you’ve heard about is mostly just a way for the Cubs to defer $5 million until after the season*.

And what do you know … as of today, Bellinger looks like one of the top free agent bats available this offseason. It’s all going exactly to plan.**

If he continues down this track, the Cubs will make him a qualifying offer after the season, which he’ll decline before signing elsewhere, netting the Cubs a draft pick. All things considered, that’d be a huge win for both sides. Now we just have to hope he (1) keeps up this performance and (2) helps push the Cubs into contention this season to really make this signing a home run.

*The Cubs may also owe him an extra $1M if he wins Comeback Player of the Year, an award for which he’s probably the front-runner at the moment. The Cubs will be happy to pay that.

**The Cubs also have Ian Happ and Seiya Suzuki (MLB) locked up, plus Pete Crow-Armstrong (AA), Alexander Canario, Brennen Davis, Chris Morel, and Nelson Velázquez (AAA) all at or near the major leagues, among others.

Author: Michael Cerami

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