The 2019 season -- presently the last full, 162-game MLB campaign played to completion -- brought us a compelling race for National League MVP honors. In the end, Dodgers outfielder/first baseman Cody Bellinger edged out Brewers fly-catcher Christian Yelich by a margin of 362 ballot points to 317.
Bellinger, just 23 at the time, hit 47 home runs that season and also led the NL in total bases while maintaining an OBP north of .400. That's in addition to winning, deservedly, a Gold Glove for his outfield work. Meantime, Yelich, the reigning NL MVP that year, had a strikingly similar season in 2019. He led the majors in OPS while also cracking 44 homers in 130 games and stealing 30 bases in 32 attempts. Yelich was 27 and appeared to be in the heart of his prime.
Both players took significant steps back in 2020, but that was dismissed easily enough because of the small sample of games -- it was a 60-game regular season -- played amid a global pandemic. Surely the 2021 season would occasion a return to vintage results for both stars.
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Well, we're within hailing distance of the final month of the regular season, and neither Yelich nor Bellinger has come close to replicating the excellence of 2019. Yelich right now has a slash line of .248/.372/.385 with just eight home runs in 83 games, while Bellinger is batting .172/.254/.331 with nine home runs in 67 games. Both the Brewers and Dodgers are bound headlong for the playoffs despite those struggles, but getting both players back to their prior levels would greatly aid the cause of winning it all.
All of this merits a closer look at the source of each player's struggles and the likelihood of near-term improvement.
In the case of Yelich, he's once again not elevating the ball, and that exacts a toll on his power outputs.
When it comes to hitting for power, the ideal launch angle, or the angle at which a batted ball leaves the bat, is somewhere between 15 and 20 degrees, generally speaking. Much higher than that, and you're probably popping the ball up. Much lower, and the ball will be on the ground. With that in mind, have a look at Yelich's average launch angle over the last five seasons:
|Season||Average launch angle|
Only once, in his MVP runner-up season of 2019, did Yelich achieve that ideal launch angle for power, and not coincidentally in that same season he posted the highest fly-ball percentage and lowest ground-ball percentage of his career. His launch angle dropped back the career-norm range in 2020, but he was still able to hit for power. Yelich is probably just a hitter who puts the ball on the ground quite often. The difference is that in 2021 he hasn't been able to make the most of the fly balls he does hit.
The 2021 season has been a throwback to Yelich's Marlins days in an unfortunate way. That is, he's just not driving fly balls out of the park with the same frequency that he did in the prior three seasons across a sample of almost 1,500 plate appearances. In 2017, Yelich's final season in Miami, he homered on a rather ordinary 15.3 percent of his fly balls. In 2018, that figure shot up to 35.0 percent, and it was 32.8 percent in 2019 and 32.4 percent in 2020 -- elite figures, all. This season, however, it's back down to 15.4 percent, and therein lies pretty much all of Yelich's missing production.
Let's note that he still hits the ball hard -- Yelich ranks in the 74th percentile in terms of average exit velocity and in the 89th percentile in hard-hit rate -- and he has elite plate discipline. The balls aren't leaving the park, though. Yelich's lingering and perhaps chronic back and knee issues no doubt have something to do with that.
Yelich has overall been a productive player this season, albeit well shy of his 2018-19 levels. He right now looks like a useful lineup regular but not the kind of player you sign through 2028, which is what the Brewers did. For that player to come back, improved health may be necessary.
To find signs of hope, we're forced to lean upon a tiny sliver of recent performance. On Sunday, Yelich homered twice against the Nationals, which ended a drought that had seen him go deep only once in a span of 36 games. It was his first multi-homer game in more than two years. He also has six hits over his last three games. By no means is such a minuscule stretch being propped up to suggest Yelich has found his level, but rather it's to say: let's see what happens over the next week or three.
Things are different with Bellinger for a couple of reasons. Unlike Yelich, he's been genuinely awful this season as opposed to merely shy of his former standards. As well, Bellinger's shortfalls are almost certainly because of underlying injury whereas Yelich's are possibly (to probably) about that.
As for Bellinger, his 2021 season has been a lost one in almost every regard. You saw the grim slash line above. Now consider:
- Bellinger ranks in the 44th percentile in average exit velocity this season.
- He ranks in the 20th percentile in hard-hit rate.
- He ranks in second percentile in expected batting average.
- He ranks in the 18th percentile in expected slugging percentage.
It's one thing to have bad surface-level numbers as a consequence of poor luck, but Bellinger's poor quality of contact indicators suggest he's very much earned his struggles. On top of all that, he ranks in the 22nd percentile in chase rate, or swings on pitches outside the zone, which is a career-worst mark and tells the story of a hitter pressing at the plate.
This is a player who, in years prior, hit the ball with impressive authority -- even in 2020. During his MVP season of 2019, Bellinger's quality of contact numbers were at the top of the scale, yes, but that wasn't wildly out of step with his pre-2021 numbers in other seasons. What's wildly out of step is how he's hit the ball this season.
Obviously, Bellinger at age 26 isn't experiencing any kind of natural decline at the plate, and no sort of imperceptible swing flaw could lead to this level of cratering. What's almost certainly going on is a lingering injury. Bellinger missed more than a month-and-a-half earlier this season with a fractured left tibia, and then later a hamstring injury in that same leg landed him on the IL. That hamstring issue hasn't entirely gone away.
What also hasn't gone away are the aftereffects of the shoulder procedure he underwent following the 2020 postseason, when Bellinger dislocated his right shoulder. Not long ago, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts blamed Bellinger's uncharacteristic struggles on his healing shoulder:
"It's been a difficult time for him trying to perform at this level and still trying to get that front shoulder strength when you're recovering from a surgery.
When your front shoulder at the plate isn't as strong as it needs to be and you've also dealt with lower half issues, you're going to struggle at the plate -- even if you're a former MVP who's still quite young. There's just no way to know whether Bellinger will sufficiently heal in time to be a factor down the stretch and in the postseason. Hopes were raised when Bellinger homered four times in as many games earlier in August, but since that point he's 5 for 42 with no homers. If there's any consolation for a team like the Dodgers, it's that they have the roster depth to go in another direction should Bellinger, now Roberts' No. 8 hitter, continue to dig to new depths at the plate.
Given what we've seen thus far, maybe it's 2022 before Bellinger gets back to being the hitter we know he is.