Four reasons why Dodgers' Cody Bellinger could be MLB's first .400 hitter since Ted Williams
We haven't seen anyone hit .400 since Ted Williams in 1941
Cody Bellinger of the Dodgers has been the best player in baseball in 2019 and it's not really even close. He has the potential to do a lot of special things this season if he maintains a pace even close to this. We'll focus on an old-school throwback here in a second, but let's go through the breadth of his greatness so far.
Bellinger has 4.6 WAR on baseball-reference.com. No other player has more than 3.3 and no other position player has more than 3.1 (not surprisingly, that's Mike Trout). Keep in mind this is through 46 games. All of last season, only 23 position players had at least 4.6 WAR. That's where Bellinger is right now! Amazing.
Bellinger leads the majors with 42 runs, 46 hits, 44 RBI, a .405 batting average, a .485 on-base percentage and a .791 slugging percentage. He also leads in total bases. His OPS+ is 238 (also leading the majors), roughly meaning he's been 138 percent better than a league average hitter. He's also second in home runs, fifth in the NL in steals, 10th in the NL in walks, second in extra-base hits and first in times on base.
It's just absurd how good he's been.
Let's circle back to batting average, though.
Yes, the much-maligned (in some circles), batting average.. It matters. And it would be really cool to see someone hit .400.
As most know, no player has hit .400 when qualifying for the batting title since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941. It goes without saying that most of us have never seen it, so obviously it would be a huge story.
Bellinger sits at .405, so he'll have to maintain a pace that seems pretty unsustainable moving forward. Still, let's look at four factors that might help his case.
1. Strikeout rate
Bellinger is only striking out in 14.4 percent of his plate appearances. Only 29 out of 170 qualified hitters strike out at a lower rate. It doesn't take an intellectual to realize that the more a player puts the ball in play, the better chance he has of getting a hit.
"Pretty good zone so far," an anonymous scout told me. "He has learned to eliminate pitches and stayed true to what he wants to do."
2. He hits it hard
When Bellinger does put it in play, which, again, is often, he gets his money's worth. Per baseballsavant, Bellinger sits at the 95th percentile in the league both in average exit velocity (92.9) and hard-hit percentage (52.2).
Bellinger has a 32.8 percent line drive percentage, too, which ranks second to Freddie Freeman (who is only 0.1 percent in the lead).
Are we getting the picture here? Again, this isn't rocket science. Bellinger puts the ball in play, hits it hard and often on a line. That adds up to lots of hits and a great batting average.
3. He's really fast, especially getting to first
Now, some might point to Bellinger's .405 average on balls in play (looking for outlier BABIPs is a lazy way to scream "regression" these days) and claim it's unsustainable. It might be. Maybe it is, but there's a possibility he can do this all year. If he keeps hitting it as hard as he's been hitting it, mostly either on a line or in the air, he'll continue to rack up hits. When he does hit it on the ground, though, he's a threat to beat it out.
If you ever get the chance to watch the Dodgers in person, watch Bellinger get to first base on a grounder. During the last two postseasons, it caught my eye and it caused me to start studying his times to first. Baseballsavant shows Bellinger is on the 95th percentile in sprint speed, but he's also left-handed and naturally comes out of his swing on his way to first on grounders.
I found myself thinking he has to be among the fastest to first base on a grounder and it turns out, I was kind of right. In fact, he is the fastest in all of baseball. Mallex Smith is third at 4.01 seconds on average. Billy Hamilton is second at 3.93. Bellinger averages 3.88 seconds from the box to first base (baseballsavant.com).
Add this up and it's easy to see why Bellinger could continue to run a high average.
Don't discount the human element to this game. Players have to be confident to the point of cockiness just to get to the majors, even if it's only internal and we never see it outwardly. When a player is going as well as Bellinger is right now, it only grows and they feed off of it. I've heard multiple players in the midst of career years say things like "I don't feel like I'm really locked in yet" or "I still think I can do a few things better." They never look at a stat line and go "whoa, damn, I'm not this good." They always think they are better and strive to improve.
With baseball being such a mentally tough game to play, a player going as well as Bellinger is gaining the mental edge he needs to convert this from a special several weeks into a special season and then maybe a special career.
"Could he make a run?" the scout asked hypothetically. "Yes. Not sure anyone could hold the focus that long as there is more pressure from media and it will get into his head. Only natural to think about it the more people talk about it."
Bellinger is 6-foot-4, nearly all muscle and can fly. He's not striking out much. He's hitting nearly everything hard, with over 70 percent of balls contacted being on a line or in the air. He's only 23 years old and in magnificent shape.
The odds are still against Bellinger or anyone else hitting .400 in this day and age -- as the scout noted -- but if we were to design the perfect player to make a run, it would be Bellinger's profile, both physically and with his batted ball data to this point.
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