He was a pretty good player to start with, but a year ago Los Angeles Dodgers wunderkind Cody Bellinger leveled up and became one of the game's truly elite players. He authored a .305/.406/.629 batting line that, when adjusted for ballpark, was 69 percent better than league average. Very nice. Bellinger also smacked 47 homers and won a Gold Glove. The end result was 9.1 WAR.
Throughout his three-year career Bellinger has consistently combined better-than-average exit velocity and hard-hit rates with an ideal launch angle. In 2018, his worst season, he still ranked in the 71st percentile in exit velocity, and his launch angle has sat in the 16-18 degree range all three years.. Bellinger makes excellent contact. He's earned his results.
Making loud contact and making consistent contact are two different things, however. Bellinger set a new single-postseason record with 29 strikeouts three years ago, including 17 strikeouts in the seven-game 2017 World Series alone. As a rookie he struck out 146 times in 548 plate appearances. That 26.6 percent strikeout was not truly awful, but it was high, and an obvious weakness.
Bellinger lowered his strikeout rate to 23.9 percent as a second-year player in 2018 and, last season, he cut it all the way down to 16.4 percent. He went from 146 strikeouts in 548 plate appearances in 2017 to 108 strikeouts in 661 plate appearances in 2019. During that time the league average strikeout rate rose from 21.6 percent to 23.0 percent. Bellinger has bucked the trend.
How significant is Bellinger's improved strikeout rate? One-hundred-and-twenty-one players batted at least 400 times in 2017 and 2019, and none of the other 120 are within even two full percentage points of Bellinger's improvement.
|2017 strikeout rate||2019 strikeout rate||Improvement|
Bellinger's strikeout rate improvement comes at least somewhat from experience. He's been in the league a few years now, so he's more familiar with the pitchers and how teams are attacking him, and also the grind of a major-league season. As a rookie, that's all new information. Bellinger is now at the point where he knows what to expect, or at least has some idea of what to expect.
There is another, more tangible explanation for Bellinger's improved strikeout rate. Following a disappointing (but still quite good) 2018 season, Bellinger worked with Robert Van Scoyoc, then the Dodgers new hitting coach, and assistant hitting coach Brant Brown to simplify his swing and approach. He'd fallen out of sync at the plate that summer and it was time to get back to the basics.
If Van Scoyoc's name sounds familiar, it's because he helped J.D. Martinez revamp his swing and become a superstar during his days as an independent hitting instructor. He worked with many other players over the years, including Dodgers utility man Chris Taylor and top prospect Gavin Lux. ESPN's Alden Gonzalez had more on Bellinger's work with Van Scoyoc and Brown last March:
They uncovered video of Bellinger's plate appearances from the 2016 Arizona Fall League and throughout the 2017 season, then split-screened it with those from 2018 and analyzed the differences. They found that Bellinger was no longer applying enough pressure to the ground. He was standing too tall and straight-legged, making it difficult for him to halt momentum once his swing began. He also wasn't efficient enough getting into his swing path. "Too elbowy," as Brown put it.
Van Scoyoc and Brown wanted to eliminate wasted movement and make everything about Bellinger's approach feel more natural. They implemented more of a hand movement to help his swing flow more easily through the hitting zone, mimicking the motion Bellinger would make while throwing a baseball. They brought his mechanics closer to what they looked like in 2017, when Bellinger displayed good plate coverage, but also accounted for the muscle he added thereafter.
Last spring Bellinger told Gonzalez he was "in a really good position to where I can be comfortable with my own swing." It was not the typical spring training lip service. Bellinger went on to have an MVP season.
Reading words about a player's swing changes is one thing. Seeing them in action is another. Here is 2018 Bellinger (on the left) vs. 2019 Bellinger (on the right). The pitches are essentially identical -- they're both 92 mph fastballs right down the middle from right-handed pitchers -- but the swings are not.
Some differences are obvious. In 2018, Bellinger has the bat pointed upward whereas in 2019 his hands were in a more natural position and the bat was level with the ground. Also, Bellinger's follow through is much more aggressive in 2019. He finishes way more open, with his left knee practically pointing at first base. That was not the case in 2018.
Other differences are more subtle. In 2018, Bellinger loaded up his swing and turned his back to the pitcher, and hung there for a brief moment. His swing was almost two parts. He'd coil, wait a fraction of a second, then explode forward. Bellinger loaded his swing the same way in 2019, except there was no hesitation. The coil and swing forward were one smooth continuous motion.
To put it more simply, Bellinger's swing in 2018 was a bit more herky jerky. There's almost some stop and start to it. That is no way to hit and Bellinger made adjustments to correct it. His swing was much more fluid in 2019. Gonzalez says Van Scoyoc and Brown wanted Bellinger's swing to "flow more easily through the hitting zone," and you can see it in the side-by-side GIFs.
Truth be told, strikeout rate may be the wrong way to evaluate Bellinger's improvement. Contact rate tells a better story. Bellinger's overall contact rate has gone from 69.7 percent to 72.5 percent to 77.9 percent in his three seasons (the MLB average is 76.1 percent). His contact rate on pitches in the strike zone has gone from 77.9 percent to 78.6 percent to 83.7 percent. The average is 84.7 percent.
Similar to strikeout rate, Bellinger's overall contact rate is by far the most improved among those 121 players with at least 400 plate appearances in 2017 and 2019. The gap between No. 1 and No. 2 in contact rate improvement is nearly double the gap between No. 1 and No. 2 in strikeout rate improvement.
|2017 contact rate||2019 contact rate||Improvement|
Strikeouts are obviously bad. No one disputes that. Not striking out is not automatically a good thing, however. Last year Andrelton Simmons had the lowest strikeout rate in baseball at 8.7 percent. He hit a comfortably below average .264/.309/.364. Joe Panik had the third-lowest strikeout rate (9.6 percent) and authored a .244/.314/.336 line. With contact, quality matters as much as quantity.
Bellinger always generated quality contact. He's posted high-end exit velocities throughout his MLB career. Few players hit the ball as hard as consistently as he does. Up until last season though, the contact quantity was not where Bellinger or the Dodgers would have liked. He swung and missed and struck out a bunch, and it limited his offensive production, even though he was still very good. Just not as good as he could've been.
Thanks to last offseason's swing changes, Bellinger has married contact quality with contact quantity. He's able to get the bat on the ball more often, and with his natural thump, that equals big production. MVP-caliber production. Baseball is a game of adjustments and teams will undoubtedly find and attack a different hole in Bellinger's swing this year, and it'll be up to him to adjust back. For now, he's found the sweet spot between power and contact, similar to teammate and fellow MVP Mookie Betts.