The Los Angeles Dodgers made headlines Friday evening when they chose not to tender a 2023 contract to outfielder/first baseman Cody Bellinger, a move that would’ve been considered outright insane three years ago when a then-24 year old coasted past Christian Yelich on his way to winning the National League Most Valuable Player award.
Since that season, Bellinger’s offensive production has mystifyingly cratered, so much so that his parent club decided to cut ties completely without receiving any compensation in return. How could this possibly happen to a guy who was stenciled in as one of the future faces of baseball? And should the Orioles pursue Bellinger in hopes of cashing the ultimate lottery ticket?
Cody Bellinger is an intriguing option for the Baltimore Orioles considering his past production, but there are an abundance of red flags present.
In his MVP season, Cody Bellinger posted a 161 wRC+, meaning he was sixty-one percent more productive than the average major league hitter. In 2022, Bellinger’s wRC+ was 82, barely over half of that mark and significantly below average. Other prolific hitters have experienced a sharp decline in recent years, Yelich himself being an example, though he at least maintained a baseline that while not commensurate with his new contract, was above MLB average. Bellinger’s bat has completely eroded.
wOBA is a stat that examines the average impact of specific outcomes like singles, doubles, and so on, by accumulating in-game data, assigning a run value to them, and scaling itself to On Base Percentage (meaning an above average OBP = an above average wOBA). For example, in 2022 a home run produced 2.04 runs on average, and the average player’s wOBA was .310. Cody Bellinger’s wOBA in 2023 was .284. Unfortunately for Bellinger, this seems much more likely a loss of skill than a historically freaky case of bad luck.
Source: Baseball Savant
As you can see when examining Bellinger’s career StatCast percentile rankings, the quality of his batted balls has almost completely deteriorated. His average exit velocity has dropped from 91.1 MPH in 2019 to 89.4 MPH last year. The percentage of balls he hit harder than 95 MPH was seven percent less than in his MVP season. Bellinger is hitting under the ball more frequently, causing his launch angle to push the limits of the 15-20 degree zone that hitters like to live in.
Not to sound like Steve Kornacki, but the sudden red-to-blue shift is simply astounding. Bellinger has gone from being one of the handful of MLB’s elite hitters to statistically one of the worst in a snap. In 2019 Bellinger hit the ball harder, was expected to get on base more, and produced more offensively than just about anybody. In 2022, over 90 percent of qualified hitters were more productive.
As if the decline in batted ball quality wasn’t enough of a blow, Bellinger’s advanced plate discipline has crashed, too. From 2017-19, he paired a 22% K-rate with a 12.4% walk rate, both above average marks. The last three seasons? A 25% strikeout rate and just a 8.7% walk rate.
Despite his offensive struggles, Cody Bellinger is still a tremendous defensive player.
There is one facet of Bellinger’s game that is still reminiscent of his 2019 self: his defense. He accumulated 7 Outs Above Average as a center fielder last season which ranked 14th among all qualified outfielders and 38th of all qualified players regardless of position. The bat may be gone, but the speed and athleticism still shine bright.
At just 27 years old, Cody Bellinger could theoretically rebound offensively to become a player more resembling his old, MVP self. Unfortunately, a peak under the hood shows a myriad of red flags that make achieving that incredibly difficult. Bellinger could be worth a lottery ticket if the price dips far below the $18 million he was expected to receive in salary arbitration, but expect his market to be active with teams who missed out on Brandon Nimmo and/or lost a potential option when Joc Pederson returned to the Giants.
Cody Bellinger may be a worthwhile risk to some teams, but the Baltimore Orioles would be best served by steering clear.