It’s hard to believe what Cody Bellinger is doing for the Los Angeles Dodgers this far into the season. His projections over a 162-game campaign are the sort of silly numbers you expect with a small sample size klaxon in early April.
It is now June, and Bellinger is ‘on pace’ for a season that is unfathomable. Mookie Betts had an all-time great 2018, Mike Trout continues to perform at a level putting him alongside Willie Mays and Barry Bonds, but neither have done what Bellinger is threatening to do. The Dodgers lefty slugger is in Babe Ruth, greatest season in MLB history, territory.
Suggesting this is what anyone expected from Bellinger is ludicrous. No sane person can ‘expect’ a player, however highly regarded, to do this. Ranking as Baseball America’s seventh best prospect pre-2017 before posting a 1.077 OPS in 19 AAA games and hitting 39 homers on his way to National League Rookie of the Year, though, there was no ceiling. Bellinger showed his power, tweaked his game slightly in 2018, and he’s a great athlete, capable of providing very good defence at first base or in all three outfield slots.
All The Good StuffTM is happening in 2019. Bellinger’s strikeout rate has plummeted from 23.9% in 2018 to a measly 13.1% this year. To give that some context, Jose Altuve’s strikeout rate was 12.7% in his 2017 MVP campaign.
Bellinger walked in 10.9% of his 2018 at bats, which is a fairly solid rate for a hitter of his ilk. Bellinger’s teammate Justin Turner walked 10.9% of the time in his own monstrous 2017, when he posted a .400 wOBA. This year, Bellinger’s walk rate is up to 14.3%.
Pair this transformation in approach and plate discipline with Bellinger’s natural power and it takes you to something near to what we’re seeing.
His batting average is actually lower than his expected BA. His slugging (.745) is only marginally higher than his xSLG (.735). Bellinger’s 1.208 OPS isn’t a fluke (it’s hard to fluke 245 plate appearances), this is the result of some huge improvements; he’s recognising pitches, working counts and absolutely crushing the ball.
He leads MLB in batting average and it’s not even close. Only reigning MVP Christian Yelich has hit more homers. Only Yelich joins in slugging over .700. Bellinger is doing all of this while walking more than he strikes out and playing above average outfield defence.
Amid the gaudy offensive numbers, Bellinger’s defence can almost be forgotten. From a first base prospect who could cover the outfield if needed, he’s become near-elite. Only six players in MLB have posted more outs above average than Bellinger, his four puts him ahead of Harrison Bader, Delino DeShields and Victor Robles.
Bellinger has 5.4 bWAR at the start of June. He’s on pace for 16.4 bWAR, which would be the best season since Walter Johnson posted the same number in 1913. At this rate, Bellinger will easily surpass Ruth’s 1923 campaign, the year Ruth finished with a 1.309 OPS and walked 170 times.
Matching Ruth is a long way off, and it’s ridiculous to suggest it’s a realistic possibility. The fact that it’s even creeping into the discourse around Bellinger this far into the season, though, is remarkable.
At some point, and I’m not sure when that is, this stops being just a hot start. The changes in strikeout and walk rate are here to stay, and that gives quite a foundation to build from for a player with Bellinger’s pop and athleticism.
He’s the best player in baseball right now. Overtaking Trout remains a long way off, but it’s time we start considering Bellinger as the best non-Trout player in Major League Baseball.
It might only be June, but it would already be a shock if Bellinger didn’t win MVP this year. And that alone is incredible.