Three years ago, everything was coming up Cody Bellinger’s way. The NL Rookie of the Year in 2017, he broke out in a big way in ’19, smashing 47 home runs with an OPS over 1.000 and edging out Christian Yelich for his first (and only) MVP hardware. Bellinger had even taken to playing excellent defense in center field, not something typically on the curriculum vitae for a young first baseman. Entering his age-24 season, everyone expected that he’d be a star for the next decade or so and a building block for the Dodgers as players like Corey Seager were approaching free agency.
The ZiPS projection system, known for being the grumpy devil’s advocate as most such systems are, didn’t see any particular reason for concern, either. If you wanted Los Angeles to sign Bellinger to a lucrative contract extension, guaranteeing he wore Dodger blue for a long time, you had a loyal friend in ZiPS:
ZiPS Projection – Cody Bellinger (Pre-2020)
Now, if this were a comedy movie, this is the point in the trailer at which you hear the record scratch, the narrator describes the humorous change of fortune, and then the music changes to an upbeat pop hit song with clips of how Bellinger gets back everything he lost and learns about the incredible power of friendship. But it’s not. Since that NL MVP season, he has hit .200/.271/.380 in over 1,000 plate appearances, only finishing above replacement level by virtue of the fact that he at least still remembers how to play defense. This is less Pixar and more Darren Aronofsky.
For a while, some underlying explanations gave hope. In 2020, the bullish explanation was that Bellinger had over-tinkered with his swing. In ’21, blame was placed on a shoulder injury from the previous postseason, one which required surgery and left him with a lot of physical weakness in his arm. After a course of weight training, Bellinger felt that his shoulder was back to where it was last August. We’re now a calendar year from when he said that, and he’s hit .195/.249/.368 since.
ZiPS is now even more negative on Bellinger than his seasonal line. As painfully mediocre as his 80 wRC+ is, the z-stats that ZiPS uses agree with Statcast’s x-stats in that they think he’s actually overperforming his hit data. Statcast gives him an xSLG of .360, 40 points below his actual figure, and ZiPS is even more bearish, pegging his zSLG at .351. As such, his long-term projection now looks very bleak, with little mitigation outside the defense:
ZiPS Projection – Cody Bellinger
Bellinger’s offensive decline is among the largest for a young star in baseball history. To see who had a comparable dropoff at the plate, if anyone, I took every player from 1901 to 2019 who had a 150 wRC+ in at least 400 PA in a year in which they were 25 or younger, then compared their next three seasons. Two players were eliminated from the dataset as they did not play in the next three seasons — the only time Wally Judnich gets to be in the same sentence as Ted Williams. That left 215 total player-seasons and 130 unique players:
Next Three Years, Players 25-and-Under, wRC+ of at Least 150
Bellinger’s dropoff was the largest of the group, and he was the only player among the 130 who dipped below a wRC+ of 100 over the next three seasons. By and large, these players continued to be stars; the average career WAR for that group is 61.1, and that’s with more than a dozen other players still active. Even not counting mortal Hall of Fame locks like Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, and Adrián Beltré, there are 46 players in this group in Cooperstown. Beltré may represent the best-case scenario for Bellinger, as someone who was still a solid player despite the offensive drop-off from his breakout year, making up for an ordinary bat with Hall of Fame defense, before eventually finding his personal renaissance in his 30s.
It’s understandable that the Dodgers, a team that has repaired all sorts of seemingly broken players, have been stymied so far by the collapse of Bellinger’s offense. After all, there’s a reasonable case to make that, among young superstar hitters, the magnitude of his fall has been unprecedented. It may be someone else’s problem soon, with the Dodgers not even allowed to offer him less than $13.4 million for the 2023 season, suggesting that he’s a prime candidate to be non-tendered this offseason. Next time a young star signs a long-term contract that trades a reasonable amount of money in order to mitigate risk, remember the tale of Cody Bellinger, who has seen his dream become more of a requiem for one.