Cody Bellinger once stood on top of the baseball world. When he turned 24, he followed up two strong years with his most dominant yet. His 2019 MVP campaign had some wondering if the dynamic outfielder was just scratching the surface and entering the game’s best player debate.
But his decline was almost as rapid. An abbreviated 2020 in which his numbers dipped wasn’t as much of a red flag as the shoulder injury he suffered during the Dodgers’ World Series run that postseason. As he slowly regained strength in that shoulder, a broken left fibula would sideline him for most of next April and May.
But getting healthy didn’t solve everything. Only two players with at least 300 plate appearances in 2021 had a worse wRC+ than Bellinger’s 47 (100 is league average). Even after nearly doubling that mark in 2022, Bellinger couldn’t break out of the bottom 10 in wRC+ (83) among qualified hitters. It was those struggles that led to the Dodgers not releasing Bellinger in November and the Cubs signing him to a one-year, $17.5 million deal earlier this month.
“You can’t change the past, but you can learn from it,” Bellinger said via video call Tuesday. “Definitely there were injuries. Your body wasn’t moving like it used to. I could go on and on, but looking forward to where I am now, I feel really good, confident and strong.”
.@Cody_Bellinger excited to put his Cubs fingerprints on.
Full press conference: https://t.co/KgxsvaWWc3 pic.twitter.com/B1vXuJnlhK
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) December 20, 2022
Not long ago, signing Bellinger would have been a Cubs fan’s dream. But now he comes to Chicago trying to resurrect his career and finds a soft landing where he’ll get playing time while trying to find his shot and hit free agency again next winter looking to cash in.
Bellinger has a history with assistant hitting coach John Washington, who coached in the Dodgers system after he retired in 2009 through the 2015 season. The two stayed in touch even after Washington moved to the San Diego Padres organization. Washington was eventually promoted to the major leagues from 2017 to 2019 and would see Bellinger’s Dodgers multiple times a year.
That familiarity helped bring Bellinger to Chicago, and he seems excited to work with Washington and lead hitting coach Dustin Kelly, who also had a brief association with Bellinger when Kelly was the Dodgers farm hitting coach.
The work Kelly and Washington will do with Bellinger will be related to the coaching staff as well as strength and conditioning. Bellinger didn’t say if his body was where he was physically during his MVP 2019 season, but said he “feels really good right now” and is focused on training specific to his body type and how he wants to move, not or just trying to get stronger.
“Long story short, there are things that I used to think didn’t work anymore,” Bellinger said when asked if the injuries affected the mechanics of his swing. “My body just moved differently. So I have to work with it. That’s what happens when life happens and you grow up. The body specific training I’ve been doing lately and what I’m doing is translating into the cage and the field in general. Being athletic and letting my abilities take over.”
There have been many theories about what is wrong with Bellinger and how, or even if, he can return to his prime. Regaining strength and stability in the shoulder is important as it increases the posterior range of motion and in turn ensures that it is no longer an issue. But while the shoulder seems to be the focus for many, Bellinger and the Cubs are focusing on his legs.
“Just figured out, the bottom half, what I’ve done, what I’m doing and what I’ve gotten away from a little bit,” Bellinger said. “Getting stronger in those areas of my body. Translating that into the cage and letting my body move the way it should again.”
When injuries happen, it’s very easy to get distracted from mechanics. Trying to compensate for a part of the body that may not fully heal or move the same can lead to changes that the player may not even realize are happening. The Cubs staff is focused on strengthening Bellinger’s core and how his hips move when he loads. He found himself far behind after injuries and timing issues prevented him from being the player he once was.
His swing has always depended on clean time, so these minor, almost imperceptible changes have led to a big drop in production. At one point, Bellinger feasted on fastballs and was crushing off-speed pitches and smashing stuff at best. But after hitting just 16.4 percent in 2019 with a 14.4 percent walk rate and a 45.9 percent slugging percentage, his numbers have dipped. He struck out 27.3 percent last season, walked in just 6.6 percent of his plate appearances and his strikeout rate dropped to 38.1 percent.
The fact that his contact quality and overall numbers are up slightly from 2021 to 2022 could be a sign that health is a big factor in trying to get him right. Can he focus on strengthening certain parts of his body and correcting mechanical deficiencies following injuries to return him to the offensive power he once was?
Bellinger came from an organization known for maximizing the talents of players that other teams had long given up on. From Justin Turner to Chris Taylor to Max Muncy, the list of Dodgers success stories is long. So it might be unfair to expect the Cubs to magically figure out something the Dodgers couldn’t.
But a fresh start can’t hurt. Bellinger has certainly gone through his fair share of physical and mental strain over the past few seasons. If the Cubs can be the benefactors of a fading star that finds its luster again, maybe they can give their fans the kind of winning season they’ve been waiting for over the past few years.
“It’s tough, I’m not going to lie,” Bellinger said. “But at the end of it all, I’m going to look back and be grateful that it happened. I will be able to learn from it, I have learned from it. I think it will be better for the longevity of my career.”
(Photo by Keith Birmingham / MediaNews Group / Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)