It’s never a good thing to eschew all manner of context and evaluate a player’s ability based solely on what you see in his box score, particularly when we’re talking about Cody Bellinger. Though he’s tallied just 2.1 fWAR over the last three seasons — two of which saw him play in 95 or fewer games — Bellinger was the 2019 MVP on the strength of a 7.7 fWAR performance bettered by only seven NL batters over the previous decade. For what it’s worth, no one in the Senior Circuit has matched that mark over the past two seasons.
Then came the injuries, the most obvious of which was a dislocated right shoulder suffered in the 2020 NLCS that eventually required surgery. While Bellinger became something of a punchline when it was revealed that he’d popped the joint during a home run celebration with Kiké Hernández, the truth is that he’d experienced multiple previous dislocations. That’s why he was willing and able to have it popped back in place so he could keep playing through the World Series.
At the risk of cheering the notion of playing hurt, severely hurt, you can’t deny the dude is a gamer who was clearly prioritizing the present over the future. That may have helped the Dodgers win a barely-legitimate title, but it also contributed to a precipitous drop in Bellinger’s performance. In addition to rehabbing his shoulder, he missed most of April and May due to a hairline fracture left fibula and also sat for a chunk of June. His strength was gone, his walks were down, his strikeouts were up, and the only luck he found was bad as he crawled to a 47 wRC+ with an anemic .165 average.
His numbers bounced back a little last season as he belted 19 homers, but his walk and strikeout trends continued to diverge and he just wasn’t a fearsome presence at the plate. Through it all, however, he displayed the kind of elite defense and baserunning skills that can make up for suppressed offense when you play a premium position. In signing him to a $17.5 million guaranteed, the Cubs believe being further removed from his health and confidence issues in LA will turn Bellinger into more of a multi-dimensional contributor.
There’s been a little healthy skepticism as to whether the Cubs can “fix” Bellinger if one of the smartest organizations in the game couldn’t. But what if it’s more about letting Bellinger fix himself, both literally and figuratively? Maybe a rebound is as simple as not just being healthy, but truly believing he’s healthy.
The human body is a compensation machine and anyone who’s tried to come back from or play through an injury, particularly one that required surgery, knows how difficult it can be to break bad habits and recreate good ones. So much of that is mental, being able to fully commit to cutting it loose. It’s easy to imagine how a left-handed batter might have some trepidation when his front shoulder bears the brunt of force from the follow-through of his swing.
And how about a long-legged speedster who’s dealing with a broken fibula? Oh, that same leg driving his swing. Put it all on top of trying to live up to the hype of winning Rookie of the Year and MVP honors for a crown jewel franchise that enters each season with World Series expectations and you can see how Bellinger might have fallen into a funk.
Signing with the Cubs gives him a chance to shed some of those expectations while also offering a fresh perspective. As Sahadev Sharma and Patrick Mooney reported for The Athletic, the Cubs are trying to keep things as simple as possible in order to let Bellinger take control of his offseason program. The team has provided input, of course, mainly pointing out small tweaks to get Bellinger back to where he was a few years ago.
Hitting and pitching mechanics can be almost glacial in their changes, kind of like observing either the growth or decline of a small town. You may not see a difference if you live there because you’re experiencing everything in real time. Now that I think about it, Bellinger’s batting might best be related to a frog in a pot of boiling water since neither he nor the Dodgers really noticed or corrected anything until it was too late.
The Cubs have the advantage of being both new and familiar, as hitting coaches Dustin Kelly and Johnny Washington both spent time with the Dodgers before coming to Chicago. They had a very good look at what Bellinger was and can work to get him back there without the same internal and external pressure that might have been present in LA.
“Me and DK got something good going on,” Bellinger told The Athletic. “Everyone interprets hitting in their own way. I’m able to speak my language and what I’m feeling and what I want to do. He’s interpreting it really well. We just got good chemistry, and I knew that going into the process, how good he is. To get ahead of the game in January is very important.”
I’m not going to get super bold and predict a return to 35+ homers or anything, but I don’t think getting to 25 or more is out of the question at all. Between that and a solid glove in center, Bellinger could easily top 2.5 fWAR as a middle-of-the-order hitter. If that doesn’t sound like much, consider that only Nico Hoerner (4.0), Ian Happ (3.5), and Willson Contreras (3.3) were responsible for more wins above replacement last season.
As for whether that means the Cubs will be a surprise postseason contender or just the beneficiary of a bigger haul at the trade deadline, well, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.