Inside the Dodgers: How Cody Bellinger ceased to be a .400 hitter

first_imgEditor’s note: This is the Monday, June 10 edition of the Inside the Dodgers newsletter. To receive the newsletter in your in-box. Sign up here.By the end of April, handsome people were comparing Cody Bellinger to a freakish combination of peak Barry Bonds, peak Babe Ruth and peak Ichiro. Bellinger had earned it. He was that good then, and he was still batting .400 as recently as May 21.As always happens, baseball players don’t hit .400 for entire seasons. In Bellinger’s case, his batting average has plummeted 49 percentage points (to .355), and his on-base plus slugging percentage by 129 (to 1.142), in the 16 games he’s played since May 21. It’s plausible to suggest that a .355 batting average and 1.142 OPS reflect Bellinger’s true talent level. In other words, his stats were due to regress at some point this season. Now is that point.Regression can happen for a variety of reasons. Though I could be wrong, I don’t believe Bellinger is injured. His right shoulder became separated in the midst of his hot streak and, after a day off, he picked up swinging close to where he left off. We know Bellinger is being pitched differently. I wanted to use this newsletter to examine how, and how the new approach is affecting him. To attack Bellinger differently, pitchers didn’t settle on a singular plan. They’ve chosen several smaller plans of attack, with varying success. For right-handers, that means not being afraid to pitch Bellinger backwards. Using May 22 (the day Bellinger’s average fell below .400 for good) as our before/after date, here’s what that looks like (data via Brooks Baseball):Hard pitches, ahead in count          Before: 47%      After: 58%Hard pitches, behind in count          Before: 59%       After: 54%Breaking pitches, ahead in count     Before: 22%      After: 24%Breaking pitches, behind in count    Before: 14%       After: 24% Newsroom GuidelinesNews TipsContact UsReport an Errorcenter_img There’s an obvious if not terribly dramatic change there. Perhaps the single biggest shift in the kinds of pitches Bellinger is getting from right-handers is this (data via Statcast):Sinkers/sliders, all counts        Before: 9.1%    After: 34.2%4-seam fastballs, all counts    Before: 37.2%    After: 29.2%2-seam fastballs, all counts      Before: 9.4%     After: 8.4%Bellinger was hitting .412 and slugging .725 against right-handed fastballs on May 21. Sinkers and sliders tend to have the same action, diving down and in toward a left-handed hitter. If anything, one wonders what took right-handed pitchers so long to stop throwing Bellinger so many fastballs and take a more backwards approach. It’s working, predictably, and now Bellinger must adjust his expectations against righties.What about left-handers?Hard pitches, ahead in count          Before: 63%      After: 56%Hard pitches, behind in count         Before: 72%      After: 60%Breaking balls, ahead in count        Before: 35%     After: 36%Breaking balls, behind in count       Before: 18%      After: 29%Hard pitches, two strikes                 Before: 62%     After: 42%Breaking balls, two strikes              Before: 31%      After: 46%In short: left-handers are throwing Bellinger more breaking balls – especially when they’re behind in the count and with two strikes. I included the change in 2-strike approach in the table above because it’s changed so dramatically. (Right-handers haven’t changed their 2-strike approach to Bellinger since May 21, at least not in such broad pitch selection terms).Left-handers are generally showing Bellinger more sinkers and sliders too (about 5 percent more) and fewer fastballs (about 4 percent less). But the biggest difference in how lefties are pitching Bellinger occurs when the count gets to two strikes. Here’s the funny part about that: Bellinger’s actually adapted well to the change. His expected weighted on-base average in two-strike counts against lefties rose from .254 to .380 after May 21, while his actual wOBA has been steady (.282 compared to .284). So what’s going on?Anecdotally, I feel like Bellinger hit balls into a shift for outs at a much higher rate recently. Indeed, Statcast tells us that defenses began deploying a fourth outfielder (defined as four fielders stationed 220 feet from home plate) after May 21. Bellinger has only one hit in these situations. Teams have always shifted their infielders (three to the right side) against Bellinger. My hunch is that teams are simply shifting him better now, especially with two strikes. Statcast doesn’t let us measure defensive alignment with enough sophistication to conclude that definitively, so for now the anecdotal evidence will have to stand. I’ll try to bounce it off the Dodgers’ coaches this week.Bellinger’s plate discipline hasn’t wavered much during his slump. His walk-to-strikeout ratio has improved somewhat since May 21 against lefties (0.9 to 1.3), and fallen slightly against righties (1.1 to 0.9). Bellinger’s regression seems to be more a function of three things: 1, how he’s being pitched; 2, what he does with those pitches when he puts them in play; 3, how defenses are positioning him.Perhaps those are things that Bellinger can adapt to. Dave Roberts usually frames a hitter’s success or failure in terms of swinging at pitches in the strike zone and laying off pitches outside the zone, but Bellinger’s still-healthy walk rate suggests that might not be the case here. In any event, the onus is on him to adjust to how he’s being pitched, and for us to remember just how hard it is to maintain the frenetic pace Bellinger kept until just a couple weeks ago.-J.P.Editor’s note: Thanks for reading the Monday, June 10 edition of the Inside the Dodgers newsletter. To receive the newsletter in your in-box. Sign up here.Today’s links‘Get it out of the ocean’ – Max Muncy plopped a Madison Bumgarner mistake in San Francisco Bay, and the Dodgers beat the Giants 1-0.Responsible capitalism – There’s a T-shirt for everything, including Muncy’s famous postgame quip.A touch of drama – Bellinger is still on pace for double-digit WAR, but so is Christian Yelich.Speaking of pitching backwards – In a fastball-heavy bullpen, Joe Kelly is finding success with his secondary pitches.Another one in the books – The Dodgers reportedly signed their third-round draft pick, Ryan Pepiot.G.O.A.T. of arms – Behind the success of the Dodgers’ starting pitchers lies a collaborative camaraderie: “We have the freedom to be as creative as we want.”Papi progressing – David Ortiz was cleared to travel less than one day after he was shot in the back in the Dominican Republic. last_img

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