Four seasons ago Cody Bellinger reached the height of personal accolades as one of the best young players in Major League Baseball. He amassed multiple awards — National League MVP, Silver Slugger, Gold Glove — to validate his all-around performance for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Injuries and inconsistency prevented Bellinger from recapturing that level of excellence — or even being a league-average hitter — the last two years. The Dodgers non-tendered him in November at age 27, initially a difficult moment.
Bellinger’s one-year deal with the Chicago Cubs, including a mutual option for 2024, presents a new path forward.
“I don’t have any hard feelings. I get it,” Bellinger said Tuesday on a Zoom call with reporters. “I took it as a new opportunity or just another page, you know? So I’m excited that I get to be able to do this at Wrigley Field in a Cubs jersey and understand how special it is to play for both organizations.”
Bellinger dislocated his right shoulder during the 2020 NL Championship Series and missed nearly two months early in the 2021 season because of a hairline fracture in his left fibula. He believes his injuries were involved in his regression because they altered his body from moving how it typically did.
Bellinger’s focus is more on the future and preparing for 2023 than dissecting the impact of his injuries.
“At the end of it all, I’m going to look back and be appreciative that it happened and be able to learn from it,” Bellinger said. “I think it’s going to be better for the longevity of my career.”
The Cubs wouldn’t have signed Bellinger if they didn’t believe they could help get him back on track. That requires trust from both sides. There already has been open dialogue between Bellinger and the Cubs hitting staff, ensuring they’re on the same page for how to approach the situation and their respective visions.
Familiarity is important too. Bellinger has been close with Cubs assistant hitting coach Johnny Washington since his work in the Dodgers minor-league system coincided with the early years of Bellinger’s professional career.
Bellinger echoed right-hander Jameson Taillon’s comments from Monday, appreciating how the Cubs showed a lot of interest in him from the onset of free agency and remained in steady contact. Bellinger and his agent, Scott Boras, sought a one-year deal, opting for a prove-it season rather than accepting a multiyear contract elsewhere.
Bellinger also gives manager David Ross versatility. He is confident in center field or at first base, where he played through high school and his minor-league career, which presents options in how to optimize the lineup.
“Where I’m at right now and how I feel mentally, physically, I’m in a pretty good spot,” Bellinger said. “It just makes me excited to start working out with the staff and talking through things, whatever we need to talk through, to get going.
“It’s definitely a big year. I feel really good and I’m excited for it.”
For this partnership to reach its full potential, the left-handed hitting Bellinger must make some swing adjustments from where he has been the last two seasons. He posted a .193/.256/.355 slash line and 64 OPS+ in 900 plate appearances in that span.
Bellinger didn’t want to delve too much into what he is working on with his swing mechanics, but he explained he got away from what he wants to do with the lower half of his body.
“Getting stronger in those aspects of my body and translating that into the cage and just let my body move how it should again,” he said.
MLB’s rule change for defensive shifts should help Bellinger. In 2022, teams implemented a shift with three players on the right side of the infield for 90.5% of his 550 plate appearances. Only 16 players, all also left-handed hitters, faced a higher rate of shifted defenses; the MLB average for lefties was 55%.
Bellinger recorded a .283 weighted on-base average (wOBA) versus the shift and a .302 wOBA in his 52 non-shifted plate appearances.
“That’s definitely exciting,” Bellinger said. “I talked to a few guys that were in the minor leagues, and they talked about the pitch clock and the shift and everyone says it takes a little bit to get used to, but overall everyone is a big fan of it.
“I don’t know exactly how the infields are going to look now. I know that’s probably what we’ll knock out in spring training, getting used to it, but it’s definitely exciting as a left-handed hitter.”