L.A. Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger seems to have found his groove again, his struggles last season long gone.
Hitting across baseball has entered into an ice age. Batting averages have never been lower. There have never been fewer hits per game than there’s been so far in 2022. Runs per game are on pace to be the lowest since the strike-shortened 1981 season.
In Los Angeles, though, there’s a former MVP who didn’t get the message that pitching is supposed to be dominant in today’s game. Fifteen games into his season, Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger has more resembled the 2019 version of himself that was the best hitter in the National League and went home with the game’s highest individual honor, than the player who struggled on a massive scale in 2021.
The genesis of Bellinger’s apparent downfall came, ironically, on a home run. In Game 7 of the NLCS in 2020, Bellinger’s solo homer with two outs in the seventh helped the Dodgers move past the Atlanta Braves on their way to the franchise’s first World Series title since 1988. But as he crossed home plate on that game-winning blast, he celebrated with teammate Kiké Hernandez by leaping in the air and locking arms. Bellinger’s right shoulder popped out of its socket, and while he recovered in time to play in the World Series, health issues would plague him for the next year.
Last April 5, just five games into the 2021 season, Bellinger was attempting to run out an infield single against the Oakland Athletics when pitcher Reymin Guduan spiked him in the left leg. He missed nearly two months with a hairline fracture, not returning to the lineup until May 29. But the sweet stroke never returned.
It was a miserable season for Bellinger. He looked uncomfortable at the plate, constantly tinkering with his mechanics. Fastballs that he would normally crush were getting past him. He was unplayable against left-handed pitchers, hitting .116 with only two extra-base hits, one home run, and an OPS of .383, and was relegated to a platoon role by September. He finished the year batting .165, the worst average for a Dodgers hitter with at least 350 plate appearances since the Dead Ball Era.
Cody Bellinger has been a different hitter so far in 2022
Fast forward to the start of 2022, and those struggles seem to be a distant memory. Bellinger appears back to his old self, a constant threat in the middle of the formidable Dodgers lineup. He’s batting .273 with four home runs and eight RBI. On Sunday in San Diego, Bellinger hit two home runs to center field in a 10-2 win for the division-leading Dodgers over the rival Padres. It was his seventh multi-hit game already this season; he had just eight in 95 games last season.
“I’m feeling good. Like I always say, every day is a grind. It’s a really hard game,” he told Sportsnet LA’s Kirsten Watson on the field following the game. “I’m just going out there and competing and just trying to get the job done.”
Bellinger has made rapid improvement over his forgettable 2021 season. He hit .173 off four-seam fastballs last year, second-worst among players with at least 150 plate appearances. He’s batting .241 on fastballs so far this year; in his MVP 2019 season, he hit .321, so there is still room to grow. His barrel percentage has more than doubled, from 7.1 a year ago to 14.3 this season. Even against left-handers, Bellinger is no longer a liability at the plate. He’s hitting .308 off lefties, including a 405-foot shot off Padres starter Sean Manaea on Sunday.
Success came early to Bellinger in his career. He was Rookie of the Year at 22, hitting 39 home runs in 2017. He was NL MVP two years later. He won a world championship the next year. Prolonged struggle was unheard of for someone who was so good, so young.
Then came the injuries and the hopelessness at the plate. The Bellinger who stood tall at the plate, unleashing a mighty uppercut swing on the rest of the NL, was long gone and perhaps never coming back.
He’s not the same hitter he was in 2019 and likely never will be again; there just aren’t many .300 hitters capable of 47 home runs in today’s game. But if he continues to be the hitter he’s been so far in 2022, if he can put two balls into the center-field grass at Petco Park in an important division game, if not even left-handers can get him out, then the Dodgers are as dangerous as they’ve ever been.