Bellinger Non-tendered By Dodgers, Now A Free Agent
By: JOSEPH SIMILE / SPORTS CO-EDITOR
In the 2019 season, a 23-year-old Cody Bellinger hit 47 home runs, hit .305, and slugged .629, resulting in him becoming the second youngest NL MVP winner in Major League history. He had a down year in the COVID-shortened 2020 season, postinga 112 OPS+.
He injured his shoulder in that year’s playoffs, and has yet to be the same player again. In an injury-riddled 2021, Bellinger posted a measly 44 OPS+ and a -1.0 fWAR. He had a better year in 2022, but still struggled, with an 83 OPS+ and a 1.7 fWAR.
On Friday, November 18, a now 27-year-old Bellinger was non-tendered by the Dodgers, making him a free agent. The Dodgers did this in order to avoid arbitration, where Bellinger was in line to make at least $18 million. It is unprecedented to non-tender an MVP, especially one that young.
Bellinger is in a unique position, as it’s not common for an MVP to be released during his arbitration years, especially in his 20’s. Bellinger will be considered a risk among teams, but perhaps one worth taking. The Blue Jays are known to be coveting a left handed hitting outfielder, and are reportedly interested.
Bellinger’s agent Scott Boras claims they have already received multiple multi-year deals, but maintains that they would be more interested in a one year contract, in hopes that Bellinger bounces back to All Star form and is able to secure a longer, more lucrative deal after.
Even if his bat never returns to full form, Bellinger can still offer some value to teams. Statcast statistics and Defensive Runs Saved indicate Bellinger has been a great defender in center field, one of baseball’s premium positions. He also possesses speed on the basepaths, and swiped 14 bags in his 2022 campaign.
Boras has attributed Bellinger’s struggles to a lack of strength in his shoulder, which he injured during the 2020 playoffs celebrating with a teammate. After getting surgery to repair the dislocated shoulder, Bellinger’s mechanics and power numbers have struggled greatly.
Bellinger’s approach at the plate has also been different since the injury; he is swinging at a much higher rate, per FanGraphs. Bellinger’s strikeout rate has also risen colossally, going from striking out 16% in his MVP year to 27% in his 2022 campaign. His walk rate has also been slashed in half, going from 14% his MVP season to 6.9% in 2022. Pitchers are aware of these dips, and have been attacking Bellinger much more aggressively. Pitchers threw first pitch strikes 60.2% of the time to Bellinger in 2022, and 42.7% of pitches to Bellinger were in the strike zone.
Bellinger was able to show better discipline in 2022 which could be an indicator of a better approach to the plate for Bellinger. However, he will need to vastly improve his on base percent and power numbers in order to improve his value. He has been a liability at the plate for the Dodgers over the last two seasons, but his talent is undeniable.
Bellinger was great for the Dodgers in the 2021 playoffs after a miserable season, posting a 146 Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+, which scales how effective a player is at generating runs, where 100 is always average) in the Dodgers' run to the NLCS. This could be promising for teams that are looking to bet on Bellinger, as he showed up in the biggest moments.
It is still possible the Dodgers re-sign Bellinger on a smaller contract. The Dodgers are in need of outfield depth, and Bellinger is familiar with the organization and is beloved by the fanbase. Whether or not Bellinger would be interested in returning is another question. Many believe a change of scenery would be good for Bellinger, and perhaps getting instruction from another organization’s hitting coach could do well for him.
Bellinger is still a major league caliber player, even if he isn’t his old MVP self. As previously stated, he is a fantastic defender at a premium position. He won a gold glove in the outfield in 2019. He posted 1.7 WAR in 2022 in 144 games. A league-average starter is usually worth about 2.0 WAR, which Bellinger is not far off of. His defense is incredibly valuable, and the bulk of where his WAR comes from. If Bellinger can bring himself to even be a league average hitter, his WAR would be well above 2.0, and his value at centerfield could be immense.
Bellinger isn’t the only MVP to struggle after winning the award. He isn’t the only Dodger, either. Kirk Gibson followed up his legendary 1988 MVP win with a season that saw him post a below average OPS+, only hitting .213 with nine home runs (he hit .290 with 25 home runs in his MVP campaign).
Roy Campanella had two awful seasons after two separate MVP seasons, both due to hand injuries. Campanella had a four-year stretch of OPS+ (where 100 is league average) of 154, 74, 152, and 88, respectively. This four year stretch is about as yo-yo-ish as any four year stretch of any MVP’s career.
Don Baylor’s lone All-Star season was also an MVP finish, but he followed that up with what had been the worst season of his career, with a then career-low slugging % of .341. He had been playing with a broken wrist unbeknownst to him, and he returned too quickly, and struggles ensued. Even the great Cal Ripken Jr. had a dud of a season following an MVP year. After his second MVP in 1991, he began to experience more aches and pains than normal, compounded with ongoing contract negotiations and father time showing his wear and tear on Ripken’s body, he went from a .323 hitter with 34 home runs to a measly .251 batting average with a .366 slug, and only 14 home runs.
All of the above players would go on to have better seasons (except for Campanella’s 1956, as he retired the year after at 35). There is precedent for Bellinger to have a bounceback after struggling with injuries, as Gibson, Campanella, Baylor and Ripken all struggled with injuries during their followup year to their MVP awards.
Cody Bellinger’s career is far from over, at only 27 years old, he still has a lot left in the tank. He’s got some time to fix his swing and potentially put together a great second half to his career. Whether he ends up as only an average starter or returns to All Star form is yet to be seen.