Welcome to 2023 Fantasy Baseball Trends: Cody Bellinger Busts Out of Two-Year Slump!
After Cody Bellinger won a Rookie of the Year in 2017 and an MVP in 2019, the prevailing thought was that his career was on a fast track to the Hall of Fame. At just 23 years old he put up 47 home runs and 115 RBI. The last three years, however, have been nowhere near what any fantasy baseball player expected. From 2020-2022, Bellinger hit fewer home runs combined than in 2019 (41) and slashed .203/.272/.376 in that time. When he hit free agency in 2022, the Los Angeles Dodgers did not bring him back. Bellinger signed a one-year deal (with a second-year mutual option) with the Chicago Cubs. That's not the standard trajectory for 26-year-old MVP winners.
With the Cubs, Bellinger has been rejuvenated. He is hitting a career-high .321 with 20 home runs, 18 stolen bases, and more than 75 runs and RBI in just 99 games. Was it a simple change of scenery that rejuvenated Bellinger? Is his performance this year for real and predictive of years to come?
Let's get into his profile and see what we can figure out.
2023 Fantasy Baseball Trends: Cody Bellinger Busts Out of Two Year Slump
Bellinger Had the Worst Two Seasons of His Major League Career in '21-'22
It's hard to blame Bellinger for a mediocre-is-a-nice-term performance in the shortened 2020 season. With COVID giving us only 60 games per team, there were extreme outlier performances that year. Bellinger dropped from .305/.406/.629 in 2019 to .239/.333/.455 in 2020. Not horrific, but certainly not what many expected as an encore for the MVP. Horrific would come the next season when Bellinger played 95 games and missed more than 60 with injury. In 2021 he hit .165/.240/.302 including a 27% strikeout rate and just 10 homers.
Despite playing 144 healthy games in 2022, the performance wasn't that much better. He hit .210/.265/.389 that season with 19 home runs and just 68 RBI. The strikeout rate stayed the same at 27.3%, but the walk rate tumbled down to 7.2%. In terms of Fangraphs' wRC+ measurement for batters, Bellinger was 124th out of 130 qualified batters in 2022, just barely ahead of guys like Jorge Mateo and Myles Straw. If we combine 2021-2022, Bellinger was 170th out of 172 batters with at least 800 plate appearances.
He was simply awful. No power. No hard-hit ability. And no desire from his former team to bring him back. The Cubs decided to give him a team-friendly deal, and Bellinger hasn't looked back, leading a surprise Chicago squad to the brink of a Wild Card spot. He will almost assuredly be back next season after this year, so what led to the new surge?
Bellinger is One of the Most Valuable (and Lucky) Hitters in 2023
It is certainly true that Bellinger suffered from some bad luck in 2021-2022. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) those years were .196 in 2021 and .255 in 2022 (league average is about .298). It certainly contributed to the lack of production in 2021-2022 so we can't ignore it's impact on his surge this year. At .333 in 2023, his BABIP is top-20 among all qualified hitters this season. A full year of that number means it is somewhat normalized and he is hitting the ball to the right spots, but he is still getting a bit lucky.
The next place we should look would be his hard-hit rate. We would expect a number like that to improve drastically with such a huge upswing this year. But according to Baseball Savant, his hard-hit rate in 2023 is LOWER than in both 2021 and 2022. At a 30% rate this year, it's actually been among the league's worst. Here are his percentile rankings, according to Baseball Savant.
The one area where Bellinger should be given full credit is in his contact rate. Over the first few seasons of his career, Bellinger was a big swing-and-miss guy. Contact rate was not really a part of his vocabulary. In fact, it wasn't until 2023 that he made significant gains in that area. He had mild success above the Major League average in that area in '19-'20, but he has made significant gains in 2023.
But perhaps even more exciting for Bellinger and his future is his ability to make good contact within the strike zone. Once again, that's always been a hit-or-miss proposition (pun clearly intended), but Bellinger is finally among the elite in that category this season.
Even if his BABIP drops for the rest of this season and in the seasons to come, if Bellinger can keep up this contact rate and batting above-average bat on the ball in the zone, the success should still follow him. In his case, contact and ball placement trumps hard hit rate. If he can ever find a way to combine the two again, like in 2019, the 27-year-old might just have another top-five MVP season in him.
What to Expect From Cody Bellinger the Rest of 2023?
With just a month left in the regular season, it's hard not to call Bellinger one of the steals of 2023 drafts. In spring drafts, Bellinger had an ADP of 182.8 over on NFBC. Basically, that is pure profit considering what he has done up to this point. So if what he is doing this year is based on quite a bit of luck, who cares? You have gotten more out of his performance than you likely could have dreamed. He might have single-handedly won your batting category.
But for as good as his stats have been this year, the best part about Bellinger has been durability. He has not sat out a game since June 25th. he gives us outfield and first base eligibility and is batting cleanup every single day. Given his BABIP and slugging luck he has seen this year, it's certainly within the realm of possibility that Bellinger will fall off a cliff over the last five weeks. But he is the 15th-best fantasy producer over the last seven days and is showing no sign of slowing down at all.
Turner has emerged from the worst slump of his career, and now he might just help lead patient fantasy managers to a title.
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