Monday, April 15, 2024

Why the Cubs should believe in Cody Bellinger’s resurgence as former MVP inks three-year deal, per report

It took Cody Bellinger, one of the top free agents of the 2023-24 class, longer than anticipated to find his home for the upcoming season and beyond. However, he now has that certainty, as he recently inked a pact with the incumbent Chicago Cubs that will pay him $80 million over the next three years, per Jeff Passan

Bellinger will has opt-outs after each of the first two years of his new deal, according to Passan. As with such, Bellinger will receive $30 million this season, $30 million in 2025 (if he doesn’t opt out) and a final sum of $20 million in 2026 (if he doesn’t opt out after Year 2). 

That Bellinger was able to return to Chicago speaks to the strength of his 2023 renaissance with the Cubs. If a former MVP finds himself non-tendered at the age of 27 by the team that first drafted him – Bellinger and the Dodgers, for example – then the assumption is that his days as a productive regular are over. That, however, turned out not to be the case. This past season in Chicago, Bellinger in 130 games slashed .307/.356/.525 (133 OPS+) with 26 home runs and 20 stolen bases. That plus his strong glovework in center and at first base gave Bellinger a WAR of 4.4 for the year. Only in that MVP campaign of 2019 has he put up a higher figure. 

In the absence of any other considerations, we could attribute this to improved health – and no doubt that played a role. Most notably, Bellinger suffered a shoulder dislocation during the 2020 postseason, and then came a leg fracture early in the 2021 season. That’s not an exhaustive list, but those are the injuries that probably compromised his production and perhaps even his swing. While getting clear of those major injuries no doubt played a role in Bellinger’s comeback season, the real driver may have been a fairly drastic change in his approach at the plate. This is what makes the Cubs’ long-term commitment to Bellinger a fascinating – and sensible – calculated risk. 

In broad terms, Bellinger tweaked his swing and this past season traded quality of contact for more frequent contact. Consider: 

  • Last season, Bellinger posted the lowest average exit velocity off the bat of his career (87.9 mph versus an MLB-average figure of 88.4 mph). He also put up the worst hard-hit rate and barrel rate of his career, both of which were below the league-average marks. 
  • On the other hand, Bellinger posted the lowest K% and whiff rate of his career. Bellinger’s K% last season was in the 87th percentile among big-league hitters, and his whiff rate was in the 77th percentile. Accordingly, Bellinger also notched career bests in contact rate both in the zone and on pitches outside the strike zone. 

In the contemporary era, that’s not a trade hitters are typically willing to make. That’s in part because the extra-base hit is the best possible outcome for a hitter, so they have incentive to swing with full force and elevate the ball in the name of racking up those power numbers. While Bellinger still put up good power stats, the significant dip in batted-ball authority is notable. The other consideration is that offensive platforms built upon batting average are prone to random variation – or blind luck, if you prefer. 

Typically, such luck, good or bad, is found in a hitter’s batting average on balls in play, or BABIP (What’s this?). In Bellinger’s case, last season he put up a BABIP of .319, which is set against his pre-2023 career BABIP of .277. That’s a notable spike and an indicator that some regression might be forthcoming. That said, hitters exert a bit more control over BABIP than pitchers do, and Bellinger’s swing and approach changes may have made him a bit more “BABIP-inclined,” if you will. 

Along similar lines, let’s note that Bellinger batted .303 on ground balls this past season. That’s compared to a .254 average on grounders across the remainder of his career from 2017 through 2022. Then again, a hitter who bats lefty, has good sprint speed, and was heavily shifted in prior years is positioned to benefit from the banning of the infield shift. So it may be with Bellinger.

As well, the contact-first approach may have helped Bellinger close a hole in his swing. During his down period of 2020-22, Bellinger on pitches in the upper third of the strike zone batted a measly .089/.226/.194 with an Expected Weighted On-Base Average – or xwOBA (What’s this?) – of .226 and struck out more than 40% of the time. Last season, however, Bellinger drastically improved his slash line on upper-third pitches to .279/.341/.365 with an xwOBA of .290, and on such pitches he more than halved his strikeout percentage to 20.3. That’s a potential plus moving forward regardless of whether his BABIP and overall batting average slip a bit. 

Speaking of slipping a bit, Bellinger in 2023 outplayed his xwOBA of .327 by quite a margin. However, even if he regresses to such a figure in 2024, he’ll still be an above-average hitter. That, in turn, would make him still a darn a good player, and that’s because Bellinger does the other things very well. 

In addition to being a plus runner on the bases, Bellinger is an excellent fielder at the up-the-middle position of center field. When it comes to Outs Above Average (OAA), Bellinger ranked in the 82nd percentile last season, and he’s been a plus fly-catcher in center according to OAA in each of the last five seasons and one of the top defensive center fielders of all during his time in the league. He’s also been a defensive asset at first base in recent years, but obviously his value is maximized when manning the premium position of center field. Given that he’s still just 28 years of age, Bellinger figures to retain those running and catching skills for some time. That foundation gives him an “overall value” floor that will make any negative correction at the plate easier to stomach. 

So, yes, even if Bellinger’s 2023 bounce back at the plate proves to be somewhat illusory, he’ll still help the cause for years to come. And if he’s onto something sustainable by emphasizing contact in such a way? If that’s indeed the case, then Bellinger will continue performing at a star level in 2024 and beyond. 

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