Coming off a sophomore slump, Cody Bellinger spent his offseason refining his swing. Now he's a frontrunner for NL MVP, and has developed into one of baseball's best hitters.
Working with new hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc, Bellinger leads the majors in batting average and offensive wins above replacement (WAR), and is among the league leaders in several other categories. A low strikeout rate and high slugging percentage are among the factors fueling his numbers.
However, two key metrics can help explain his improvement -- launch angle and exit velocity.
Launch angle is the vertical angle with which the ball leaves the bat. Many players strive to increase their launch angle to add backspin on the ball and produce home runs. Bellinger, however, is bucking the trend by reducing his launch angle while increasing exit velocity.
Bellinger's average launch angle has decreased year over year from 16.5 degrees to 15.6 degrees, producing fewer pop flys and more line drives to gaps and fly balls over fences. Meanwhile, Bellinger's exit velocity has increased from 89.3 mph in 2018 to 92.1 mph this year, which is in the league's 93rd percentile.
The combination puts him in an optimal statistical zone that historically has provided the most hits for batters.
Where Bellinger is batting
The past two seasons, 26% of his hits were within that optimal combination. This season, that’s been true for about 32% of his hits.
The Milwaukee Brewers’ Christian Yelich, the reigning NL MVP, is batting .342 despite sending batted balls into the 5- to 30-degree range only 18% of the time. Yelich has more than doubled his average launch angle from 4.7 to 11.7 and has one of the highest average exit velocities in baseball at 93.7 mph.
The Angels’ Mike Trout is having another productive season, leading the American League in metrics such as WAR (5.0), on-base percentage (.462), and slugging percentage (.651). But he hasn't cracked the top 10 in batting average, and his lack of consistent launch angle could be a reason.
Another of baseball’s best hitters, the Colorado Rockies’ Nolan Arenado, has one of the lowest strikeout rates at 12.7%. But he's not creating the optimum combination of launch angle and exit velocity as often as Bellinger.
Bellinger's batting better than his competition.
Bellinger is a lot more constant in batting the ball into the prime area. Other top batters in the league aren’t in that zone compared to him.
Cody Bellinger 37%
Launch angle →
Exit velocity →
Nolan Arenado 25%
Mike Trout 18%
Christian Yelich 18%
Sources: baseballsavant.com, baseball-reference.com
Credits: Photos by Gene J. Puskar/AP, Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP, and Eric Espada/Getty Images. Photo Illustration by Rahul Mukherjee.