This month, after a frustrating 2018 season, Cody Bellinger was told what every major leaguer wants to hear: He will resume a more everyday role for his team in 2019.
Whether the opposing starting pitcher throws with his right or left arm will not matter. Bellinger will be on Dodgers manager Dave Roberts’ lineup card regardless, supplying his uncommon blend of power, speed, and defensive versatility. Bellinger relishes it. He also knows his performance will dictate whether it stays that way.
“I’m not going to just accept that,” Bellinger said. “I have to go out and perform. It’s not going to be handed to me all season. So I got to go out and just play my game and have fun playing the game like I usually do. Hopefully it takes care of itself.”
Bellinger, 23, played plenty for the Dodgers last season. He appeared in 162 of the team’s 163 regular-season games and led the club with his 632 plate appearances, though injuries to Justin Turner and Corey Seager helped boost that standing. He was a constant cog in center field or at first base, starting against both right-handed and left-handed pitchers.
But Bellinger’s perplexing struggles against left-handers over the season’s first five months forced the club to downsize his role. The Dodgers acquired David Freese at the waiver trade deadline on Aug. 31 to platoon at first base against left-handers. Bellinger then went three weeks without starting against a left-handed pitcher as the team chased down the Colorado Rockies for the National League West crown before the strategy continued into the playoffs. The Dodgers decided their best chance to win the World Series was to avoid Bellinger’s flaw entirely.
Recent evidence had indicated that a free fall was imminent. Bellinger’s splits were negligible in 2017. He batted .271 with 12 home runs and a .903 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 173 plate appearances against left-handers en route to winning the NL rookie-of-the-year award. Last season, the numbers tumbled to a .226 batting average, six home runs, and a .681 OPS in 210 plate appearances.
“I was just getting away from my game plan,” Bellinger said. “What I was doing really, I wasn’t using it to my advantage in ’18. And that was it… I wouldn’t say it was a huge difference, although it seemed like it to a lot of people.”
Roberts explained Bellinger’s mechanics went awry and his at-bat quality dwindled. On the other side, pitchers made adjustments. They threw him balls above the belt to tie him up. Left-handers pounded him away. He flailed at breaking balls out of the strike zone he had avoided as a rookie, when he pounded 39 home runs in 132 games. The troubles snowballed and he never recovered, prompting the team to curtail his role.
“But I think right now and going forward,” Roberts said, “he’s got to be our guy.”
Bellinger worked with new hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc and hitting strategist Brant Brown. He pored over video from 2017 during the offseason, focusing on what went right. Van Scoyoc and Brown distilled the differences from the last two seasons and communicated them to him.
“He’s in a really good place,” Roberts said.
Bellinger is currently projected to make most of his starts in right field, with occasional time in center field and at first base. That, of course, could change if the Dodgers manage to lure Bryce Harper, the 26-year-old star right fielder still roaming the free-agent market.
If the Dodgers don’t pull it off, the versatile Bellinger will patrol relatively unfamiliar territory; he has started only eight games and spent a total of 90 2/3 innings in right field as a professional. He disregarded the lack of experience, citing the exhibition season as an opportunity to become better acclimated with the position and establish chemistry with center fielder A.J. Pollock.
“I’m fine,” Bellinger said.
The indoctrination in right field continued Tuesday and proceeded without a hiccup in his Cactus League debut against the Kansas City Royals after dealing with a tight back over the weekend. Bellinger did not get a chance to experiment against any left-handers, finishing 0 for 2 with a walk against three right-handers.
“It’s important to feel good,” Bellinger said. “You can’t look at the results. Go off feel. I just got to keep doing what I’m doing because I’m feeling all right right now.”