Cody Bellinger stood on first base at Petco Park after working a walk last week when San Diego Padres first baseman Eric Hosmer asked him a question.
“Were you auto-taking the entire at-bat?” Hosmer wondered.
Bellinger wasn’t trying to walk. It just looked that way. The Dodgers slugger appeared relaxed, even bored, in the batter’s box while he took four balls. But he was ready to pounce on a mistake. Hosmer’s question was a compliment and a positive sign for the Dodgers’ slugger. Calm is when Bellinger is at his most dangerous. That was how he shredded pitching for the season’s first few months as he built his case as a frontrunner for National League MVP and found himself in a back-and-forth home run race with some of the sport’s superstars.
“Keeping it simple,” Bellinger said. “I would say that’s pretty important for me. Just trying to keep it simple and not trying to do too much.”
Now it’s about getting back to that tranquil state consistently in time for the postseason. Bellinger, 24, wasn’t expected to sustain the production he assembled over the season’s first two months. He held a batting average above .400 until late May and was on pace for something like 60 home runs. Both would have been monumental achievements. But Bellinger has been in a relative rut since the middle of July.
Since July 16, the day after he compiled four hits with two home runs in a win over the Philadelphia Phillies, Bellinger has hit 11 home runs with an .892 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 45 games. Almost every player in the majors would gladly take those numbers. They are statistics even Bellinger might have been happy to own before the season started, when he was coming off a disappointing 2018.
But the bewildering potential Bellinger displayed in the first half upended expectations, so his .237 batting average during the stretch is a glaring dip.
“The thing I see is, with Cody coming into this season, his mind-set was to be a really good hitter and be consistent with his approach, his mechanics and his work,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “And for me, when you try to slug, there are pitches and at-bats you miss. Whether you foul them off, you pop them up, you swing and miss. And so I think that getting him back to the mind-set of being a good hitter and appreciating the fact that his swing has built-in loft that he’ll in turn slug.”
Dodgers hitting strategist Brant Brown, one of the people behind Bellinger’s outburst, suggested keeping up with Christian Yelich, Mike Trout, Pete Alonso and others competing for the home run crown could have diverted Bellinger from his approach. Roberts said he suspected the MVP battle “might bleed into it a little bit.”
“I get it all,” Brown said. “You want to be able to be that guy. But at the same time, like we’ve expressed to him, when he wasn’t trying to be that guy, he was that guy. When he’s trying to be that guy, he’s not that guy.”
Opponents also have been steadfast in pitching around Bellinger. His 86 walks were tied for eighth-most in the majors through Wednesday. His 19 intentional walks were first. When pitchers dare to attack, they’re testing Bellinger in different ways, hoping to find and exploit a hole. One strategy has been to jam him inside with fastballs to avoid letting him extend and unload his power.
“It’s a risk-reward for them because if they don’t quite get it there, there can be some damage,” Brown said.
The damage Bellinger inflicts isn’t limited to right-handed pitching anymore. A year ago, the Dodgers decided allowing Bellinger to face left-handed pitchers was costing them so they began platooning him. He finished the season batting .226 with a .681 OPS in 210 plate appearances against left-handers. This year, he’s been baseball’s best left-handed hitter against them. His 17 home runs and 1.017 OPS in 201 plate appearances rank first. His .288 batting average is 16th.
In all, he is batting .308 with 44 home runs, 104 RBIs and a 1.063 OPS while playing plus defense in right field, center field and first base for the National League’s best team. He’s a threat to torment pitchers every day. He remains a leading MVP candidate. And he’s at his best when he’s so relaxed that opponents can’t help but wonder.
“I’ve put myself in a good spot,” Bellinger said, “so hopefully I can ride it out and keep going.”