Los Angeles Dodgers: The Bellinger boost

May 6, 2017; San Diego, CA, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers left fielder Cody Bellinger (35) follows through during the fifth inning against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
May 6, 2017; San Diego, CA, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers left fielder Cody Bellinger (35) follows through during the fifth inning against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports /

Despite winning four consecutive NL West titles, the Los Angeles Dodgers were underachievers going into 2017. When the new campaign got underway, that label didn’t look like it was going anywhere.

Twenty games into this season, the Los Angeles Dodgers sat at a middling 9-11. They were coming off a loss to open a series against their archrivals, the even-worse Giants, and their offense was so underwhelming that Matt Cain held L.A. to a single run over six and two-thirds on April 24.

Then Cody Bellinger was called up on April 25. It wasn’t surprising to see the 21-year-old in the big leagues—he’d been a highly touted prospect for a long time and had gotten off to a fast start in Triple-A—but Bellinger’s arrival came when injuries to Joc Pederson, Franklin Gutierrez, and Logan Forsythe forced the Dodgers’ hand. Bellinger was expected to be a stopgap, meant to wet his feet for a few days before a senior player stepped back into the lineup.

Yet here we are, seven weeks later, and the first baseman/left fielder has started every game for Dave Roberts’ club save two (he came in off the bench in both of the games he didn’t start). Bellinger debuted as one of the hottest batters in the majors: He hit .345 with two home runs, a triple, a double, and five RBI in his first 29 at-bats. A forearm injury to Adrian Gonzalez soon allowed the rookie to cement his spot on the big-league roster, as he hit another three dingers, including a grand slam, in the first two days after Gonzalez hit the disabled list.

Then, on Tuesday, Bellinger crushed two more home runs against Cleveland, including one off of Andrew Miller. That was following a two-homer day against the Reds the game before. And another home run the day before that.

After a tough two-week stretch that saw his average drop from north of .300 to below .250, it appears that Bellinger has re-discovered his mojo. Since he arrived in Chavez Ravine, the Dodgers have compiled a league-best 31-14 record, and the young slugger has swatted 17 homers—more than anyone in the league, including Aaron Judge. Without Bellinger, L.A. likely wouldn’t find itself in a dogfight with the Colorado Rockies for the NL West summit.

Dodger fans are perhaps beginning to dream. Boasting a deep pitching staff with the best reliever in baseball—and possibly the greatest starter ever—L.A. has long appeared championship-ready, if the team could just sort out its lineup. But after the arrival of Corey Seager in 2015, the Dodgers now potentially find themselves with two game-changing bats in him and Bellinger. Is this a duo the Dodger Stadium faithful can hang their hopes on—to maybe lead the storied franchise to its first World Series in almost 30 years?

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It’s too early to anoint Bellinger with such expectations just yet. Angelenos should know that best after suffering through false dawns in Pederson and Yasiel Puig. In the long run, Bellinger could turn out to stink. But that doesn’t take anything away from what he has achieved to this point in his rookie campaign.

Bellinger doesn’t need to be a Triple Crown candidate or on pace for a 60-homer year to be valuable to the Dodgers. After being stuck in the minors for the opening three weeks of the season, he will likely clear the 20-home run, 50-RBI bar before the All-Star break—and that would make for an encouraging rookie year on its own. Bellinger leads the team with his aforementioned 17 bombs, and he’s tops in RBI, slugging percentage, and OPS as well. His Isolated Power (.361) is actually very close to Judge’s .365 mark, further illustrating the damage he inflicts when he makes contact.

Some advanced metrics also add to Bellinger’s resume, albeit using a sample size of less than two full months. Across 19 plate appearances in “high-leverage” situations, he sports a phenomenal .471 average with 12 RBI, two homers, and just three strikeouts. In his early days as a major leaguer, Bellinger has quite literally been twice the hitter when the Dodgers need him most, as he owns an average under .240 when leverage is considered low or medium (though, again: very small sample size).

Next: Nationals double down

Bellinger does have concerning numbers, too. He strikes out in almost a third of his plate appearances, and he hits lefties at a significantly lower average compared to right-handers (though he doesn’t hold a candle to Pederson’s level of futility). But no matter how you slice it, the rookie has been a godsend for Dave Roberts and company in 2017. A quick five years have passed since the Guggenheim group acquired the Dodgers for $2 billion, bringing in expectations as high as the team’s payroll. A step back this season would have been disastrous after coming within two wins of a pennant last fall. Bellinger has put such fears to rest.

Despite how things may have looked on April 24, L.A. appears to be back on track.