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Can a change of scenery fix new Chicago Cubs center fielder Cody Bellinger?
Winner of the National League MVP Award in 2019, Bellinger has been on a downward spiral at the plate ever since. It led to him being released by the Los Angeles Dodgers in December and eventually signed by the Cubs on a 1-year, $17.5 million deal.
“I’m working my butt off to become the best player I possibly can become,” Bellinger said recently. “The best version of myself.”
The reviews have been mixed this spring. With Opening Day less than a week away, Bellinger is hitting .219 with a pair of home runs in spring training. Fixing things won’t happen overnight.
“I get to start fresh,” Cubs hitting coach Dustin Kelly said of working with Bellinger. “And he’s starting from a healthy base.”
Injuries have been a big issue for Bellinger since that MVP season. First was the infamous shoulder dislocation, reinjured while celebrating a Game 7 home run in the 2020 World Series.
Then came a hairline fracture in his left foot early in 2021. Later that season, he also had a hamstring strain. Last year, he had 550 plate appearances, but he still produced just a .654 OPS.
“I’m as healthy as I’ve been at any time recently,” Bellinger said. “I’m in a good place.”
He said similar last spring, while in Dodgers camp, thinking that would be a springboard to a rebound year. It never happened.
When he hit .305 with 47 home runs in 2019, 49% percent of balls Bellinger put in play were tracked with an exit velocity of 95-plus mph, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Since then, that number has dropped to 38%.
The decline on balls hit 105-plus mph has been even steeper — from 47% to 30%. And since that MVP season, Bellinger’s strikeout rate has gone from 16.3% to 27.3%.
It has all added up to the worst three-year stretch ever for a past MVP — at least in terms of batting average. Bellinger hit just .203 from 2020 to ’22.
But there are reasons for optimism in Cubs camp. It helps that he has a previous relationship with Kelly and Cubs assistant hitting coach Johnny Washington. Both worked in the Dodgers organization while Bellinger was there.
“It began well before spring training,” Kelly said. “It started with conversations, then, ‘Let’s start putting the words to what it looks like in person.’ We’ve slowly introduced new things. We had time on our side. We knew this was going to be a long run.”
And that’s why Bellinger might be a perfect fit for the 2023 Cubs. They’re a year away from handing the center field job to top prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong, and though they signed some good players this offseason — most notably, All-Star shortstop Dansby Swanson — the team isn’t in all-in mode just yet.
Bellinger will get every chance to return to MVP form at Wrigley Field.
“I’m not sure any true contender was willing to give him 600 plate appearances unless they were assured the old Bellinger was back,” one rival general manager said this spring. “The Cubs can do that.”
Kelly has called the work so far a lot of “trial and error.” One American League scout said Bellinger’s timing has been off this spring. while another said he was watching to see if Bellinger was working with a “strength foundation in his legs.”
“A lot of stuff that he does is with his lower half and how gets set up with his hips,” Kelly said. “We used the medicine ball and some positions that are swing-related to strengthen his core.”
Kelly was asked what might look different to the naked eye.
“The biggest thing you’ll see is he’s really calm,” the Cubs’ first-year hitting coach said. “He’s moving to the ball in a calm manner. His head is really still. Not necessarily worried about the perfect swing.”
So the work is being put in and the adjustments will follow. Can the Cubs unlock what the Dodgers saw disappear over the past three seasons? No one on his new team is making proclamations about Bellinger in late March.
“I’m a look-forward-type guy,” manager Davis Ross said. “You know the talent is in there, [so] what he can bring every single day? He’s identified what he wants to work on. … I think he’s in a really good place.”
A new voice in the dugout and the hitting cage should help, but talk alone won’t bring the old Bellinger back. Asked what will, Bellinger kept it short and sweet — though the answer is undoubtedly much more complex.
“Long story short,” Bellinger said, “being comfortable with who I am, and understanding what made me good and getting back to it.”