One of my more vivid memories of spring training was standing in the Dodgers’ spring training clubhouse and trying not to stare at a huge guy I didn’t recognize. The Dodgers have a lot of big dudes on their team: Kenley Jansen is huge, Brandon McCarthy is 45 feet tall, and Corey Seager has such long limbs that he has to sort of fold himself up to sit down. But even in that company, this enormous stranger looked like a dad walking into a Little League dugout. Eventually, he found a seat among the rookies in the far corner of the room, underneath a locker with his name on it.
Oh, so that’s what Cody Bellinger looks like.
Three months later, Bellinger’s face is now quite familiar to baseball fans and a frequent cause of anxiety for MLB pitchers, who have surrendered 18 home runs in 47 games to the 21-year-old.
Bellinger, the son of former Yankees utilityman Clay Bellinger, was a fourth-round pick in 2013 out of an Arizona high school, and debuted in rookie ball just before he turned 18. The younger Bellinger hit .210/.340/.358 that year, but since then, he’s performed well in the minors. Repeating rookie ball in 2014, Bellinger hit .312/.352/.474, then socked 30 home runs in high-A the next year, with 29 more to come in 2016 between Double-A, Triple-A, and the Arizona Fall League.
Heading into 2016, Bellinger only made the back half of the Baseball America and ESPN top-100 prospect lists, because teenagers who are already essentially stuck at first base only have so much upside. But last year, Bellinger cut his strikeout rate by a quarter, all while going up a level and spending most of the year facing pitchers who were, on average, four years older than he was. He also spent time in the outfield, offering hope that he could stay there for at least a little while in the majors, and by the start of the 2017 season, Bellinger was on all five major top-100 lists: ESPN, BA, Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs, and MLB.com. BP had him ranked lowest, at 26, while ESPN and BA put him in the top 10.
Bellinger hasn’t changed much since then. He’s got two big things going for him: First, for someone who looks like a weightlifter from the 1920s, he’s a very good athlete. Although he originally came up to spell injured veteran first baseman Adrián González, Bellinger’s played more than twice as many innings in left field this year as he has at first base, and he’s perfect in four stolen-base attempts. Once he does move back to first, that athleticism translates to very good defense at the position. You can’t make a living on your glove alone at first base, but it’s nice to have.
However, his big calling card is his power. He has so much power that it doesn’t really matter what happens with the rest of his game. Writing up Bellinger for the FanGraphs top 100 this past offseason, Eric Longenhagen stuck a future 70 grade on Bellinger’s raw power, describing his swing as “so explosive and cacophonous that it looks like he’s going to corkscrew himself into Earth’s upper crust as he finishes it.”
Certainly, the video evidence bears that out. There are times when Bellinger leans into one, the way you or I might rock back to generate a little extra leverage while lifting a particularly heavy box.
But he’s also so strong he can just flick his wrists at a pitch up and in and muscle it out over the right field fence. Let’s not let Aaron Judge desensitize us to how much power we’re seeing here:
For all intents and purposes, Bellinger’s going to go only as far as his power takes him. His 10.8 percent walk rate is better than about two-thirds of qualified hitters, but he’s still striking out 31.3 percent of the time, which would be the seventh-highest mark in baseball if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. And even though he looks like a good defensive left fielder and first baseman, there’s only so much defensive value in any left fielder or first baseman.
The good news for Bellinger and the Dodgers is that he’s got an absolute ton of power. Right now, Bellinger’s hitting .254/.333/.624. The MLB average slash line is .254/.324/.423. So Bellinger’s about average offensively at everything except hitting for power. The thing is, it’s almost literally impossible not to be a good overall player when you’re slugging .600.
From 1901 to 2016, there were 306 seasons in which a qualified hitter slugged .600 or better, and according to Baseball Reference, the only season in which a player did so and was below-average overall was Dante Bichette’s 1995 campaign, in which one of the worst defensive players in baseball slugged .620 while playing his home games in mid-1990s Coors Field. Every other season graded out at least a win above average overall.
But what if Bellinger’s contact skills slip? Well, his isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) this year is .370. There have been 40 seasons since 1901 in which a qualified hitter posted a .350 ISO or better, and every single one has resulted in at least 2.5 wins above average. In fact, if Bellinger reached 502 plate appearances with the same slash line he has today, he’d have the worst OBP of any hitter who’s ever posted a .350 ISO or better by 39 points. And even then, Bellinger’s been worth 1.3 wins above average through just 47 games. The previous low OBP, .372, came during Roger Maris’s 61-homer season in 1961, in which he was named the American League MVP. Lower the threshold to .300, and you still get only 214 seasons, every single one at least half a win above league average.
There’s a reason to be skeptical of prospects like Bellinger, as high school first basemen have very little room for error in their development. But players with as much power as Bellinger, it turns out, have all the room for error in the world. As long as you’re slugging .600, it’s almost impossible to be a bad big league player.