As the era of Mike Trout continues apace, the least interesting question in baseball is who the sport’s best player is. The Angels center fielder has won just two MVP awards, but he’s been the answer in the past, he is the answer in the present, and he will remain the answer for the foreseeable future.
The more interesting, related question is who the National League’s best player is, because while Trout and a few fellow stars have dominated the American League this decade, the NL has seen much greater parity in its distribution of top talent. Consider, for instance, that from 2016 to 2018, the top five position players by FanGraphs WAR—Trout, Mookie Betts, José Altuve, José Ramírez, and Francisco Lindor—were American Leaguers, while 14 of the next 15 on the list spent some or all of that span in the National League.
Or consider that Justin Verlander in 2011 was the last player to be named AL MVP without previously finishing in the top four in the vote. The equivalent NL honor, meanwhile, has rewarded many more pop-up performers. The “best in the NL” answer seems to cycle to a new player every year.
Recent MVP Differences by League
|Year||AL MVP||Previous Best Finish||NL MVP||Previous Best Finish|
|Year||AL MVP||Previous Best Finish||NL MVP||Previous Best Finish|
|2010||Josh Hamilton||7||Joey Votto||22|
|2011||Justin Verlander||15||Ryan Braun||3|
|2012||Miguel Cabrera||2||Buster Posey||11|
|2013||Miguel Cabrera||1||Andrew McCutchen||3|
|2014||Mike Trout||2||Clayton Kershaw||7|
|2015||Josh Donaldson||4||Bryce Harper||30|
|2016||Mike Trout||1||Kris Bryant||11|
|2017||José Altuve||3||Giancarlo Stanton||2|
|2018||Mookie Betts||2||Christian Yelich||19|
Who might that player be this year? A turn to the early 2019 leaderboards illuminates a clear favorite. About 10 percent of the way through the season, Trout ranks second in FanGraphs WAR. He ranks second in Baseball-Reference WAR. And he ranks second in Baseball Prospectus WARP. Don’t trust defensive numbers this soon? Trout ranks second in advanced offense-only metrics like wRC+ and DRC+, too. Number one in all those metrics is the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger, who isn’t actually better than Trout but might be the newest claimant to the “best in the NL” prize.
Bellinger’s statistics alone paint quite the picture of his dominance. He leads the majors with 30 hits, 23 runs, and 63 total bases; he also leads with a .900 slugging percentage and 1.412 OPS; and his .429 batting average is tied for the MLB lead. (He leads the NL with a .512 on-base percentage but not the entire major leagues, thanks to Trout’s outrageous .571 mark.) By wRC+, Bellinger’s triple-slash line is 156 percent better than the league average, and in just 19 games, he’s been worth about two wins above replacement—already half his total from each of the past two seasons, when he was one of the best players in the game.
Cody Bellinger is on— Baseball Bros (@BaseballBros) April 3, 2019
This grand slam off Madison Bumgarner is his fifth homer of the year pic.twitter.com/QOkjvSQVgz
These early results don’t appear to be a small-sample mirage. Sure, he won’t continue to hit like prime Barry Bonds, but his underlying numbers suggest a sustainable foundation for improvement above and beyond what he’s produced before. Unlike some hot starters whose early-season successes seem more like flukes, Bellinger can point to specific mechanical and process adjustments that support his box-score-statistic boosts. He spent the offseason tinkering with his batting stance to enhance his plate coverage and avoid “standing too tall and straight-legged,” which made “it difficult for him to halt momentum once his swing began,” ESPN’s Alden Gonzalez wrote last month. His new stance looks more balanced and flexible, and has yielded three meaningful changes to his offensive profile.
Bellinger’s first change is improved selectivity with his swings. Particularly in the playoffs the last two years, the Dodgers slugger was vulnerable to sweeping breaking balls that left his knee buckling and uppercut swing flailing at air. Despite producing enough clutch hits to win MVP honors in the 2018 NLCS, Bellinger has hit just .172/.226/.336 in 124 career playoff plate appearances, and his OPS has reached .700 in just one of six series. Bellinger also struggled against left-handed pitchers last season, even falling to platoon status down the stretch.
In both 2017 and 2018, Bellinger swung at 40 percent of breaking pitches; this year, he’s swung at just 29 percent. On breakers located outside the strike zone, Bellinger swung at about one in four in previous regular seasons, and more than one in three in the playoffs. This year, he’s offered at just two out of 41 (4.9 percent), the second-lowest rate of 362 batters who have faced at least 10 such pitches.
Bellinger’s second change is improved contact skills when he does swing. Against all sorts of pitches, he’s whiffing way less than he has in the past.
Previously, Bellinger swung and missed at about 12 to 13 percent of all pitches he saw, slightly above the league average of 10 to 11 percent. This season, that rate is just 6 percent; among everyday players, Bellinger has reduced his whiff percentage by the second-greatest margin since last year, which has allowed him to cut his overall strikeout rate in half. It’s still early, but even in such a small sliver of games, he had never struck out so infrequently before.
Bellinger’s third change is improved ability to access his power. After setting home run records as a rookie—even inspiring an ESPN piece speculating about his chances at breaking the career home run record—Bellinger regressed from 39 homers to just 25 last year. He struck out less as a sophomore, he had better luck on balls in play, and at his best he hit the ball just as hard—but he wasn’t quite able to hit the ball so hard consistently, and as leaguewide home run rates fell from their 2017 high, Bellinger suffered an especially severe drop. He lost more than 100 points of isolated power from 2017 to 2018; the only other qualified hitters to do so were Joey Votto in an unprecedented slump and Giancarlo Stanton in a regression from his 59-homer campaign.
But this season, Bellinger’s revamped approach has led him to lift and pull the ball more frequently: His ground-ball rate has dropped by more than 10 percentage points since last season (the eighth-biggest drop in the majors) and his pull percentage has jumped by more than 10 points (the fifth-biggest boost). Here is the overall ratio of Bellinger’s batted balls that were pulled and in the air:
2017: 19.6 percent
2018: 18.3 percent
2019: 41.0 percent
He’s currently at more than double his previous rate, and his is the top mark for any player with at least 10 batted balls this season. Given that Bellinger’s career batting average on air pulls is .616 and his career slugging percentage on air pulls is 1.665—that’s not a typo—it’s no wonder that his overall numbers look so magnificent when coupled with a massive uptick in his air pull frequency.
The power numbers stand out even in a league landscape that once again looks homer-happy, but they’re also more the expectation for a player with Bellinger’s prospect profile. When writing about the rookie Bellinger for The Ringer two years ago, Michael Baumann summarized, “He has so much power that it doesn’t really matter what happens with the rest of his game.” Yet the rest of Bellinger’s game has exceeded expectations since his debut season, and in a league of extreme athletes—by shape, by size, by playing style—Bellinger occupies a corner of his own.
He’s not just a basher at the plate, even if that role alone would place him in loose MVP contention. He’s a skilled and versatile fielder too—last year, for instance, he became the first player in MLB history to make at least 75 appearances in a season at both first base and center field. He’s playing mostly in right this season to accommodate new Dodger A.J. Pollock in the outfield, but his ability to excel in any lefty-friendly position on the diamond makes him an ideal fit for the Dodgers’ flexible roster.
Bellinger also possesses a rare blend of power and speed, which elevate the aesthetic intrigue of his play beyond just his work in the batter’s box. According to Statcast’s Sprint Speed metric, the 6-foot-4 Bellinger was faster than Ozzie Albies last year, and in the early going in 2019, he’s measured as speedier than Billy Hamilton, whom Bellinger could probably carry on his back while sprinting around the bases. Twice this month, he’s fused these traits perfectly by following an infield single to the first baseman with a colossal home run in his next at-bat.
Across all these disciplines, Bellinger hasn’t typically done much on a baseball diamond quietly. When he thumps a home run, he pauses to admire its trajectory into the stands. When he sprints on the basepaths, he looks like a Hollywood action star fleeing an explosion. When he decides to catch a ball in the field, he hurtles his body into the outfield grass or over the dugout rail. But it’s his improvement in the softer spaces this season—the pitches he takes, the whiffs and weak grounders he doesn’t—that have allowed Bellinger to ascend the ranking of NL stars. His statistics are plenty loud at the moment, anyway.
Statistics through Wednesday. Bellinger homered again on Thursday night.