Fire up the sad-face emojis and pour another glass of warm beer for a-cryin’ into: I was wrong. Well, at least so far, it looks like I was wrong. Cody Bellinger, you see, is some of the hottest hot butter on anyone’s breakfast toast these days. The already-two-time National League Player of the Week is currently sitting on a .332 career TAv through his first 70 big-league games, a figure that rates as the seventh-best compiled in this season’s first half (minimum 200 plate appearances).
Not two years ago, I had him as a 45-hit/50-power guy headed for a nifty career as a versatile bench piece with regular potential. Whoops? Maybe?
I liked what I saw of Bellinger as a prospect in the California League. There was undoubtedly some immaturity in my evaluation, no question about it. A kid—emphasis kid, as he was just 19 and more than holding his own in High-A at the time—with his raw power and unique set of secondary skills very probably deserved a bit more benefit of the doubt. Even with my concerns about his hit tool development, the game power probably should’ve checked in at a 55. The likely role probably deserved to be nominally better as well, by half-grades to both the OFP and Realistic assessments, given the diversity of the skill set.
Caveating again that we’re really early into the returns of his big-league career; on balance I actually (kinda) hit pretty well on him. His borderline-plus present run tool at the time and athletic frame allowed you to see, without squinting, a path to decent value added on the bases, and he’s provided just that. He showed as a guy who’d be able to slide effortlessly between very good glovework at first base and passable track-and-close efforts on the corners of the grass, and so far that’s indeed been the case.
The pop was evident, even with his relatively immature body, thanks to leverage, extension, and good bat speed. But that hit tool … mmph. That would be the roadblock to notoriety, the very thing that would keep him relegated to utility value far, far shy of superstardom. And first base/corner outfield profiles, even ones with the kind of quality secondary skills Bellinger showed, have a thin path to value when they’re hit-tool limited.
There are few things harder in player evaluation than trying to project a player’s hit tool, and that truth has been well-covered in myriad places over the years. But trying to project just how much a suspect hit tool will affect the utility of a player’s raw power, and how much it will or will not constrain his ability to bring that power into games, can be just as difficult a task. It’s not a direct or uniform correlation: Chris Carter actualized 80-grade power output in the majors. Brandon Wood and Aderlin Rodriguez did not.
Here’s what Bellinger’s swing looked like in early June of 2015, when he was just coming off a hot few weeks and looking to jack every fastball he saw:
It’s interesting to see the baselines of fluidity, leverage, and extension that still define his swing today. On the flip side, you can also see that the barrel isn’t on plane for a particularly long time on account of his developing uppercut, and there’s some inefficiency and unbalanced execution to the whole thing. The bottom hand’s too strong. It’s an over-zealous swing, and that was a really defining feature of Bellinger’s approach for most of his time at Rancho. He very much looked the part of a young hitter who ran into a bunch of dingers early in a dinger-conducive league, got a taste for the trot, and decided to double down on the pursuit thereof.
Player evaluation is about using the present to inform the future, or at least what we suspect to be the most likely future outcome on account of the information available to us in the present. And in spite of the nice combination of those baseline traits that I liked a good bit about Bellinger’s precocious swing, my concerns about his development during that stretch of time in his career won the day in my evaluation.
But here’s the kicker: my evaluation of Bellinger’s hit tool was, I still think, pretty on point. There’s a good bit of swing-and-miss in his game, fueled both by swing plane and a combination of some aggressiveness and spin recognition that doesn’t stand out. He’ll expand up against velocity, and he’ll chase down against well-placed breakers. He rolls over on more than his fair share, and he’s shown as more or less a fringe-average-to-average pure hitter to date, with an on-base profile that plays up to above-average thanks to his willingness to work deep counts and take walks.
The game power, however … the game power is, uh, not average. There’s more raw power there than I gave him credit for developing, for one. It’s a comfortable 70 raw grade. But more importantly, he’s shown much better ability to get to a lot more of it in spite of the hit-tool limitations than I’d ever envisioned.
There was a big ol’ hole at the top of Bellinger’s swing in High-A, and you can still see it rear up in at-bats today. He gets pretty far into his back side when he fires his hips as a means of putting himself in position to drive up through the ball and launch contact into the air. And that effort yields empty swings on two out of every five pitches he offers at in the top two-fifths of the hitting zone:
The problem for pitchers is, if and when Bellinger does catch one that comes in hot he’s slugging almost .700 in those zones:
He’s been able to get to more of those balls by making a nice adjustment to counter his vulnerability up there, taking to the taller stance and setup that keeps him better protected from back-side collapse. He’s also running contrary to a popular trend and keeping his hands loaded higher as a means to put his trigger in a better position to handle elevated pitches up in the zone.
Those are both significant adjustments that allowed his power to play better than anticipated—overall and within these hitting zones.
The other issue I foresaw lay in what appeared at the time to be a pretty fundamental weakness in handling pitches down and out of the zone. He has been pretty good in his young career at reading the strike zone north-south and staying off of pitches he recognizes that are outside the zone. He’s been stingier than your average bear at chasing pitches overall. But when he has chased he’s posted well below-average contact rates, and that result is a product of many, many fruitless fishing expeditions against soft stuff down:
But damned if he hasn’t been able to make up for those consistently lost battles outside of the zone with wholesale destruction against mistake secondaries that wander into natural strike range. As we stand, Bellinger is slugging .857 against changeups, .737 against sliders and curves.
Now, we require one more repetition of caution before we close things down here: it’s still pretty early into things. The league’s pitchers, as is their wont, have shown signs of (pretty significant) adjustment lately, phasing out the changeups Bellinger can destroy even when he’s beaten, bending more balls below the zone to take advantage of that persistent weakness, and keeping fastballs out of his happiest zones. He crushed the ball through the first half of June, but the season is long, big-league pitchers are smart, and he showed signs of reasonably sustained struggle for the first time over the last 2-3 weeks heading into the break.
But even as he progresses through the inevitabilities of counter-adjustment, he’s already shown enough tricks and talent for converting power utility that it’s probably a pretty safe bet to assume that the gap between theoretical and game power isn’t likely to be nearly as wide a gulf as I once suspected. And that’s a fundamental effect in terms of outcome: where once upon a time I projected him as a 50 OFP/40 Likely, and probably should have projected him as a 55/45, he’s probably more like a 60/55 today.
Misses happen, when you evaluate and project players. It’s part of life. And I think this case serves as an important illustration that even being broadly accurate on 80 percent of your evaluation of a given player’s tool set can still produce wildly off-kilter variance between what you expect and that player’s actual outcome. It’s also a nice reminder about the importance of carrying tools, and the value they bring to the table in expanding a player’s path to productivity at the highest level. Bellinger has a carrying tool I didn’t foresee, and it’s the difference between a fringe regular and what might just be a first-division starter who earns nine figures in his career.