Image credit: © Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

They shouldn’t put names on the jerseys. Or on the dust jackets, or the movie posters, for that matter. Of course, there’s a good reason that they do; branding has been around since Aristophanes mocked Socrates straight into the House of Hades. The Super Mario Bros. movie made a quarter of a quintillion dollars at the box office not in spite of the fact that Chris Pratt sounded as though he woke up drugged and bound in a recording booth and was told to “do Italian” or else he’d never see his loved ones again—it made that much because of him, because movie producers can draw a correlation between the familiarity and predictability of his performance and box office earnings, and they can do it and keep their jobs because they’re right. Names are everything.

Which is unfortunate for the “death of the author” crowd, like myself, who would prefer to do away with the traditional bias of fandom and the gatekeeping that always seems to come with authorial intent. Art is what we make of it, and the artist doesn’t really get to tell us how to feel. They do, granted, and they generally succeed, because of the aforementioned branding, and the allure of fandom, and the secondary art that is creating an identity out of consumption. Our side is constantly fighting a losing battle. But we know, deep down, that we shouldn’t buy into it all. The name shouldn’t matter; what one does should matter, even if it never quite does.

But while a name is vital to an artist (‘s income), it comes at a price: Fame pins one down. People change, but their art, and their accomplishments, do not. And eventually all those adoring fans will come back around and demand the rest of what they were owed, the part of the bargain that no one technically struck: That it would keep going, forever. That everyone would stay young forever. After all, the invisible hand requires a fifth Fantastic Beasts film that no one wants to make or see, but will somehow make 50% over its budget.

Cody Bellinger is no longer young. In many ways he seems like it; non-tendered by the Dodgers last offseason, he was one of the most junior members of the 2022-23 free agent class, and even if the traditional aging curves are a little outdated, he’s not far from his physical prime. But compared to Cody Bellinger, Cody Bellinger is not young. The cells and tendons and cartilage belong to a different person than the one who took home the NL MVP award four short years ago. In a way it’s a mercy that if his jersey shares a name with that man, at least the colors are a little different. But the expectations never quite dissipated, even on the market, which resulted in a one-year deal that bet fairly hard on a bounceback season.

Bellinger’s fall from the statistical heavens is rare, but hardly unique, especially for the greats who were famous for their balky backs. Don Mattingly, whose own back problems could have been presaged by the way he hunched over the plate as if to hide in a crowd, put together an ISO of .198 through his age-28 season, and just .119 in his final six seasons. For Mike Greenwell, never considered a power hitter, his ISO was .190 through the age of 25, and .143 afterward. Todd Helton, aided somewhat by Coors, earned a .277 ISO through his last All-Star season at age 30, at which point the back problems emerged. That number dropped to an equally elevated .166 mark over the following decade. 

It’s difficult, in these circumstances, to separate the problems from the attempted solutions. Bellinger, a noted fiddler, overhauled his mechanics repeatedly, trying to recapture his form while adapting to a different body. And now, with the Cubs, it appears (with the usual small sample provisions read out, like Miranda rights, as we reach the analysis) as though he’s making yet another adjustment, one that almost everyone learns to make: the understanding of becoming old.

Year Pull% Launch Angle Average EV O-Swing% O-Contact%
2019 47.9% 17.9 91.1 26.8% 69.5%
2020 45.6% 16.6 89.3 26.9% 71.4%
2021 45.1% 22.2 89.3 35.2% 65.6%
2022 47.2% 20.3 89.4 34.5% 68.6%
2023 51.9% 18.3 87.3 31.2% 83.3%

Bellinger’s new approach is a little bit counterintuitive. Unlike Mattingly or Greenwell, who both used tight, coiled stances and quick hands to turn around on pitches, Bellinger still stands tall, presenting his entire 6-foot-4 frame as the strike zone. He’s always been able to do this because he can lever his long arms to pull seemingly unpullable outside pitches, and he’s doing that more than ever. But while we associate lefties who pull with home run swings, especially Bellinger, who has hit so many shoelace-elevation pitches in the past, that’s not what he’s doing this year.

Here are a couple of examples from the old Bellinger:

Neither of these are bad swings, from a decision-making standpoint. Both are in the strike zone, and both come with him behind in the count. Both also arrive at the same conclusion: weak two-hoppers rolled over to the first baseman. Then, the 2023 Bellinger:

No one’s going to paint any of these swings to put over the fireplace, but the guy in the Cubs jersey is keeping his hips in more, whereas the Dodgers guy was flying open and trying to get all 350 feet out of his forearms. This swing is more controlled, more limited—and more productive. 

Instead, Bellinger is pulling higher pitches with a more level swing, raking singles rather than homers. (Beyond chasing less, it’s worth noting that the center fielder is swinging less in the zone as well, but making more contact when he does, another sign that the pickiness is intentional.)  It should be noted that all three of his homers came not on his traditional golf swing but on mistake pitches up and over the plate, targets too easy to pass up. The key here, of course, is the shift, or the notable lack of it. Punching the ball softly in front of the right fielder wasn’t an option for Bellinger the last couple of years, because there was a second baseman standing in front of that right fielder. If he is making a conscious choice to do more with less in 2023, being pickier with his swings and only pulling the pitches he can slash, it’s a choice that wasn’t available to him before.

In that sense, perhaps, this is kismet: It’s hard to change, and it’s even harder to allow one’s self to change. It’s easy to tinker, sure, but usually it’s with the same consistent goal in mind, to be the best version of your current self. One of the smartest organizations in baseball couldn’t figure out how to help the man get there. But it’s very possible that the shift ban gave Bellinger an out, an opportunity to fiddle but with the goal of an actual change not just in approach but in outcomes. The Cubs and hitting coach Dustin Kelly worked this spring to make Bellinger “more relaxed in the box,” a phrase which, on the surface, seems patently impossible.

But people can change. Fred Lynn started his career on the same Hall of Fame trajectory as Bellinger, winning MVP his rookie season and leading the league in OPS at 27. He, too, wore down with injuries, and his career is sort of lazily considered a disappointment based on its start. But Lynn transformed himself in a different way, becoming a stodgy, reliable 20-something HR six-hole hitter, and was productive bat well into his mid-30s. Bellinger may never be the star he once was, but none of us are. The trick is to find a place where people will let you stop trying, and Chicago has been exactly the right setting so far.

Thank you for reading

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