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Dodgers: Is Defensive Versatility Hurting Cody Bellinger?

Dodgers

Dave Roberts left Cody Bellinger off of the starting lineup on Wednesday as the Dodgers fell to the Cubs at Wrigley Field. Bellinger had been struggling of late at the plate, recording just one hit in his previous four games, while striking out eight times during that stretch. For much of the year, Bellinger has been disappointing at the plate but there may be a trend behind his offensive struggles.

More than ever before, teams value defensive versatility over set positions for their players. In recent years, especially under the analytical leadership of Farhan Zaidi and Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers have pushed players to defend multiple positions. One of the more notable instances has been with Bellinger.

Cody Bellinger: The Utility Player

Bellinger has primarily played first base in his first two seasons in the Major Leagues but has also shared time manning the outfield. Last year Bellinger played 38 games in left field, giving Adrian Gonzalez an opportunity to play first base. This season Bellinger has played 19 games in center field, giving Max Muncy time at first base.

Despite moving back and forth between first base and the outfield, Bellinger’s defense has never been in question. He has made only one error all year and owns a career fielding average of .996.

The concern for Bellinger has been on the offensive end. In his monster rookie campaign, he hit .269 and slugged 39 home runs. This year he is batting just .231 with 12 home runs in his second season.

The common denominator between this season and last for Bellinger has been his offensive struggles in games where he plays a defensive position other than first base.

Offensive Splits

Year Position At-Bats Average Home Runs RBI OBP SLG
2017 1B 318 .299 30 77 .382 .667
2017 Elsewhere 162 .203 9 20 .293 .414
2018 1B 196 .260 9 23 .347 .490
2018 Elsewhere 59 .136 3 9 .250 .322

In 2017, Bellinger batted .299 with 30 home runs when he played first base. By contrast, when playing any other position, Bellinger hit just .203 with nine home runs.

While Bellinger’s overall production is down this year, he is still an above average hitter when he plays first base. In 2018, Bellinger is batting .263 with nine home runs when playing first base and batting .140 with three home runs when playing elsewhere.

Coming into this season, Bellinger looked like a lock as the first baseman of the future. Through May 15, he played first base each game in which he appeared. At that time he was batting a decent .269/.326/.474. Since that date, Bellinger has constantly moved back and forth between center field and first base and is slashing just .171/.322/.414 in that span.

The Dodgers Predicament

While the simple solution would be to keep Bellinger at first, Muncy has produced enough to force his way into the lineup. Muncy’s 13 home runs and .976 OPS lead the Dodgers and although he also plays third base, he is blocked in the hot corner by Justin Turner.

Dodgers
Jun 3, 2018; Denver, CO, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal (9), third baseman Justin Turner (10) and first baseman Max Muncy (13) celebrate the win over the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Dodgers could move Muncy to second base, allowing Bellinger to stick to first. Muncy has only played second base once this season, but homered in that game. He has also played that position 21 times in his career. While this would move Logan Forsythe out of the lineup, he has struggled during his time in Los Angeles.

This move would give more time to the hot-hitting Joc Pederson and Kike Hernández in center field and would optimize the Dodger offense, which has been dormant over the past week.

Analysis

Stating that solely playing first base would lead to a dramatic increase in Bellinger’s offense would be an oversimplification. With that said, there is a large enough sample size in his career to see clear splits in his production depending on where he plays on defense. Sticking to first base would allow Bellinger to focus solely on one position and allow for more consistency and stability for the 22-year-old. Given his struggles at the plate, returning Bellinger to one position wouldn’t hurt the Dodgers lineup.

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Written by Arthur Cribbs

Arthur Cribbs is a journalism student at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He is a lifelong Dodgers fan and when he is not at school, he resides in Los Angeles.

9 Comments

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  1. No. Cody’s inability to cover the whole strike zone, and trying to hit every pitch 500 ft is what is hurting him.

    • To some extent I agree with you. Every pitch he’s swinging for the stars. No ability to be a hitter and go with the pitch and push the ball to wherever it needs to go. Small ball has benefits and the Dodgers do as little of it as any team in the majors, to their detriment.

      Generally I’m not a believer in extensive lineup movement, both offensively and defensively. Players need some degree of stability and knowing where you’ll be in the batting order and where you’ll be playing defensively. I’m not saying that versatility and change can’t be helpful/useful in situations…just less of it.

      • Dave Roberts is worse than Don Mattingly was when it came to changing lineups. Every day it’s juggled it seems. Maybe that’s why there’s no consistency, that and the fact that Matt Kemp is the only player on the team hitting over .270

    • You are so right. He needs to have better plate coverage, use the whole field not try to pull every pitch. Joc was doing the same thing

  2. Curious, could the “defensive versatility” be hurting Chris Taylor too? Before 2017 w/Dodgers, he was a SS w/Mariners. The Dodgers turned him into a CF, Taylor “took off.” Because Seager went down w/TommyJohn surgery, Taylor became the Dodgers SS. I realize a regression with Taylor’s power was expected, but not this much. Next year(with Seager back at SS) will Taylor be moved back to CF?

  3. It’s hard to find a place for a outfielder/first baseman who can’t hit. Muncy should be 1st baseman and Bellinger sent to minors to make some adjustments. 220 hitters with 20 homer power are a dime a dozen. League caught up to him last year.

  4. Dodger Couch Dave Roberts is a “Gambler” at heart. He is never consistent with his line-up nor can he recognize or make a decisive decision for total team success. He has no conscious to decide on Bellinger yet alone make any progressive decision to send Bellinger to AAA Baseball for rehabilitation.

    As for Cody Bellinger. I do not believe he (Bellinger) has identified that he alone has a problem at the plate and even fielding first base. Bellinger is a low-ball swinger and is an easy strike-out at the mid and upper strike zone. Bellinger has failed to recognize his own mistakes as a professional batter and faulted to adjust to counter measures by opposing pitchers. Bellingers decline started long before the 2017 W/S. Remember, he made W/S record for strike-outs at the plate which will probably never be broken in any future post series games. Bellinger’s arrogance as a batter costed the Dodgers team greatly at the 2017 W/S. He should have approached Dave Roberts and staff and placed himself out of the line-up. But, “No” his arrogance, fame and fortune took control and he alone decided not to. As for his 1st base fielding, he plays to far off the plate when an opposing player is on 1st and does not have the proper reach when his pitching teammate makes a throw to 1st. When was the last time he tagged a player out? Also, he fails to reach when a ball is thrown by his teammates causing numerous errors erroneously being blamed and tagged on others. I can say more, but if you do not believe , watch the videos and televised games. Listen to what other professional sport broadcasters are saying who are not time payed by the Dodger organization.
    Like I have said before. Cody Bellinger is a “one wonder” and now has become a “one time blunder”. Sport fans; remember “Todd Hollandsworth”. He to was the Dodger 1996 National League Rookie of the Year. A “one time wonder”, who failed to measure up with the Dodgers thereafter and became a “one time blunder”.
    Wake-Up Los Angeles Dodger Fans. Send in your e-mails and let the organization know that you (Dodger Fans) demand better entertainment and play on the field if Los Angeles really wants a World Series Title.

  5. I believe a lot of the analogy fans have said about Cody is spot on, however at times last year when he was punching the ball to left field he was at his best. He’s trying to hard with every swing to kill the ball. He would be a much better hitter if he choked up and drove the ball to all fields he would still have home run power, look at joey votto

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