With Los Angeles trailing the Mets, 3-1, in the fifth inning Saturday, Bellinger watched a slider from Seth Lugo curl in toward his knees. It was only the sixth slider Lugo had thrown all day — a change-of-pace pitch from the fastballs and curves he had stymied the Dodgers with most of the afternoon — but Bellinger was still ready. He crouched down to one knee, all the way down from his upright stance, and barreled the pitch into the right-center-field seats at Citi Field for a two-run homer. It was the 31st home run of Bellinger’s magical rookie campaign, and it was clutch, tying the game at 3-3.
“They’ve been coming inside on me all series with backfoot sliders,” Bellinger said after the Dodgers’ 7-4 win — their 43rd in their last 50 games, “but that one popped out of [Lugo’s] hand a little bit and I was able to clip it.”
Bellinger has gotten to a lot of pitches this season, helping him set a power pace that has been simply astounding to watch. It seems a foregone conclusion Bellinger will surpass Mike Piazza’s rookie franchise record of 35 home runs, set in 1993, and the NL Rookie of the Year Award frontrunner has even more historic benchmarks firmly in his sights.
— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) August 5, 2017
Cody Bellinger can play max of 142 games, due to call-up date. @MLB record for age-21 season of that length (or less) is 33 HR. He has 31.
— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) August 5, 2017
But look beyond the sheer number of dingers, and an even more unlikely aspect of Bellinger’s power emerges: His stroke against offspeed pitches. They’re offerings a pitcher can usually count on to bait a hot-swinging rookie and get him off his rhythm, but not Bellinger. Entering Saturday, Bellinger’s 90.7-mph average exit velocity against all non-fastballs ranked third-best among left-handed hitters, per Statcast™, and seventh-best in the Majors overall (min. 50 batted balls). Better yet, 49.3 percent of Bellinger’s batted balls against offspeed pitches had fallen at or above Statcast™’s 95-mph exit velocity baseline for “hard-hit” contact. That was the top offspeed hard-hit rate of any lefty — rookie or otherwise — entering Saturday, and the fourth highest in all of baseball.
Cody Bellinger’s HR off a Seth Lugo slider today gives him an MLB-most 15 HRs vs. offspeed pitches.
He’s a 21-year old rookie. #Dodgers
— Matt Kelly (@mattkellyMLB) August 5, 2017
“He’s got an elite ability to recognize the ball out of the hand,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, “and so if you take that component and combine it with his ability to stay grounded and stay balanced, it gives him a chance to lift the ball.”
Though Bellinger told MLB.com that he’s never struggled too much against breaking balls, even while coming up through the Minor Leagues, it still takes work to hit them with as much authority as he has this year. Bellinger puts in the time with teammate Justin Turner, hitting against the curveball machine every day to make sure he keeps lifting those tricky secondary pitches.
“We try and pop the ball straight up,” Bellinger explained. “In an actual game, those pitches are going to have more break to them, and so if you’re hitting the top of the ball against the machine, you’re not going to hit it at all during the game. “You don’t want to roll over on those pitches; you want to hit them in the air.”
Bellinger is undoubtedly one of the frontrunners in the so-called “air ball revolution” that’s taking baseball by storm. It’s a mentality that one hears throughout the Dodgers’ clubhouse, from Turner to Chris Taylor to Roberts. No matter your opinion on the benefits of lifting the ball, it’s hard to quibble with the results for the Dodgers, who were no-hit by Lugo through the first 4 2/3 innings before clubbing five home runs to beat the Mets. No club has homered more times than Los Angeles over its historic 50-game run, and no team has clubbed more barrels (balls with the ideal combination of exit velocity and launch angle), either.
With the NL West race all but over, the Dodgers can afford to tinker with little things that can make them better in October. One thing their postseason opponents will have to prepare for, however, is how to pitch to Bellinger. The normal hole for a 21-year old hitter is simply not there with him; Bellinger can recognize a deceptive breaking ball and crush it as if it were a heater. He’s making everything look easy, even if he says that hasn’t been the case.
“A few games before this I was struggling to hit the ball and I felt horrible,” Bellinger insisted. “That’s why it’s such a hard game. I just keep watching video and I’m trying to stay as consistent as I can.”