At this writing, Dodgers first baseman/ outfielder Cody Bellinger is an RBI freak. He’s driven in more runs prior to today’s date than any. player. ever. (37) to open a season. He’s also hitting so far (a Show-leading 1.487 OPS) as though the only way to stop him is to throw him a ball that implodes before he can swing.
Get Bellinger to the plate with men on base and it’s like having home insurance, right? So far. But get the men on base in the first place? Not so fast, Junior.
Reality check, again: You can’t drive in runs unless the men ahead of you in the order can reach base. Or (as I observed in another essay) unless you can run the bases twice or more before your home run ball lands. If the Road Runner could hit for distance even he wouldn’t be that fast.
If the opportunities aren’t there, you’re not going to drive them in no matter how good a hitter you are. In 128 plate appearances so far at this writing, Bellinger’s batted 73 percent of the time with men on base and driven one in 37 percent of the time he’s had the chance. He seen his opportunities and took them, as the old saying pronounces so ungrammatically.
Last year entering 30 April Bellinger had 114 plate appearances, 53 percent of the time with men on base, and drove one in 20 percent of the time he had the chance. He had a .280/.339/.458 slash line through 30 April while he was at it, with six doubles, two triples, and three home runs among his thirty hits.
This year so far, Bellinger’s getting a little luck his way, which his .400 batting average on balls in play tells you. But he also seems to be making his own luck while he’s at it; his plate discipline has improved rather dramatically. (Eighteen walks to fifteen strikeouts, and the strikeouts are only 22 percent of his 68 outs through this morning.) The question before the house, then, is whether Bellinger can keep it up.
Historically, not really. Bellinger’s best months so far have been April and August. So far in his career he’s hit 136 points lower in May, 76 points lower in June, 106 points lower in July, and 93 points lower in September and the season-ending early October days. His Augusts have served to finish him out as practically the same hitter in the first as the second half of a season, overall.
Unless he’s worked something else new and unique with the Dodgers’ new hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc, you can probably put to rest your fantasies about a 70 home run/180 RBI/1.500 OPS season for Bellinger. Considering Bellinger’s normal abilities I don’t think the Dodgers will complain.
Because, unfortunately, he can’t run more than one full circuit around the bases before his home runs land. (He’s swift afoot, and he takes the extra base on followup hits 40 percent of the time so far this year, but the fastest power hitter on the planet won’t reach second before the ball reaches the seats.) And, he can’t will those ahead of him in the Dodger lineup to reach base.
Here’s what’s more impressive about Bellinger as of this morning. Forty-six percent of his hits have gone for extra bases, even if 67 percent of those extra base hits have been home runs. He has a .929 real batting average (RBA)—total bases, walks, intentional walks, and sacrifices (all the things you do at the plate; not just your hitting average, which is what the traditional batting average ought to be called), added up and divided by his 128 plate appearances—which is 302 points above his lifetime RBA.
(Though you can just picture someone, in some clubhouse, briefing pitchers about to face Bellinger in the lingo of old Joe Schultz, the manager of the Seattle Pilots: “Somebody’s getting him out—the bastard’s only hitting .434!”)
It’s probably less sustainable than his RBI pace and his OPS through this morning. Mike Trout with a .722 RBA through this morning is playing Mike Trout baseball. (His lifetime RBA: .653.) Cody Bellinger with a .929 RBA through this morning is playing well over his own head. (Lifetime RBA, entering this season: .595.) But it’s been phenomenally fun to watch him so far.