A year ago, Cody Bellinger began engraving his name on the National League MVP trophy with one of the hottest starts in recent memory. Forty-five games into the Dodgers’ 2019 season, Bellinger was batting .409 with a 1.273 OPS and 16 home runs.
That trophy is getting pretty heavy these days. Bellinger was just 5 for his first 36 (.139) in his first seven games as the reigning NL MVP and was benched for the start of Saturday night’s game by Dodgers manager Dave Roberts.
“I think it’s one of those things where it’s speeding up a little bit,” Roberts said after watching Bellinger go hitless in five at-bats Friday night against the Arizona Diamondbacks, extending a hitless streak to 16 at-bats. “You start to look at the scoreboard and you want to help your club and contribute, which he’s been doing a great job of on defense.
“But I think at bat, I think you start seeing a little bit going out of the zone and trying a little bit too hard. Even some of those borderline pitches – you know when you’re not going well, they always seem to go against you. But he’ll be fine. He’ll be fine.”
Bellinger’s slump has been built on weak contact and an inability to get the barrel of the bat on the ball with any frequency.
He has struck out just six times in his first 36 at-bats. But he is hitting more ground balls than fly balls, counter to his career history. His line-drive rate (6.7%) has dropped off dramatically from a year ago (26.2%). He is making soft contact twice as often this year as last (26.7% of the time) and his hard-hit rate has taken a predictable drop (from 49% last season to 26% this season).
“The contact rate is still good. The angle, the trajectory is not where you want it to be,” Roberts said. “He’s not punching (striking out). So I think for him – it’s just kind of there’s a combo of getting his mechanics synced up. I don’t think he looks completely comfortable. He’s still trying to figure some things out.”
Bellinger came to summer camp a month ago with plans to change his stance at the plate, tinkering with the mechanics that made him an MVP last year. The changes in his setup were fairly subtle. But as his slow start has descended into the current hitless mire, he has abandoned some of those changes, going back to a setup that looks very familiar.
“I think in the initial summer camp, it was a little bit more drastic,” Roberts said. “I think that over the last five to seven days, he’s trying to go back to what he did last year. … Optically, it looks similar. But the production just doesn’t happen quite that easy. I do think that as he gets more comfortable with that stance and his swing, the mechanics, then it’ll kind of get back to more production.”
Making swing changes – or unmaking them – could be a longer process this season. As part of the coronavirus health and safety protocols, players are restricted in the amount of time they can spend at the ballpark, in the batting cage or in the video room. Players are discouraged from spending extra time in the facilities. Time in the batting cage is staggered so that only a few players are there at any given time.
Mookie Betts mentioned Friday night that he had been uncomfortable with his own mechanics in the first week of the season and was frustrated by the limitations as he tried to work through that.
“You know, that’s the rough part that people don’t see,” Betts admitted. “But, we have to find a way. It’s like that for everybody, so it’s not an excuse. Like I said, it’s just you have to find a way to get it done.”
Right-hander Tony Gonsolin pitched four scoreless innings in his first start of the season Friday night, allowing just one hit. With Clayton Kershaw scheduled to join the starting rotation Sunday, however, Gonsolin was optioned back to the team’s alternate training site at USC. Right-hander Mitch White was promoted to take his spot on the roster and add a fresh arm to a relief corps that pitched 22 1/3 innings in the first four games of this nine-game trip.