Pros and Cons: Should the Mets sign Cody Bellinger?




Cody Bellinger
Cody Bellinger  

After the 2019 season, which was Cody Bellinger's third as a big leaguer, he had just won the National League MVP award, was two seasons removed from winning Rookie of the Year, and seemed like he was going to be one of the biggest stars in baseball for the next decade.

Entering his age-24 season in 2020, Bellinger's career triple slash was .278/.369/.559. He had hit 111 home runs -- an average of 40 per 162 games.

And for all of his prowess with the bat, Bellinger's glove in the outfield was also extremely valuable.

He won the Gold Glove award in 2019 after being worth 23 defensive runs saved in the outfield -- Bellinger started 102 games in right field that season, and 21 in center.

In the pandemic-shortened 60 game season in 2020, Bellinger regressed with the bat, hitting just .239/.333/.455 with 12 homers in 56 games. However, he was still an above average offensive performer (his OPS+ was 112) during a season when lots of players had trouble adjusting to the abbreviated spring training and weird regular season.

But then the 2021 and 2022 seasons happened, with both being unmitigated disasters for Bellinger, leading to his being DFA'd by the Dodgers earlier this offseason.

CONS

As is noted above, the last two seasons have been shockingly bad for Bellinger at the plate.

In 2021, Bellinger -- after having arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder in November of 2020 -- had a ghastly season at the plate, hitting .165/.240/.302 with 10 home runs in 95 games. His OPS+ was 44.

Cody Bellinger
Cody Bellinger  

In 2022, Bellinger struggled badly again, slashing just .210/.265/.389 with 19 homers in 144 games.

So, what has broken Bellinger?

The shoulder surgery and recovery ahead of 2021 certainly couldn't have helped, and Bellinger also suffered a hairline fracture to his fibula early during the 2021 season. But while those injuries can perhaps help explain away what happened in 2021, it does nothing to explain 2022.

Entering the 2022 season, Bellinger was hopeful his "amazing" offseason had set him up well for a comeback. But it was not to be. And a look at Bellinger's advanced numbers from this past season are quite ugly.

Bellinger was near the bottom of the league in xwOBA, xBA, xSLG, and strikeout rake, well below average in max exit velocity, whiff percentage, and chase rate, and below average in hard hit percentage. When it came to offensive production, he was only above average in barrel percentage (54th percentile) and average exit velocity (57th percentile).

Looking back at Bellinger's terrific seasons from 2017 to 2019, he always struck out a lot and swung and missed a ton. But all of his other advanced offensive metrics those years were well above average -- and that was the case even in 2020, when he had a down year.

In 2021 and 2022, though, something has been broken. And it isn't clear that there's an easy fix. 

Cody Bellinger
Cody Bellinger  

PROS

Bellinger's struggles at the plate have not impacted him defensively.

In 2022, Bellinger -- who played all 144 games in center field -- was in the 92nd percentile in Outs Above Average while being above average in sprint speed, outfielder jump and arm strength. He was also an above average defender in 2021, and was one of the best defenders in baseball in 2020.

The above means that even if Bellinger doesn't come close to recapturing the magic he had at the plate from 2017 to 2019, any team that signs him should be getting a plus defender in center field who has enormous power potential.

When it comes to Bellinger again becoming an offensive force, he could have age on his side since he is entering his age-27 season (he'll turn 28 next July 13).

Yes, Bellinger's strikeout rate in 2022 (27.3 percent) was as high as it's ever been. But it was only a tick above what it was in 2017 (26.6 percent) when he won the Rookie of the Year award.

Perhaps also in Bellinger's favor is that he hit fastballs well in 2022 after struggling mightily against them in 2021.

Cody Bellinger
Cody Bellinger  

Bellinger had a .477 slugging percentage against fastballs in 2022, and hit 15 of his 19 home runs against them. That was a marked improvement over 2021, when he slugged .328 against fastballs while batting .151 (his batting average against them in 2022 was .253).

For Bellinger in 2022 (and 2021), the main issue was how he fared against secondary pitches. And his struggles against those offerings actually worsened between 2021 and 2022.

VERDICT

For the Mets, they would only be a fit for Bellinger if Brandon Nimmo left via free agency.

If so, the Mets could ink Bellinger and have him play center field -- avoiding the possibility of sliding Starling Marte back to center from right field.

The expectation is that Bellinger will be seeking a one-year deal as he looks to bounce back offensively and reset his value before hitting the free agent market again after the 2023 season.

And when you look at the other free agent center field options (hint: most are defense-first players and none of them have anywhere close to the upside Bellinger has at the plate), the Mets making a serious run at Bellinger if Nimmo leaves really could make a lot of sense.

COMMENTS

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