Cody Bellinger has been so good in 2019 that seemingly his biggest challenge has been before the games rather than the contests themselves.
It comes with the territory since we are 50 games into the season, nearly a week away from June, and Bellinger is hitting 394. When you hit .400 this late into the season, people tend to notice. Bellinger told the Dan Patrick Show on Wednesday that reporters have asked him about hitting .400 in one way or another every day of this season.
“It’s definitely cool but the most important thing is trying to block that stuff out every single day,” Bellinger said.
Bellinger was 0-for-4 on Wednesday in Tampa Bay, the first time in 46 starts this season he failed to reach base. It was also just the sixth time in 50 Dodgers games that he ended the day under .400.
Our fascination with hitting .400 lies in its rarity. In the early days of baseball, hitting .400 was relatively common. From 1901-1930 it happened 12 times, with Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby doing it three times each. Then nobody hit .400 until a precocious 22-year-old Red Sox outfielder in 1941.
Ted Williams entered the final day of the season hitting .3996, and could have sat out Boston’s doubleheader to preserve what would have rounded to a .400 average. But instead he played, went 6-for-8 to end up at .406 and a legend was born.
Nobody thought at the time that Williams would be the last .400 hitter, but here we are 78 years later with few even coming close. Since 1941, only four hitters have even managed a batting average as high as .380 in a qualified season. Williams did it himself hitting .388 in 1957 at age 38, and Rod Carew matched him at .388 in his MVP season 20 years later.
The game has changed over the years, and with it hitting .400 seems more and more impossible. Later in the game, instead of facing a starting pitcher for the third or fourth time in a game, batters now face a fresh reliever, and with pitchers throwing harder than ever there is no such thing as an easy at-bat.
The unattainable quest
Since Williams, Tony Gwynn came the closest to hitting .400 in 1994, when a players strike prematurely ended the season with Gwynn hitting .394 on Aug. 11, setting up one of the great what ifs ever. But even in that year, the latest Gwynn was at .400 was May 16, the Padres’ 37th game of the year. His was a steady assault on the mark, and was on the climb at the time of the strike, hitting .423 after the All-Star break.
Gwynn fell three hits shy of hitting .400.
George Brett came awfully close to the magical mark in 1980, standing at .400 after the Royals’ 148th game of the season. Just 14 games to go to make history, but Brett fell short, settling for .390, a batting title, leading the league in on-base percentage (.454), slugging (.654), OPS (1.118), OPS+ (203) while winning an MVP.
Since then there have been other relatively deep runs at .400, but none nearly as late as Brett.
Chipper Jones was hitting .400 after the Braves win on June 18, 2008, Atlanta’s 73rd game of the season, later than Bellinger’s 2019 to date. The Hall of Fame third baseman, in his 15th season, would end up hitting .364 for his only batting title, and also led the majors in on-base percentage (.470).
After a Blue Jays win on Aug. 2, 1993, just three days shy of his 25th birthday, John Olerud was hitting .400, after Toronto’s 107th game of the year. The season was two thirds complete. He ended up hitting .363, winning a batting title while leading the league in on-base percentage (.472), OPS (1.072) and OPS+ (186).
Todd Helton after his third at-bat and second single of the game on Aug. 21, 2000 was hitting .400 on the nose. That was the Rockies’ 125th game of the year, with just over a month left in the season. In theory you could see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, but it wasn’t meant to be. Helton ended up winning the batting title at .372, leading the NL in hits (216), doubles (59), RBI (147), on-base percentage (.463), slugging (.698), OPS (1.162) and total bases (405).
Bellinger this season is hitting .394/.478/.765, and leading the majors in runs (43), hits (67), batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS (1.243) and wRC+ (226). He’s third with 44 RBI. For now, his latest .400 moment came early in Game No. 50.
He won’t hit .400 but he’s still having an excellent year. Since getting called up to the Dodgers in April 2017, Bellinger has played in 342 of a possible 355 games (96.3%). If we assume that playing time for the rest of 2019, along with Bellinger’s career average of just over four plate appearances per game, even adding Bellinger’s 2017-18 production (.263/.347/.522) to his 2019 start would have him somewhere around .303/.389/.599 at the end of the year.
“Timing is everything at the plate. When you’re playing every single day, the hardest thing to do is to lock it in mentally every single at-bat. You tend to give at-bats away. But if you go up to the plate and force yourself to lock it in, you’re going to give yourself a little more of an advantage,” Bellinger told Patrick. “The biggest key is just trying to hit the ball hard. It doesn’t matter where it goes or how you hit it, just try to make good contact.”
Bellinger this season has excelled at hitting the ball hard. His average exit velocity of 92.9 mph ranks 13th in baseball, over three mph faster than his previous two seasons. He hits the ball hard (95 mph+) 52.5% of the time, 14th in MLB, and well above the league average of 34.2%.
Bellinger’s plate discipline
While Bellinger has a quite favorable .394 batting average on balls in play, he hasn’t exactly been lucky to hit near .400. Based on his batted ball data through Statcast, Bellinger’s expected batting average is .399 and his expected slugging is .747. Put simply, he’s crushing the ball.
Bellinger being more “locked in” at the plate, as he described, has led to far fewer strikeouts, a sizeable hole in his game during his first two seasons. He struck out in 25.2% of his plate appearances in 2017-18, including 17 whiffs in 29 plate appearances during the 2017 World Series. But this year Bellinger is down to a 14.3% strikeout rate and actually has as many walks (29) as strikeouts.
Some mechanical adjustments helped, under the tutelage of hitting coaches Robert Van Scoyoc and Brant Brown during spring training. Alden Gonzalez of ESPN explains:
They uncovered video of Bellinger’s plate appearances from the 2016 Arizona Fall League and throughout the 2017 season, then split-screened it with those from 2018 and analyzed the differences. They found that Bellinger was no longer applying enough pressure to the ground. He was standing too tall and straight-legged, making it difficult for him to halt momentum once his swing began. He also wasn’t efficient enough getting into his swing path. “Too elbowy,” as Brown put it.
Van Scoyoc and Brown wanted to eliminate wasted movement and make everything about Bellinger’s approach feel more natural. They implemented more of a hand movement to help his swing flow more easily through the hitting zone, mimicking the motion Bellinger would make while throwing a baseball. They brought his mechanics closer to what they looked like in 2017, when Bellinger displayed good plate coverage, but also accounted for the muscle he added thereafter.
The results so far speak for themselves.
Another way Bellinger has improved is handling left-handed pitching. He did just fine against southpaws in his rookie season, hitting 12 homers against lefties, the most in baseball by a left-handed hitter. But in 2018 Bellinger hit just .226/.305/.376 against lefties and was often platooned in the final two months of the season with the Dodgers in a dogfight for the National League West, a division race that needed an extra day to decide.
This year Bellinger is back with a vengeance against southpaws, hitting .349/.432/.683 with his six home runs the most against lefties in baseball from either side of the batters box.
Those marked improvements in his approach have spawned tangible gains, and while Bellinger very likely won’t hit .400 he has the building blocks in place for what should be an excellent 2019.