How Dodgers Megastar Cody Bellinger Could Actually Chase a .400 Season in 2019

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 23, 2019

Los Angeles Dodgers' Cody Bellinger celebrates as he rounds the bases after his two-run home run against the San Diego Padres during the third inning of a baseball game Tuesday, May 14, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Famously, no player has hit over .400 through a full Major League Baseball season since Ted Williams finished with a .406 batting average in 1941. In all likelihood, that will still be the case at the end of 2019.

That doesn't mean Cody Bellinger can't give it a shot.

Although an 0-for-4 on Wednesday dropped Bellinger's average down to .394, it's extraordinary enough that the Los Angeles Dodgers' 23-year-old outfielder/first baseman was hitting at a .404 clip through his first 47 games. And that figure couldn't be dismissed out of hand for two reasons.

One: Holy cow, there's a guy who's actually hitting .400!

Two: Bellinger's average is, shockingly, not very flukey. 

In the age of Statcast, all manners of "expected" statistics serve as convenient chisels with which to break apart apparently unbreakable numbers. Bellinger's .404 average, however, was only barely undercut by a .399 expected batting average.

In its five-year history, that's by far the highest xBA Statcast has recorded for a hitter with at least 150 plate appearances. What's more, no player with even 100 plate appearances through May 21 came close to that mark before Bellinger:

  • Adam Jones, 2015: .325
  • Daniel Murphy, 2016: .353
  • Ryan Zimmerman, 2017: .332
  • Mookie Betts, 2018: .358
  • Cody Bellinger, 2019: .399

What Bellinger is doing can't be traced back to big-picture changes happening throughout the game. The league's overall average is .244, which is the lowest it's been since 1972. Two related stories? Strikeouts and defensive shifts are still trending ever upward in frequency.

What Bellinger is doing has everything to do with, well, what Bellinger is doing. 

Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

For starters, he should keep tuning out any and all talk about hitting .400.

"It's definitely really cool, but I think the most important thing is trying to block that stuff out every single day," he said during The Dan Patrick Show on Wednesday.

As cool as Bellinger's pursuit of .400 is from a historical perspective, his job isn't to chase after hits. At least when he's in the batter's box, his job is to provide the Dodgers with the best possible outcome. If he gets something good to hit, he should drive it. If not, he should remain patient and possibly take a walk. Or wear one, if need be.

Bellinger is also doing just fine in those regards.

The 17 homers he's clubbed are only eight fewer than the 25 he hit throughout all of 2018, and his .478 on-base percentage and .765 slugging percentage have something in common with his .404 average: They lead MLB.

Still, there are indeed practical explanations for Bellinger's batting average, starting with how much his approach has improved. He's fine-tuned his eye for the strike zone, resulting in less frequent swings at bad pitches and more frequent swings at good pitches.

Beyond more walks, that's earning him fewer strikeouts. He's gone from struggling with an above-average 23.9 percent strikeout rate in 2018 to excelling with a well-below-average 14.3 strikeout percentage in 2019.

Putting more balls in play is a good thing for the ol' batting average, and Bellinger is further helping his cause by clobbering his batted balls. His average exit velocity is a career-best 92.9 mph. His average launch angle is down to 13.5 degrees, but that's actually feeding into a decrease in ground balls (which don't usually go for hits) and a drastic increase in line drives (which usually do).

And like his fly balls, Bellinger's line drives sometimes just keep going:

As David Adler covered at MLB.com, Bellinger's secret weapon is his speed. He's the fastest baserunner on the Dodgers, and that's helped him earn five extra hits on balls that never left the infield.

About the only thing the left-handed swinger isn't doing is spraying his batted balls in all directions. He's hit half to his pull side and only 16 percent to the opposite field. But while that would theoretically make him prone to shifts, his batting average against the shift also starts with a four.

This is not to say there aren't legitimate threats to Bellinger's batting average. The big one is how he's being pitched. Opponents aren't throwing him as many pitches in the zone in May as they did in March and April, and he's been obliging them by more frequently expanding the zone:

Bellinger is suffering accordingly. His strikeout rate is rising, and his batting average is falling. He's hitting "only" .328 in May.

If opposing pitchers don't derail Bellinger, the ground-ball gods might. What grounders he does hit tend to fall into a shift-friendly pattern. Despite his speed, the 75-point gap between his expected average (.297) and actual average (.372) on ground balls doesn't seem built to last.

Hence the original point about the unlikeliness that anyone will knock the Splendid Splinter from his perch as the last man to hit .400. A more practical target for Bellinger is .350, which nobody has surpassed since Josh Hamilton in 2010.

Nevertheless, Bellinger is in "stranger things have happened" territory at this point.

It's no small feat that his chase for .400 passes the smell test as well as it does. And while real issues might exist, re-calibrating his plate discipline, avoiding bad luck on grounders and maybe spreading the ball around more is, frankly, a short to-do list. 

Tempting as it may be to think somebody hitting .400 will never happen again, "never" is a long time. And in this case, maybe 78 years is long enough to conclude that someone is simply due.

                    

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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