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Cubs' Cody Bellinger just had one of the best months of his career

Ryan Herrera Avatar
May 1, 2023

The idea that a change of scenery alone can turn around a player’s career feels a little farfetched. A lot goes into a turnaround, especially when you’re talking about a former MVP looking to rebound from multiple seasons of underperformance. So, for Cody Bellinger, just moving from Los Angeles to Chicago wasn’t going to get him back to his 2019 National League MVP form again.

“If you embrace it and take advantage of it, I think it can be a benefit,” said Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts, who managed Bellinger for each of his first six seasons in Major League Baseball. “Sometimes, hearing a different voice, a different scenery, a different fan base, I think that takes away some of the baggage or expectations or frustration, whatever it might be for a player.”

Roberts saw what Bellinger was like at his peak — a ’19 season in which he posted a 161 wRC+, was worth 7.8 wins above replacement (according to FanGraphs), and earned the NL MVP, his second All-Star nod (first start) and his lone Silver Slugger and Gold Glove awards. However, Roberts also witnessed the downturn in Bellinger’s career. Injuries played a big part in that, but Roberts also saw some mental struggles stem from wanting to again reach the lofty bar he set in ’19.

“I think some of it was physical, and I think the other part of it was mental in the sense of trying to recapture what he had before,” Roberts said. “That’s why I was so excited in one sense to have him have a change of scenery, where it’s a fresh start, a clean slate, and I think he’s embraced that.”

In that sense, both Bellinger and the Cubs have certainly taken on that challenge of trying to get him back to what he once was.

Cubs hitting coach Dustin Kelly and assistant hitting coach Johnny Washington have at least some familiarity with Bellinger after previously working in the Dodgers’ minor league system. Knowing the player Bellinger was before the injuries, they understood where some small adjustments could be made to help him feel more like he used to.

But Kelly didn’t want to overwhelm Bellinger with a bunch of changes. He said they’ve made some compromises with Bellinger’s lower half and hand setup, but a lot of it has been about keeping things simple, not completely overhauling the swing mechanics. And as important as anything else, they’ve focused on the mental side, helping reassure Bellinger that the player he once was is still there.

“With the health comes confidence, and I think once he realized that he was perfectly healthy, he was really strong again, that now it comes back to the confidence of him knowing that he’s the player and can be the player that he was because his body feels the way that it should,” Kelly said. “The swing mechanics have changed a little bit, but for the most part, he’s still Cody Bellinger. We just have to continue to preach that, ‘Hey, you are that guy.'”

The Cubs’ preaching seems to be working, as Bellinger ended April with monthly numbers he hasn’t seen since that MVP season:

  • He produced a 158 wRC+ in March/April, his highest in a single month since March/April of 2019 (247)
  • His .604 slugging percentage is his highest since March/April ’19 (.890)
  • His .410 weight on-base average is his highest since March/April ’19 (.547)
  • His .975 OPS is his highest since May ’19 (.998)

It’s about as great a start to Bellinger’s Cubs career as anyone could’ve asked for. From playing Gold Glove-caliber defense (his 2 defensive runs saved are the most among qualified NL center fielders, per FanGraphs) to finishing the month tied for fifth in the NL and first on the Cubs with 1.4 fWAR, he’s legitimately looked at times like the player he was four years ago.

“Routine, approach,” Bellinger told reporters in Miami (per’s Jordan Bastian) about what drove his strong April. “Good or bad, it’s realizing that the next day is the most important. And really, just staying within myself and just being in the moment.”

Among the few low points of his first month was going 0-for-11 in the Cubs’ first series. But Bellinger and Cubs manager David Ross both said he was probably pressing to try and get off to a good start.

Outside of that, nothing has really slowed him down. The April weather at Wrigley Field, which of course isn’t as nice as what Bellinger was used to playing in at Dodger Stadium, didn’t affect him negatively (120 wRC+ at home, 202 wRC+ on the road). He also didn’t miss a beat when he went on the paternity list to be there for the birth of his second daughter, Cy Carter Bellinger, with girlfriend Chase Carter on April 23.

After returning for the Cubs’ series in Miami, Bellinger went 3-for-11 with two home runs, a triple, four runs and three RBIs. His team may have gotten swept by the Marlins to end April on a sour note, but he now heads into May still riding his hot streak.

Whether Bellinger can continue his torrid start as a Cub remains to be seen. Doing it for a month doesn’t mean he’s past the struggles that have come when he isn’t feeling right.

But right now, he is feeling right. He’s making the Dodgers’ decision to non-tender him — before the Cubs’ signed him to a one-year pillow contract — look foolish. So, for however long he can keep it up, the Cubs will gladly take a resurgent Cody Bellinger in the middle of their lineup.

“It’s fun [to watch],” Kelly said. “I mean, it’s turned that spot in the lineup into a damage position of like, when Cody comes up, guys are looking at him from the other dugout, like, ‘He’s back.'”

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