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MESA, Ariz. — Nobody should take a single swing this early in spring training for more than what it is. There’s still a long way to go before the season begins, and a long fly ball off the bat during workouts doesn’t mean someone has rediscovered their form at the plate. But man, it had to feel good for Cody Bellinger to take one deep on Thursday.
At the end of a lefty-on-lefty matchup with Drew Smyly during live batting practice, Bellinger drove a Smyly delivery over the fence and onto the grass behind the left-center wall.
Yes, it’s only live BP, but it is still that point in spring training where hitters are getting their first looks at live pitching in camp. And really, any home run in that kind of setting deserves a little celebration.
“Confidence is big for all of these guys,” new Cubs hitting coach Dustin Kelly said. “Live BP is one of the toughest settings for any hitter to get into, especially this early in the spring, so any barrel that happens in a live BP is just extra confidence.”
Any confidence that Bellinger can find at the plate is always good. The 2019 National League MVP saw his numbers free fall over the last two seasons. In 2021-22 combined, Bellinger posted a 69 wRC+ while hitting just .193. That was a far cry from his 2019 campaign, when those numbers finished at 161 and .305, respectively.
The struggles the last two years were even more pronounced against lefties, when recorded a combined 44 wRC+ and a .178 average. So, for him to take a southpaw deep, even if it was “only” in live BP, is an encouraging sign that maybe he’s starting to feel a bit like his old self again.
“It’s pretty refreshing,” Bellinger said earlier this spring. “I’m very free, feeling athletic, feeling strong, feeling refreshed and feeling confident. It’s a pretty good combination right there.”
Bellinger has been at the Cubs’ facility since he signed his one-year, $17.5 million deal in December. Not only has it been on Bellinger to get himself back to a point that even resembles his 2019 self, but the Cubs wanted to get right to work on helping him feel right, too.
Kelly said that, of the things he wants to see from Bellinger right now, “athleticism” at the plate is No. 1 That’s something seemingly everyone from Bellinger to Kelly to Cubs manager David Ross has agreed on. But what does that mean, exactly?
“I think it’s more of a relaxed look in the box,” Kelly said. “He’s always been kind of a tall, upright stance, but there’s a little bit of flexibility in there as he starts to make his move towards the pitcher and kind of gets into his heel strike.”
Kelly and Bellinger have some history dating back to their days in the Dodgers organization, and they quickly became comfortable with each other. It helped that Bellinger and the coaching staff felt both sides were speaking the same language right away.
Said Bellinger: “We were both on the same page from Day 1. That was a big reason why I wanted to sign here, because it’s speaking what I feel is right. They’ve accepted it and they agree, and we’ve just been working towards that.”
Said Kelly: “I think Cody and I have spoken the same language since Day 1, so he’s been able to talk his way through his swing. He understands his body really well and has put a lot of work into it. I think some of the things that he went through the last couple years have helped with that”
As Bellinger works to find that athletic plate presence again, he’s focusing a lot of his efforts on his core and his lower half. The injuries setbacks he’s gone through the last couple of seasons impacted him offensively, as Dodgers manager Dave Roberts recently said he could see Bellinger compensating for the injuries, which in turn hurt his own performance.
But Bellinger has stated multiple times that he feels healthy again. That alone could go a long way toward helping him feel like the hitter he’s proven he can be. And if his live BP dinger is any indication, perhaps he actually can start getting back to the old Cody Bellinger.
“You want to feel that, you want to have that timing,” Ross said of Bellinger’s blast. “It just adds to that confidence of, ‘The things I’ve worked on feel good, I’m seeing the ball good.’ I’ve had conversations with him. I know he’s in a confident space. Just continue to build on that I think is what everybody tries to do in spring, so you hit the ground running, and when the season starts, you feel like you’re prepared and have had some success.”
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