PITTSBURGH — The fly-ball revolution began with desperate players hoping to extend their careers with dramatic changes to their swings. Players like Justin Turner, nontendered by the New York Mets after the 2013 season, and J.D. Martinez, released by the Houston Astros in the spring of 2014, went outside the pro game to seek out independent swing instructors. But what happens when players who are already among the game’s most successful try to optimize their approach and embrace the same style of teaching?
What happens is Cody Bellinger’s 2019 season. The Los Angeles Dodger leads the majors with 4.4 wins above replacement — already a career best — 213 weighted runs created plus and high marks in a host of traditional metrics like runs, RBIs, on-base plus slugging and batting average.
Asked about what happens when the most talented players, like Bellinger, begin to adopt the best new ideas entering the game, Dodgers teammate David Freese thought for a moment and said: “It’s scary.”
While Bellinger was certainly an above-average major league hitter last year, he was not satisfied with what had been an up-and-down season. His elite bat speed had helped make him the top Dodgers prospect and the NL Rookie of the Year in 2017, when he belted 39 home runs, but he has also suffered through extended slumps. He wanted to be better.
After an offseason of work, Bellinger has cut his strikeout rate more than any other player — a 9.7-point decrease through Sunday — at a time when MLB batters are striking out at a historic rate and when pitches have never been nastier. While he’s improved his contact ability, he’s also had the seventh-greatest increase in power.
Put simply, Bellinger seems to be squaring up everything. Among qualifying hitters, he’s had the seventh-greatest drop in pop-up rate on balls put in play and the 11th-greatest decline in ground-ball rate. He’s never had a two-month stretch like this one.
His improvement began — like those less successful, more desperate hitters before him — with a desire for new information. After the 2018 season ended, Bellinger wanted to seek out the hitting strategist for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Robert Van Scoyoc, for advice about his swing. Van Scoyoc was the understudy of Craig Wallenbrock, the iconoclastic instructor and Dodgers consultant who helped bring the fly-ball revolution to MLB. Van Scoyoc helped turn Martinez from a roster cut into an MVP candidate and had worked with Bellinger’s teammate, Chris Taylor, on transforming his swing. After talking to Taylor, Bellinger became more and more curious. Of course, the problem was that Van Scoyoc was the employee of a division rival club.
That problem went away when the Dodgers hired Van Scoyoc to be their major league hitting coach in November, replacing the more traditional Turner Ward. Van Scoyoc became the third Wallenbrock understudy to be hired as a major league hitting coach last offseason, joining Tim Laker (Seattle Mariners) and Johnny Washington (San Diego Padres). Another, former big leaguer Brant Brown, was hired by the Dodgers to be their “hitting strategist” last season.
Freese, who’s been with four MLB clubs, likes the trend of outside coaches becoming insiders. He told me during the Dodgers’ recent swing through Pittsburgh that this is an important evolution in coaching.
“Especially as hard as the pitching is getting, especially if you are a younger guy in a developmental stage, I don’t think we talk about how important who is developing them is,” Freese said. “I think a lot of teams talk about ‘We are going to develop, we are going to develop, we are going to rebuild.’ Well, who you have around your players matters. You have to make sure you have the right people around the entire organization to get the most out of your players. Especially young guys. What [Brown and Van Scoyoc] bring is exactly what teams need.”
Bellinger’s interest in new ideas was piqued in 2017, when the lefty slugger was having a hard time hitting breaking balls. Turner — whose swing was revamped by Doug Latta, another outside instructor who had worked with Wallenbrock — took him aside in the Dodgers’ batting cages and challenged him to try to swing and miss under breaking balls off the slider machine. Bellinger couldn’t. They competed to see who could most often hit the top of the batting cage netting.
“You want to hit a curveball on the bottom part of the ball — it was practicing that every day,” Bellinger said last season. “We started in May and June and did it through the whole year. … Baseball is a crazy sport where it can take just one thing for it to click,” he said.
Did that work pay off? Bellinger is hitting .462 on curves this season.
Last offseason, Bellinger spent two weeks with Van Scoyoc at Dodger Stadium before working twice a week for the rest of the winter with Brown at the Dodgers’ spring training and player development headquarters in Phoenix, near Bellinger’s home. Brown told FiveThirtyEight that he, Van Scoyoc and Bellinger dug a little “deeper mechanically” to find out how Bellinger’s body performed best and how he was able to create leverage most efficiently. “We went into the data, into the video,” Brown said, which included 3D swing mapping this spring.
Brown said the most conspicuous changes are in Bellinger’s setup at the plate. Last season, he went from starting with his hands higher in the first half to having his bat more erect by the second half. He was searching for comfort.
“Not as straight up as it was ’18. … In a relaxed position,” Brown said. “I call it being bored at the plate — all good players have that poker face. There is no panic whatsoever. That was the main goal in setup, providing relaxation … and being in a position to move forward and see the ball.”
“You are a lot better when you are calm in the [batter’s] box, in the mind and the body,” Bellinger said. “It’s about feeling good, having confidence. Just trying to lock it in every single time.”
Brown said Bellinger also learned that he didn’t always have to take his “big-daddy hack,” a swing in which he promotes so much bat speed that his follow-through results in the bat striking him in the square of the back.
“It was a lot of drills to work on [swing] path,” Bellinger said. “It was a combination of a lot of things.”
After all of that work, Bellinger is sitting on one of the best batting averages entering June since 2002. And his underlying stats are reminiscent of other hitters who have started seasons by hitting close to .400, with strikeout and pop-up rates well below the major league average and above-average line-drive rates.
|Line drive %
|Infield fly %
|2019 MLB avg.
Conventional wisdom would have you believe that a player who is enjoying such a reduction in strikeouts and an improvement in squaring the ball up is better using the whole field, but Bellinger is doing the opposite. He’s pulling the ball at the highest rates of his career. He’s simply hitting lasers through shifts — and doubles and home runs over them.
Bellinger has shown us what might happen when the best players embrace the best ideas. For him, that might mean transforming from a good player to an MVP candidate, a player whose talent was always obvious and whose flaws are becoming harder to find.
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