Dave Roberts left Cody Bellinger off of the starting lineup on Wednesday as the Dodgers fell to the Cubs at Wrigley Field. Bellinger had been struggling of late at the plate, recording just one hit in his previous four games, while striking out eight times during that stretch. For much of the year, Bellinger has been disappointing at the plate but there may be a trend behind his offensive struggles.
More than ever before, teams value defensive versatility over set positions for their players. In recent years, especially under the analytical leadership of Farhan Zaidi and Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers have pushed players to defend multiple positions. One of the more notable instances has been with Bellinger.
Cody Bellinger: The Utility Player
Bellinger has primarily played first base in his first two seasons in the Major Leagues but has also shared time manning the outfield. Last year Bellinger played 38 games in left field, giving Adrian Gonzalez an opportunity to play first base. This season Bellinger has played 19 games in center field, giving Max Muncy time at first base.
Despite moving back and forth between first base and the outfield, Bellinger’s defense has never been in question. He has made only one error all year and owns a career fielding average of .996.
Cody Bellinger has a .582 OPS over the last 30 days. Asked if demoting him to triple-A was an option, Dave Roberts said the Dodgers are “not there yet.”
— Pedro Moura (@pedromoura) June 3, 2018
The concern for Bellinger has been on the offensive end. In his monster rookie campaign, he hit .269 and slugged 39 home runs. This year he is batting just .231 with 12 home runs in his second season.
The common denominator between this season and last for Bellinger has been his offensive struggles in games where he plays a defensive position other than first base.
In 2017, Bellinger batted .299 with 30 home runs when he played first base. By contrast, when playing any other position, Bellinger hit just .203 with nine home runs.
While Bellinger’s overall production is down this year, he is still an above average hitter when he plays first base. In 2018, Bellinger is batting .263 with nine home runs when playing first base and batting .140 with three home runs when playing elsewhere.
Coming into this season, Bellinger looked like a lock as the first baseman of the future. Through May 15, he played first base each game in which he appeared. At that time he was batting a decent .269/.326/.474. Since that date, Bellinger has constantly moved back and forth between center field and first base and is slashing just .171/.322/.414 in that span.
The Dodgers Predicament
While the simple solution would be to keep Bellinger at first, Muncy has produced enough to force his way into the lineup. Muncy’s 13 home runs and .976 OPS lead the Dodgers and although he also plays third base, he is blocked in the hot corner by Justin Turner.
The Dodgers could move Muncy to second base, allowing Bellinger to stick to first. Muncy has only played second base once this season, but homered in that game. He has also played that position 21 times in his career. While this would move Logan Forsythe out of the lineup, he has struggled during his time in Los Angeles.
This move would give more time to the hot-hitting Joc Pederson and Kike Hernández in center field and would optimize the Dodger offense, which has been dormant over the past week.
Stating that solely playing first base would lead to a dramatic increase in Bellinger’s offense would be an oversimplification. With that said, there is a large enough sample size in his career to see clear splits in his production depending on where he plays on defense. Sticking to first base would allow Bellinger to focus solely on one position and allow for more consistency and stability for the 22-year-old. Given his struggles at the plate, returning Bellinger to one position wouldn’t hurt the Dodgers lineup.
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