Bernie on the Cardinals: Is Cody Bellinger a good fit for the Red Birds?

Need a midfielder? Cody Bellinger, the 2019 National League Player of the Year, is on the market and available after the Dodgers declined a contract offer for 2023.

According to agent Scott Boras, Bellinger prefers a one-year contract for 2023 to redeem himself before returning to the free agent market for 2024. Bellinger, who turns 28 in July, is aggressively trying to return to full form after two consecutive light-hitting seasons. After dislocating his right shoulder multiple times during the 2020 season, Bellinger underwent surgery shortly after the Dodgers won the ’20 World Series.

“It was offered to me several years ago,” Porras told The Athletic. “Most likely, because of his age, we don’t want multiple years.”

During recent GM meetings in Las Vegas, Boras was emphatic about one point: Bellinger’s offensive meltdown wasn’t about skill. Porras attributed this to a lack of strength in Bellinger’s repaired shoulder. Bellinger has been busy working on improving shoulder toughness in the off-season.

There seems to be a lot of interest in Bellinger. I suppose the Cardinals will at least make an inquiry to find out what Bellinger-Porras is looking for. Does this mean the Cardinals are committed to chasing Bellinger to a one-year deal? I don’t know.

Quality center players aren’t easy to come by, and Bellinger was one of the best all-rounders in the game in 2019. That season, he was voted the NL MVP, won Slugger’s Gold and Silver Glove and was named to the NL All-Star Team for the second time.

That season, Bellinger hit . 305 with a . 1035 OPS, 47 homers, and 115 RBI. With 167 OPS+, Bellinger was 67% better than the offensive league average in ’19.

Four seasons in his career (2017-2020) Bellinger had a . 547 slugging percentage, 0.911 OPS, that was 40 percent higher than the offensive league average in OPS+, and was hitting a homer every 14.6 in-bats.

But in the postoperative period of his career… yikes.

Since the start of the 2021 season, at least 900 major league players have appeared in 151, like Bellinger. Here’s where he ranks among the 151 major categories offensively:

– 150th in batting average. 193
151st (last) in on-base percentage (256.)
– 146 in hit percentage. (355)
– 151 in OPS (.611)
– 151st in OPS+ (65)
– 151st in WRC+ (69)

Oh boy. This is really ugly.

Over his first four seasons, Bellinger had a strikeout average of 21.4 percent and walked 12.3 percent of his plate appearances. Over the past two seasons, Bellinger’s strike rate has risen to 27 percent, and his walk rate has dropped to 8.2 percent.

As for Bellinger’s statcast hit profile… well, there’s a lot of blue in there. Dark blue. A batter with lots of dark blue areas on his color-coded profile is a sign of trouble.

Two quick examples: In 2019, Bellinger had a solid 46 percent infection rate. In 2022, its damage rate will be 38 percent. His average off-season speed last season (89.4 mph) shows he’s fallen behind his 2019 level — but he’s not terrible.

In fairness to Bellinger, there have been positive signs in 2022, improving on his impressive 2021 performance in just about every area. That’s not to say his offense in 2022 was good; has not been. But perhaps those numbers will reveal something off his shoulder and a tip in the right direction.

Compared to 2021…

Bellinger improved 25 points in OBP and 31 points in hitting average. Up 87 points in slugging, 112 points in ups. Its severely affected rate increased by about four percent.

Bellinger’s isolated power figure — an important statistic — rose from . 137 in 2021 to . 179 last season, an increase of 42 points. Not only that, but his ISO179 was well above the MLB average at the . 152 level

Bellinger’s tally is up +36 points from 2021. In 2022, Bellinger scores every 26.5 points at bat, an improvement over his 31.5 home run average in 2021.

Bellinger—who hits left-handed—was below league average in each of the areas I just mentioned. But if you’re looking for encouraging signs, you can find them. Another example: In 2021, Bellinger was 40 percent below the league’s offensive average against right-handed pitchers. In 2022, it’s only eight percent below average for RHP. And his slugging percentage against righties increased from .349 in 2021 to .412 in 2022. Is shoulder strength increasing?

However, there are other red flags. His discipline has eroded in the sheets and he must toughen it up. Its firing angle appears to be off; Over the past two seasons he has gotten under the ball at a much higher average contact rate, 36.2%. In his prime season (2019), Bellinger had an “under” call rate of 27.5 percent. Translation: Over the past two seasons, there have been way too many harmless fly balls.

Maybe some repairs can be done. Current Cardinals hitting coach Turner Ward was the hitting coach for the Dodgers in Bellinger’s first two MLB seasons, 2017 and 18. Bellinger has performed well, performing 31 percent above the league average offensively in OPS+.

A team that signs Bellinger will get a great first baseman. According to Bill James, Bellinger has had +72 net base gain in his career including +20 this past season. And his career stolen hit rate is an impressive 82%.

There are mixed opinions on his defense — Statcast gives him much higher marks than Fielding’s Bible — but the end result is fine. In all likelihood, Bellinger will be no worse than the league average defensively at the position. Maybe a little above average.

Other than what I mention about Turner Ward, I’m not trying to make any matchups here between the Cardinals and Bellinger. Again, trying to gauge Cardinals’ interest in a player is almost always a waste of time, and they don’t leak to the local media unless they’re looking to get a favor. But we know that the Cardinals are after an LH batter — John Mozeliak has said it repeatedly — and Bellinger has played all three outfield positions plus first base.

Signing Bellinger to a one-year deal would reduce the risk. The Dodgers non-bid Bellinger because they didn’t want to pay up to the $18 million to $20 million estimate of his projected salary for the final year of refereeing. The Dodgers want Bellinger back, but at a lower cost.

Bellinger must have plenty of attractive options. To give himself the best chance of erasing concerns about him, it would make sense for Bellinger to stay at a hitter-friendly ballpark to boost his power numbers. In this context, Busch Stadium is not ideal.

When Bellinger had his senior season in 2019, Statcast showed that 11 of the 47 home runs would not have landed a Busch home run. Over the past two seasons, Bellinger has had 30 total home runs and 24 Busch left. Any number of home runs would boost Bellinger’s total HR—not suppress it.

If the Cardinals had a genuine interest in Bellinger, he would be an interesting candidate. The recovery season in 2023 is reasonable. Shoulder problems are tough and not easily resolved, and Bellinger’s red flags are obvious. But it is also true that his gradual improvement in 2022 is encouraging. It’s easy to say – but what if Bellinger doesn’t hit in 2023? That’s the scary part, even on a one-year agreement.

I’d be willing to take a year’s flyer on Bellinger.

on the other side…

Imagine a 26-man roster in 2023 that includes Bellinger and Paul DeJong, two players who each scored 11 lowest in major tackles in the past two seasons.

The Cardinals need more of a sure thing.

Ah, but then again, the St. Louis front office knows they can win the NL Central in 2023 without him. a job something.

Thanks for reading…

Bernie

Bernie invites you to tune in to his stubborn sports talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3 to 6 pm and Friday from 4 to 6 pm. You can listen by podcasting online or by downloading the podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app available at your favorite app store.

Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz

All statistics used here have been obtained from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net, and Spotrac.

Bernie Miklas

For the past 35 years, Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected generations of St. Louis sports fans.

While best known for his voice as the Post-Dispatch’s chief sports columnist for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News, and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C

Bernie, his wife Kirsten, and their cats reside in the Skinker DeBalever neighborhood of St. Louis.

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