Cody Bellinger had a miserable 2021 season at the plate for the Dodgers, and that’s putting it kindly. He was bad on an epic, historic level.
Bellinger was, most times he dug into the batter’s box, the coyote trying to catch the road runner, often blowing himself up in the process. He lunged at sliders, swung through fastballs and stood frozen at curveballs dropping into the strike zone. He swung and missed, over and over. His signature long swing, a thing of beauty during his MVP campaign of 2019, just looked long and lost in 2021. He was not fully healthy, battling a shoulder issue that zapped his power and timing, a pretty devastating 1-2 punch.
Bellinger batted .165 with a .240 on-base percentage and a 45 OPS+ — remember, 100 is league average in that stat, which means Bellinger was 55 percent worse than the average MLB hitter. Yikes. He had a minus-1.5 bWAR for the year.
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And he was at his absolute worst against his Dodgers’ most hated rivals, the Giants. This looks like a typo, but it’s not: Bellinger was 2 for 48 against San Francisco pitchers during the regular season. That’s a .042 average. His slugging percentage was an almost impossible .104.
If Bellinger had hit even .150 against the Giants this season, maybe the Dodgers would have wound up on top of the NL West standings. They could have skipped the terrifying wild-card game and secured home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. But he didn’t. He batted .042 and the Dodgers finished a game back of San Francisco.
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The Dodgers kept him in the lineup as long as they could, though, hoping something would change. If nothing else, he was still an outstanding defensive player.
“Cody, athletically, is as gifted as anyone,” Dodgers Cy Young candidate Walker Buehler told SN in September. “We’ve said it for years, he could win a Gold Glove at all three outfield positions and at first base, probably. He’s a special player on the defensive side of the ball. We just want to get him healthy. The shoulder thing, I think, is always going to be lingering for a while. I think once he gets that right, he’ll be the hitter he always has been. He’s off to a pretty special start to his career. We’ll get him back healthy, and he’s still out there running down balls for us. We’re happy to have him.”
Baseball has a way of giving extra chances. Lots and lots of chances, often.
Bellinger had one of those opportunities on Thursday night, in a game the great Vin Scully called the most important matchup in the history of the Dodgers-Giants rivalry.
To my knowledge, tonight’s game between the @Dodgers and @SFGiants is the most important game in the history of their rivalry. With nearly identical records, and so much at stake, I believe this to be the case.
— Vin Scully (@TheVinScully) October 14, 2021
Bellinger made the most of it. With two on and one out in what was already a classic do-or-die playoff game — Game 5 of the NLDS — Bellinger damn near equaled his regular-season hit total against the Giants, sending a line-drive single though the shifted infield, chasing Justin Turner — who reached on a hit by pitch — home for the go-ahead run, putting Los Angeles up 2-1.
Bellinger was only in the lineup at first base in Game 5 because of an injury on the final day of the regular season to Max Muncy, the club’s powerhouse first baseman. Bellinger’s struggles had gotten so bad that the Dodgers tried out infielder Gavin Lux in center field late in the regular season, with the goal of improving the offense heading into October.
But when Muncy got hurt, Bellinger was back in the everyday mix, either in center or first base. And first base is, coincidentally, where he wound up as Turner raced around third with the run that carried the Dodgers into the NLCS for the sixth time in nine years.
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At this point, does it even matter what he did in the regular season?