This is Day 11 of a Cubsmas Advent Calendar. You can read the explanation for the project and Day One here.
Yesterday I wrote about the impact Adbert Alzolay’s emergence as a closer had on the 2023 Cubs. I think there is a very good case to be made that Alzolay is one of the key differences between the Cubs having a winning record and a losing one. However, there is one other element from the 2023 Cubs season that overlays nicely with the team’s success and that is the resurgence of Cody Bellinger. Take a look at this 15-game rolling average wOBA graph:
Now, compare that with the Cubs’ playoff odds by month in 2023:
The playoff odds chart slightly lags Bellinger’s production, but there is a clear correlation between the two. Additionally, that small lag is likely the odds catching up to the Cubs winning trends and player production. Joe Maddon used to say “you go, we go” about leadoff man Dexter Fowler. It certainly seems like there is an argument to be made that Cody Bellinger played a similar role for the 2023 Cubs.
Given the team’s need at first base in the long-term, and likely in centerfield in the short-term, many Cubs fans have wondered why Bellinger and the Cubs haven’t already come to terms on a longer term deal that would keep the former MVP in Chicago. So today I wanted to take a closer look at some of the curious pieces behind Bellinger’s rebound that led to him being named the National League Comeback Player of the Year and the likelihood of a reunion with the Cubs for 2024 and beyond.
After he was non-tendered by the Dodgers, the Cubs offered Bellinger a short-term deal to re-establish his value and if you were the type who just looked at triple slashlines and box scores, he absolutely understood the assignment. Bellinger hit .307/.356/.525 with the Chicago Cubs across 556 plate appearances last year. He hit 26 home runs and stole 20 bases for the first 20/20 season of his career. Those 26 long balls were tied with Christopher Morel for the team lead. He led the team in RBI with 97, and was second (behind Nico Hoerner) with 95 runs scored.
Even by some of the more advanced metrics, Bellinger’s year with the Cubs looked pretty good. His 4.1 fWAR was third on the team despite playing 20 fewer games than 2nd place Nico Hoerner and 17 fewer games than team leader Dansby Swanson. His wRC+ over the 130 games he played was 134, indicating he was 34 percent better than league average at run creation. His raw power rebounded to a solid ISO of .218 and his wOBA of .370 led all qualified Cubs hitters, with Seiya Suzuki’s .358 second.
However, a peak under the hood of those numbers suggests that while it certainly looked like Bellinger made substantial strides towards returning to the player who won the Most Valuable Player award in 2019, he did so in ways that are fundamentally different than the player he was in 2019. And some of those differences may be giving teams (including the Cubs) pause in signing him to the long-term, $200+ million deal that Bellinger’s agent Scott Boras is said to be seeking for his client.
The easiest way to see this in a visual is to look at Bellinger’s Statcast profile from 2019 compared to that same profile from 2023. First up, the 2019 MVP season:
That is a lot of red, particularly the hard hit rate and barrel rate. As a reminder, barrels are balls hit at a particular launch angle and exit velocity such that they’d have an expected batting average of .500 and an expected slugging of 1.500 — in other words, extra base hits. Now, let’s take a look at 2023:
There is a lot of blue there where you’d want to see red. In fact, the only number that is better than the 2019 MVP season is Bellinger’s K rate, which I’ll get to below. Perhaps more troubling, the barrel and hard hit rates for 2023 aren’t just below peak Bellinger — they are below league average, and the worst of Bellinger’s career by a pretty sizable amount, as you can see:
Across the board there are warning signs on Bellinger’s 2023. The average exit velocity is down 1.5 miles per hour, and is a career low, the hard hit rate is down 6.5 percent and is a career low, that career low 6.1 percent barrel rate ranks just below the Tigers’ Akil Baddoo and is tied with the following players in 2023: Xander Bogaerts, Hunter Renfroe and Donavan Solano. Now, I’m sure Scott Boras would point to the Bogaerts part of this and try to make an argument that Bellinger and his 6.1 percent barrel rate are obviously worth north of $200 million and a contract that runs through his age 40 season, but everyone else is going to look at those other three guys and suggest the number should be quite a bit lower.
The one part of Bellinger’s 2023 approach that offers a glimmer of hope is the substantially lowered K rate last season. That 15.6 percent strikeout rate was the lowest of Cody Bellinger’s career. It was second lowest on the Cubs (behind Nico’s 12.1 percent K rate) and was good for a tie for 20th lowest K rate in baseball last season (Mark Canha and Bryson Stott also put up a 15.6 percent K rate in 2023). It is also worth wondering if Bellinger was one of the biggest winners of last year’s new shift rules — there are a lot of singles in shallow right field on that Statcast spray chart above, and it makes me wonder if the career high .319 BABIP is more a result of rules changes than a statistical aberration.
Whether the Cubs figure out a way to reunite with Bellinger or not, they will need to replace that big bat in the middle of the lineup. With a weaker free agent class than many years, there just aren’t that many options out there who line up with the Cubs needs to do it. They could attempt another short-term, reset your value, type of deal with Rhys Hoskins, they could take a chance on Matt Chapman’s 100th percentile hard hit rates that had substantially worse actual results than Bellinger last year, or they could just go with the guy they already know fits with their lineup and clubhouse: the National League comeback player of the year, Cody Bellinger.