Cody Bellinger has found himself in some unique company. It is well known that the former MVP had himself a very rough season this year, but some statistics truly stand out. Throughout his injury-riddled 2021 campaign, Bellinger would find his way onto the field for the defending champion Dodgers in 95 games. In those games he produced an OPS+ of 45, meaning he was 55% worse than the average MLB player. Even beyond that, Bellinger wound up producing -1.5 bWAR, ranking him the fourth-worst offensive player in the MLB among those that had played as many games as him.
All of that is old news. While his struggles have been well documented, a specific struggle has gone further under the radar. Bellinger wrote his name in the history books this season, but not in the way you would want to find your name among MLB records. In 14 appearances against the NL West Champion San Francisco Giants Bellinger went 2-48 in 54 plate appearances, posting a meager batting average of .042. What’s notable is that this registers as the single lowest batting average in the integration era (since 1947) against one team in which the player had at least 50 plate appearances against that team. While this might sound like one of those funky ESPN stats that seem like it’s a far reach, it essentially means that this is the worst season against a divisional opponent any individual player has ever had in the integration era.
(Not So) Elite Company:
By that same metric, it’s the second-worst in the history of baseball, with only Clyde Milan’s 1909 season against the Philadelphia Athletics producing a worse number by just .02 points, leaving the Washington Senator Centerfielder with a BA of .040.
This statistic may seem irrelevant when viewing it alone, but put into the context of the Giants and Dodgers season series, the intrigue grows. The divisional race between these two teams was decided by a single game, with the Giants claiming the division title with 107 wins, while the Dodgers found themselves with the second-best record in all of baseball with 106 wins but no regular-season hardware to show for. Not only was the divisional race decided by one game, but the season series between the two clubs was as well.
Dodgers NL West Champions?
We’re this deep into a statistical anomaly, so why not take it further? Could you make a case that Bellinger’s performance against the Giants cost the Dodgers the NL West title and in turn changed the course of the rest of the year? Now, of course, the Dodgers did go on to beat the Giants in the NLDS so the point may seem moot, but there’s more to consider. What if the Dodgers won one more game against the Giants, thus forcing a game 163? Two different Giants wins against the Dodgers were decided by a single run. In the September 3rd matchup of the two teams, the penultimate matchup of the regular season, the Giants won 3-2. In that game Bellinger started, going 0-3. One of those at-bats came late in the game with a runner on, but he would strike out to conclude the threat. Bellinger also started in the May 30th matchup of the two teams, the other game in which the Giants won by a single run. Although Bellinger would score a run after he was walked, he was still hitless on the day in four plate appearances.
There were enough opportunities both in these one-run games as well as other Giants-Dodgers games that Bellinger had moments to make a significant impact, yet came up short. If you replace Bellinger with a player batting exactly at league average, or even at league average for a hitter in the 8th spot in the lineup, it’s statistically more probable than not that the replacement player would’ve gotten on base at a much higher clip than Bellinger, and in turn could have flipped the results on their head.
What Could Have Been:
In some alternate universe where Cody Bellinger never is hurt and instead plays at MVP form per usual, the Dodgers win the division. It’s as simple as that. With his -1.5 bWAR, his existence in the Dodgers lineup for 95 games cost the Dodgers a shot at a game 163. If Bellinger doesn’t record the single worst batting average against a single opponent since the Truman administration, who knows the possibilities. Perhaps a Giants vs. Cardinals wild card leads to a Cardinals victory. Maybe the Cardinals carry that momentum into their series in LA and beat them over a five-game series as opposed to the Wild Card loss that really happened. All this goes to show that the play of a single individual can profoundly change the shape of an MLB season, and every single at-bat leads to something greater.
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