With the Los Angeles Dodgers eliminated from the playoffs, it is time to contextualize just how stupid Cody Bellinger‘s season was. Bellinger’s season is without equal in recent MLB history and perhaps the entirety of the history of organized sports.
Disclaimer: There were a variety of reasons why Bellinger had this season. This article is not meant to explain those or to explain why he will be different in 2022. It is meant to immortalize the stupidest season of all time.
Prologue: Four Superstar Seasons
Bellinger made his MLB debut on April 25, 2017. By midseason, he was one of the premier hitters in the spot. He earned an All-Star nod, and he set the NL rookie home run record (since broken by Pete Alonso). Bellinger won the NL Rookie of the Year unanimously. He added a ninth-placed MVP finish. He was second in the league in home runs, sixth in slugging, seventh in OPS+, and eighth in extra-base hits.
While he did regress in 2018, his season was far from bad. Bellinger launched 25 home runs and 60 extra-base hits in total. He did not make the All-Star Game nor any MVP ballots, but his 120 OPS+ and .814 were strong. He added to his legacy by notching the 2018 NLCS MVP, helping the Dodgers to their second straight World Series appearance. Bellinger went one-for-16 in that series, but the gauntlet had been set out.
Bellinger opened April 2019 with an incendiary start. His 1.398 OPS in March/April is the highest in any March/April since 1900 (minimum 125 plate appearances). He continued to rake for the season, never dipping below a 1.025 OPS, quite the accomplishment when he played half of his games in a pitcher’s park in Los Angeles. With a late injury to Christian Yelich, Bellinger won the NL MVP. He led the NL in WAR. His .300/.400/.600 in 661 plate appearances had not been achieved since Albert Pujols in 2009. Bellinger also added a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger.
Bellinger had a down year in 2020, but many hitters did. Regardless, his .789 OPS and 112 OPS+ were perfectly fine. Bellinger and the Dodgers played well in the playoffs and won the World Series. Bellinger was excellent in the NLDS and NLCS before taking more of a backseat in the World Series. Heading into 2021, expectations were high. Could Bellinger win his second MVP?
The position player MVPs since 2000 have combined to play 412 seasons. Six of these (all by Barry Bonds) involved an OPS+ above 200. Four of them involved an OPS+ below 0 (combined 57 plate appearances). None of these come close to the stupidity of Bellinger’s 2021.
Out of the 412 seasons, Bellinger’s 2021 ranks 402nd.
So what? Why should I care?
The 10 seasons below Bellinger combined to have 346 plate appearances. Bellinger had 350 plate appearances. All 10 seasons were either at the beginning of a player’s career (2010 Freddie Freeman‘s 32 OPS+ on 24 plate appearances for example) or the end of a player’s career (2019 Ichiro Suzuki‘s -47 OPS+ on six plate appearances). Bellinger’s happened in his age-25 season, his fifth in the Majors.
Perhaps the biggest indictment on Bellinger’s season was his cumulative -1.5 bWAR. In MLB history, there have been 71,757 seasons in which a player officially played a position and had 350 plate appearances or fewer. Bellinger’s bWAR is in the bottom 281. Not only is that in the first percentile, but it is also worse than 99.61% of comparable seasons. Out of 1,226 available seasons in 2021, it was second-worst. Shoutout to Pat Valaika.
But Valaika is the kind of player one expects here. He notched -1.9 bWAR for an atrocious Baltimore Orioles team. This is Valaika’s third season with a negative bWAR, and this is not even his first foray into the -1.5 range. Bellinger is not the player one expects to be this poor.
There are worse seasons, yes. Of the 92,623 available seasons, five MVPs had worse seasons than Bellinger. However, these make some sense. 1965 AL MVP Zolio Versalles was a light-hitting shortstop. He had -115 batting runs for his career, and he was a poor defender late in his career. His -1.6 bWAR in 1967 and -1.7 bWAR in 1971 make sense. If anything, his MVP season, his only season above 2.6 bWAR, is the outlier.
1973 NL MVP Pete Rose eventually posted a -2.1 bWAR season. However, it was his 21st season in the Majors, his age-42 season. He had an unproductive season at the plate, and his defensive metrics gave him a double whammy as the primary first baseman. It was unexpected to see Rose here, but it is not unexpected for an old first baseman to have a terrible defensive season.
In 1985, Willie McGee won the NL MVP, Gold Glove, and Silver Slugger off the strength of an 8.2 bWAR season. 14 years later, McGee’s last season ended with a -2.8 bWAR. McGee was 40, and he was often relegated to corner outfield spots. The stars aligned for a wretched bWAR because he had a bad offensive season at a position that already gets a large negative in terms of defensive metrics.
The trend continues with 2006 NL MVP Ryan Howard. Like Versalles, Howard’s MVP season is the real outlier (at least from a bWAR perspective). Howard ended his career with more negative bWAR seasons than 3.0 bWAR seasons. His nadir was a -1.6 bWAR in 2015. Howard was 35. He was a poor defender at first base, routinely hurting his bWAR. When he finally had an unproductive season at the plate, his bWAR plunged.
The last culprit is three-time MVP (and current teammate of Bellinger) Pujols. However, many of the same beats apply to the future Hall of Famer. Pujols’ path to -1.8 bWAR included -14 positional runs from playing 143 games as a designated hitter and six games at first base. An excellent defender in his prime (+123 fielding runs with the Cardinals), Pujols had minimal impact in 2017, notching -1 fielding runs. Pujols lost five runs to double plays, but he is the all-time leader in GDPs anyways. The final straw was -20 batting runs as Pujols struggled to an OPS+ of 80, 10 points lower than any other full season. Pujols was 37.
Bellinger, unlike the others, is in his prime. He is an elite defensive player at a premium position. He just should not have a season as bad as he did, but here he is.
In case you were curious, the worst bWAR by a future Hall of Famer was Ted Simmons‘ 1984 campaign, a -2.6 bWAR. It is in the bottom 28 of all-time.
Epilogue: 2021 Playoffs
After the greatest negative outlier season in MLB history, Bellinger seemed to troll the world by being an impactful player in all three rounds of the playoffs. In the NL Wild Card Game, Bellinger drew a crucial walk to force the St. Louis Cardinals to bring in Alex Reyes. Bellinger then stole second and walked home as Chris Taylor ended the game with a walk-off home run. Bellinger record a hit, two walks, and a pair of steals in the game.
In the NLDS, Bellinger ranked third in the series in championship win probability added (cWPA). Logan Webb and Max Scherzer beat Bellinger out, but Bellinger notched the single-most impactful play of the series, a game-winning RBI single in Game 5. While his series as a whole was not spectacular, he came through when it mattered the most. Had there been an NLDS MVP, Bellinger would have been the co-favorite with Scherzer.
The Dodgers eventually lost to the Atlanta Braves in six games, but it was not an indictment on Bellinger. Bellinger was consistently solid in the series, but he continued to come up in big spots. He had two of the top 10 cWPA plays in the series: his Game 3 game-tying home run and a Game 6 game-tying single. Bellinger added 6.69% to Los Angeles’ cWP, and even the base stats are excellent. He slashed .412/.500/.588 and had a pair of steals. Had the Dodgers won the series, Bellinger would have a solid case for his second NLCS MVP despite Taylor hitting three home runs in Game 5.
Moving into 2022, Bellinger is a near-lock to bounce back. At the very least, he is incredibly unlikely to approach this level of ineptitude. He dealt with a shoulder injury for much of the season, and he only played in 95 regular-season games. He will have all offseason to correct his swing and be an impact player again.
Check out our analysis of another stupid Bellinger stat.
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