Dodgers have a big ol Cody Bellinger problem as they try to catch Giants in NL West standings

ST. LOUIS — The Dodgers have a Cody Bellinger problem. 

He cannot hit. There’s no other way to say it. Eventually, he’ll start to hit. He has to, right? He’s too good of a player. He won the NL rookie of the year award in 2017 and the NL MVP in 2019, with 47 home runs and an 8.6 bWAR. 

But right now? He cannot hit. Another 0-for-4 night Thursday against the Cardinals dropped his season average to .158. In his past 21 games, he’s 5-for-65, a .077 batting average. All five hits were singles. He has 14 strikeouts and one walk in that span. And instead of being the guy in the Dodgers lineup teams had to game plan about how to pitch carefully to, he’s become the hitter teams hope they face in the key moments.

Such was the case Thursday in St. Louis. Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts gave a lot of his regulars the day off for the early 12:15 p.m. local time first pitch, so Bellinger was in the No. 5 spot in the order, higher than he’d been since mid-August. Cardinals starter Jake Woodford strolled through the first two innings, then got the first two outs in the third.

Then, boom. The Dodgers regulars in the lineup, the ones that give them a better-than-average chance at repeating as World Series champions, kicked into gear. Mookie Betts, batting leadoff, worked a full-count walk. Max Muncy doubled. Trea Turner followed with a sharply hit RBI single, scoring Betts. Justin Turner walked on five pitches to load the bases.

Up stepped Bellinger. 

Woodford’s first pitch was a 92-mph fastball over the middle of the plate but up a few inches out of the strike zone. Bellinger swung, his rally-killing pop up into shallow right field registering more height than distance. After the game, Cardinals catcher Andrew Knizner tactfully talked about his club’s approach to getting out of that jam. 

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“We kinda,” he said, pausing as if reminding himself to be careful, “not necessarily pitched around a couple guys there, but didn’t want to get beat by certain guys and found the matchup we liked and executed the pitches when we needed to to leave them stranded.”

It didn’t matter to the Cardinals that Bellinger had hit a grand slam off Woodford just three months ago. They looked at Bellinger’s current form and happily exploited the matchup they wanted. Imagine wanting to pitch to Bellinger, who has six career grand slams, with the bases loaded at any other point in his career. Lunacy. 

The matchup had worked out well for the Cardinals in the second inning, when Bellinger struck out to lead off the frame. And in the sixth, when he struck out swinging, and in the top of the ninth, when he led off the inning in a 2-1 game — his team trailed — with a height > distance pop-up on the infield. The Dodgers lost by that 2-1 score, and they’re now 2 1/2 behind the Giants in the NL West standings. 

That’s important. It’s the difference between being in a win-or-go-home one-game wild-card contest, and being in a best-of-five series. There’s zero margin for error in the wild-card game. A dominant pitcher can end your season. A bad hop on a grounder up the middle can turn a potential rally-ending double play into a two-run single. Fluke happens.

But a five-game series? The margin for error expands considerably. The longer the series, the more likely the better team is to win. And if the Dodgers do indeed wind up as the first wild card, they’ll be a significantly better team, no matter who they wind up playing. Right now the Padres own the second NL wild-card spot, and they’re 13 games — 13!!! — behind the Dodgers in the standings. 

So the Dodgers are hoping Bellinger figures it out. He was out on the field before everyone on Wednesday at Busch Stadium, working with the coaches. 

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“There’s just some mechanical things they’re trying to clean up, and obviously they’ve been doing that for quite some time,” Roberts said. “They’re just trying to find something that clicks and that sticks. A lot of it is the mechanics and approach and all that stuff. Just getting on the field, just him working when it’s quiet and just methodical, sometimes I think that can be beneficial for the hitter.” 

Bellinger had shoulder surgery this past offseason, and those with the team feel that’s still impacting him. For now, he’s still in the lineup because the Dodgers have one hell of a lineup, and they feel they can still win games even with Bellinger hitting like a pitcher because he’s one hell of a defensive center fielder. 

He still brings that value. Especially with A.J. Pollock on the IL with a hamstring issue.

“Cody, athletically, is as gifted as anyone,” Dodgers starter and Cy Young contender Walker Buehler told Sporting News on Thursday morning. “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.”

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They’d be really happy to have him back to the old Bellinger at the plate. 

Think of any great defensive player in history, at any position, who only got regular playing time because of his defensive prowess. Bellinger, this season, has been a worse offensive player than whatever player memory you just conjured up in your brain. Think about this: Since the beginning of the first World War, there have only been three players with at least 300 plate appearances and a batting average of .160 or worse.

Batting average isn’t everything, of course. Moss’s on-base percentage was .255, which is 23 points higher than Bellinger’s .232. Dunn’s on-base percentage was 60 points clear of Bellinger’s mark. Dunn’s OPS+ was 54, ahead of Bellinger’s 42. A rookie catcher for the St. Louis Browns in 1947, Moss’s bWAR wasn’t great — minus-1.4 — but that’s still better than Bellinger’s current minus-1.7. 

How about this: Mario Mendoza — the glove-first, hit-never shortstop who was so inept at the plate that he had the infamous line named after him — had three seasons where he saw regular playing time (defined as at least 250 plate appearances). His on-base percentage in those three seasons (1979-81) was .248. Yep, 16 points higher than Bellinger’s right now. His OPS+ in those three years was 44. Remember what Bellinger’s OPS+ is in 2021?

It’s 42. 

Bellinger is looking up at not just Mendoza’s line, but his overall production. 

Thing is, Bellinger still has the potential to do damage at the plate. His long, silky swing has a lot of holes and dead zones right now, but there’s still power in the bat. Thunderous power. He still can occasionally run into a pitch. We’ve seen this version of Bellinger before, kinda.

Think of 2021 Bellinger like the Bellinger of the 2017 World Series, when he was fresh off that 39-homer rookie campaign. He looked completely lost at the plate in the first three games, going 0-for-11 with seven strikeouts. The calls for him to be benched were resounding. 

But he ran into a couple pitches in Game 4 — two doubles in a game the Dodgers won, 6-2— and again in Game 5 — a home run and a triple in a game L.A. lost, 13-12, in 10 innings. Then, in Games 6 and 7, he went 0-for-8 with seven strikeouts. Think about how bizarre that WS was for him. He had 29 PAs and struck out 17 times. He had only four hits, but all four were extra-base hits. 

Heck, right now that would be an improvement. Bellinger hasn’t hit a home run since August 11 — he homered twice against the Phillies that day, giving him four in four games — and only has three extra-base hits (all doubles) since then. Failures like his at the plate on Thursday, when he was put in a run-producing spot in the lineup, could relegate the Dodgers to the wild-card spot instead of a trip straight into the NLDS.

“We just couldn’t build innings, just couldn’t put things together,” Roberts said. “That’s kind of been the theme. To kinda poke holes or try to come up with an answer right now, I don’t have one. It’s just that time where results matter.”

Ain’t that the truth. 

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