The Dodgers have a problem with Cody Bellinger, and they need to figure it out.
The question was the same on the first day of the regular season as it was after Game 2 of the National League Division Series: What are the Dodgers going to do about Cody Bellinger?
Now that their glorious season could come to an abrupt end this weekend, the Dodgers have a different answer.
When the Dodgers take the field for Game 3 Friday, with the series now a best-of-three, the onetime most valuable player will be on the bench, manager Dave Roberts said.
In the pre-analytics era, the label “good field, no hit” was a compliment. Not so much now. However, as the 2022 season dawned, the Dodgers believed so strongly in Bellinger’s glove that they played him every day on a team that expects to win the World Series.
“He’s going to have a runway, which he has earned,” Roberts said after the season opener. “I think it’s deserved. And, with what he does in center field, that alone warrants him being in the lineup for a team [with this offense].”
In the first two games of this series, he batted ninth. In the Dodgers’ 5-3 loss to the San Diego Padres on Wednesday, Bellinger struck out twice and poked an opposite-field single. In six at-bats in this series, he has struck out four times.
The Dodgers did not afford him a seventh at-bat, at least not Wednesday. With the potential tying runs on base in the eighth inning, they batted for Bellinger. The pinch-hitter was a backup catcher with a career .225 batting average.
But in the sixth inning, Bellinger saved two runs by making the most difficult play a center fielder can make. On a ball hit directly toward him and over his head, Bellinger twisted and turned and twisted and turned, retreating and then leaping to grab the ball out of the air as he hit the warning track.
“He made a heck of a play,” Roberts said.
“I know he is doing the best he can, and he snuck in a knock tonight. He still is working through some things, but yeah, I mean, at some point we’re going to need that offense, certainly.”
On Friday, Trayce Thompson will move from left field to center, with Chris Taylor starting in left, Roberts said.
The Dodgers are not burying Bellinger. In the 2021 postseason, the Dodgers did not start him twice, both times against left-handers: Alex Wood of the San Francisco Giants and Max Fried of the Atlanta Braves. The Padres’ scheduled starting pitcher Friday: left-hander Blake Snell, against whom Bellinger has batted 10 times, struck out four, and gotten one hit.
While the Dodgers look forward and hope for a clutch hit or two from him this weekend, a look back is a glance at a remarkable descent.
In 2019, Bellinger was the league’s most valuable player, and its leader in WAR, with a 1.035 OPS. In the postseason, he batted cleanup.
In 2021, he batted .165, with a .542 OPS. Of the 132 NL players with at least 300 plate appearances that season, he ranked 131st. He struck out more than ever. When he hit the ball, he hit it hard less than ever.
The Dodgers had reason to hope Bellinger’s 2021 was an aberration.
He started the season late as he recovered from shoulder surgery, then spent time on the injured list because of calf, hamstring and rib injuries.
The calendar turned to 2022, and to spring training. The games did not count, but the signs were not good. Bellinger batted .139 last spring, with no extra-base hits and 18 strikeouts in 36 at-bats.
In the regular season, the Dodgers gave 500 at-bats to five players. The other four — Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman, Will Smith and Trea Turner — each were at least 20% above league average, according to the OPS+ statistic. Bellinger was 20% below league average. He struck out even more often than he had in 2021.
He batted .210, with a .654 OPS. Of the 63 NL players that qualified for the batting title, Bellinger ranked 60th in OPS.
The Dodgers hope to push off talk of the future, at least through the end of the month. At some point, the Dodgers will have to decide whether to retain Bellinger — his salary next season is estimated at $18.1 million, according to the MLB Trade Rumors projections — or consider ways to get more production out of the position.
In the last postseason game in which he did not start — Game 1 of last year’s NL championship series — he came off the bench and got a single.
We remember best what happened last, and one sweet hit in October could blur the memory of another sour summer.