For Whom The Bell(inger) Tolls
With rankings season rapidly approaching, I decided to take a stroll down memory lane. As part of last year’s Top 500 coverage, I wrote this about Dodgers prospect Cody Bellinger, who checked in as the #49 ranked first baseman on the list:
“Bellinger spent all of 2015 in the hitter-friendly California League at the High-A level, putting up video game numbers in the process, hitting .264/.336/.538 with 30 home runs, 97 runs, 103 RBI and throwing in ten stolen bases for good measure. He also struck out a ton in posting a 27.6 percent strikeout rate. With a little more discipline, Bellinger could turn into a very, very interesting deeper league sleeper. If you’re digging this deep at first base in a dynasty league, this is the type of prospect you want to gamble on.”
I remember writing this, but I also remember not really being sold. Sure, I looked at Bellinger’s numbers before starting on the entry and I was impressed. That said, I wasn’t sure that he was too much more than a nice, young player that was feasting on lower level pitching. Or for a more generous interpretation, “a very, very interesting deeper league sleeper”.
Oh boy was I wrong.
Drafted in the 4th round by the Dodgers in the 2013, Bellinger was not great and then pretty good (respectively, and yes those are technical terms) in his first two seasons as a professional. As the son of former big leaguer (father Clay), he turned some heads with his aforementioned stint at High A Rancho Cucamonga. His stat line prompted “smart” guys like me to throw all sorts of skeptical, lukewarm praise at his accomplishments.
Bellinger started his 2016 campaign at Double A Tulsa, and pretty much picked up where he left off the previous year, smacking 23 homers in 465 plate appearances en route to a tasty .264/.359/.484 line. The question heading into the season was whether he could ever unearth his legit power against tougher competition after posting a High A strikeout rate approaching 30 percent. Like a cheesy proposal scene in a B-level movie, the answer was “yes, yes, a thousand times, yes.”
Bellinger shaved nearly eight percentage points from his strikeout rate, bringing it down to 20.2 percent The number is not only better for him, but also better than league average. He also bettered his walk rate, earning free passes in 12.7 percent of his plate appearances. Potentially even more impressive, all of these improvements came in Bellinger’s age-20 season, as one of the five youngest players in the Texas League.
Ok, now it’s time for a game we like to call “Fun with Small Samples”. Bellinger ended his 2016 regular season at Triple A Oklahoma City by hitting .545/.583/.1.364 with three homers and zero strikeouts. Fine, it was 12 measly plate appearances, but what fun is this game if we can’t speculate wildly about limited data?
Bellinger also played 20 games in the Arizona Fall League and continued his offensive dominance. In 85 plate appearances he produced a .981 OPS and .243 ISO. Sure, 85 plate appearances aren’t enough to draw a meaningful conclusion either, but it remains true that Bellinger’s power potential, not to mention the speed with which he has risen through the minor league ranks, has been staggering. Every indication is that there’s more to come.
As a potential plus defender at first base, there isn’t currently a spot on the Dodger roster for Bellinger, as Adrian Gonzalez is signed through 2018. The team likely planned for this scenario, however, and Bellinger spent time in all three outfield spots in 2016. It’s a near certainty that he won’t end up in the outfield long-term, but the experience is useful. Especially if it creates an avenue for him to contribute sooner rather than later.
Bellinger was so good in 2016 that he’s probably no longer that secret prospect lottery ticket he might have been entering the season. That said, the closer he gets to the big leagues, the higher his price will be in dynasty leagues. In all likelihood, the 21-year-old Bellinger will start the 2017 campaign in Triple A. If he gets off to a hot start, it might be too late to get in at a reasonable price. I’m investing now, and basking in a bevy of high average, 30+ homer seasons later.
Follow Mark on Twitter @hoodieandtie