PHOENIX – Cody Bellinger’s professional reality should make him the envy of every young baseball player.
Two years into what should be a long, lucrative career, Bellinger knows nothing but seasons that end with a World Series appearance. His 2017 Rookie of the Year campaign was a tour de force – a National League rookie record 39 home runs, including an absurd 21 in his first 51 games.
At 23, he will possess every fiber of his significant athleticism for several more years, and is a core member of the Los Angeles Dodgers, a franchise that will afford him as much fame in this game that he’s willing to grasp.
And yet, the bar he set for himself with his first full season, and the conditions under which he worked, made the 2018 season a mixed bag.
Bellinger hit 25 more home runs and was among the top dozen NL position players in Wins Above Replacement – yet saw his OPS drop from .933 to .814 as pitchers found effective ways to attack him.
He played in all 162 games and led the club in plate appearances – yet started just 135 games as his struggles against left-handed pitchers (a .681 OPS, compared to .903 in ‘17) prompted the Dodgers to increasingly platoon him as the season wound on.
He earned NL Championship Series MVP honors after a game-saving catch and walk-off hit in Game 4 and go-ahead homer in Game 7 – yet found himself benched for three of the five World Series games that followed.
Development in baseball is not always linear, and so the upcoming season will certainly not define Bellinger’s professional self. And the outcome may be far more nuanced than those his first two seasons suggested: Superstar, or platoon player.
The first road is certainly still there for the taking.
“I have to go out and earn it,” Bellinger told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s not going to get handed to me.”
Nor will every season be as grand as his first.
“Just realized how hard the game can be,” he said of 2018, “and that when you’re having success, ride it out as long as you can. I knew there were going to be roadblocks.
“Because that’s every single player, in every single sport.”
SPORTS, DELIVERED: Get latest news right in your inbox!
ARENADO’S PAYDAY: Rockies give third baseman record deal
And therein lies the delicate balance for the Dodgers, who perennially rank in the top five in payroll, are determined to deliver the first championship since 1988 to a loyal, vast and starved fan base, yet hew strongly to optimizing matchups and utilizing data and making the occasional cold and very calculated call on who plays.
By season’s end – when the Dodgers kicked into overdrive with a 19-9 finish to steal the NL West from Colorado – and into the playoffs, they had just two true everyday players: Third baseman Justin Turner and trade-deadline acquisition Manny Machado.
Everyone else was plugged into the Platoon-o-Matic, and for one-time bit players imported from the organization, it’s not such a bad gig. Chris Taylor and Kike’ Hernandez and Max Muncy play every day or close to it and find themselves on an elite team.
Bellinger, it seemed, might avoid that fate and join Turner as a core player who could count on his name in the lineup every night, for years to come.
His sophomore struggles proved otherwise, leaving manager Dave Roberts to make hard decisions and stay on the front lines of communication, and for Turner to lend the tough love that only a 34-year-old journeyman turned superstar can impart.
“I understand that you want to come to the field every day knowing you’re in the lineup,” Turner says of the challenging Dodger culture. “But that’s not always the case, and it’s even harder when you’re on a team of this caliber, that’s this good, that wins all the time, to justify whether it’s right or wrong.”
That’s left to Roberts, who is quick to note that Bellinger led the 2018 Dodgers in plate appearances, even though he started just 83% of the games he played, compared to 96% in 2017 (He also started every playoff game that October).
If Bellinger is in the lineup all the time, that probably means very good things for the Dodgers.
“I have talked to Cody, plenty, and there’s a lot of players that want to be out there every day,” says Roberts. “He’s going to be out there. Every day – literally and figuratively – are two different things. We see him as an everyday player. When we say every day, there’s guys that are going to get the lion’s share of at-bats.
“This industry, yeah, you write your own ticket. When there’s performance, that equates to playing time. Obviously, for the Dodgers, we want him out there a lot.”
It’s easy to forget Bellinger’s major league sample is still relatively small. And the sagging power numbers and struggles against lefties ignores his overall value to the Dodgers – an elite defender at first base but also willing and able to patrol center or right field as needed, an excellent baserunner.
“He had such a good first year, it was almost inevitable that it was not going to be easy to repeat,” says Turner. “Not that he doesn’t have the ability to do it again this year or the next year or the next year. But it was so good, that first year.
“I think he had a good year last year, it’s just people comparing it to the year before say he had a down year. He still had a pretty damn good year.”
Bellinger agrees, but also refuses to accept the slippage. Told that sophomore slumps are, to a degree, inevitable, he fires back with the fact that Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant followed his 2015 Rookie of the Year honor with an MVP season in 2016.
That didn’t happen for Bellinger. But another West title and second consecutive NL pennant make it hard to tear the lineup card down in anger when his name’s not on it.
“You just roll with it,” he says. “We had to do what we could to win the division last year, do what we could to win the World Series. And we did that.
“It was definitely different. But you just have to roll with it.”
Now comes 2019, and a team similarly deep after the signing of outfielder A.J. Pollock followed the trades of Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp. Bryce Harper lurks, the ultimate luxury buy who would certainly command an everyday lineup spot and create more internal machinations.
“There has to be continuity in our mindset, and goals,” says Roberts. “The season is unpredictable; things change. The overarching mentality, if we’re all aligned, then that will overcome anything.”
And while Bellinger is both a highly competitive, elite athlete and also a human being with aspirations only he may know, he also realizes it’s been a pretty good ride so far, with his destiny still in his grasp.
“Very fortunate,” he says. “It’s incredible.”