Could Cody Bellinger bounce back with the Red Sox?

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 01: Cody Bellinger #35 of the Los Angeles Dodgers reacts after Mookie Betts #50 hit was ruled a foul ball against the Colorado Rockies during the sixth inning at Dodger Stadium on October 01, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 01: Cody Bellinger #35 of the Los Angeles Dodgers reacts after Mookie Betts #50 hit was ruled a foul ball against the Colorado Rockies during the sixth inning at Dodger Stadium on October 01, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images) /

Cody Bellinger could be a free-agent target for the Boston Red Sox

The Boston Red Sox are seeking an outfielder and a power bat to plug into the middle of their lineup, and both needs can be addressed in one fell swoop by signing Cody Bellinger, who was non-tendered by the Los Angeles Dodgers last week.

The initial reaction to this suggestion will be met with some skepticism considering Bellinger’s fall from grace. After smashing 47 home runs to earn the NL MVP award in 2019, Bellinger’s production swiftly fell off a cliff. He’s hitting a meager .203 over the last three seasons and his .611 OPS over the last two seasons is the lowest in the majors among hitters with 900+ plate appearances, per FanGraphs.

The Dodgers non-tendered Bellinger since they didn’t believe he was worth the $18-20 million he would earn in his third year of arbitration. Since they failed to trade him prior to making this decision, it’s fair to assume the rest of the league values Bellinger below that salary range as well. According to Ken Rosenthal, Bellinger’s agent, Scott Boras, is seeking a one-year deal for his client. The 27-year-old hopes to sign a “prove it” deal that would allow him to hit the market again while he’s still in his prime after restoring his value with a bounce-back campaign.

This would be a classic Chaim Bloom move, exploring the bargain bin for a reclamation project instead of splurging on a high-profile player who provides more certainty, right? Perhaps, although there are several reasons to believe that Bellinger could bounce back in Boston.

Bellinger’s power outage stems from a shoulder that he dislocated multiple times during the 2020 season and reinjured while celebrating his home run in Game 7 of the NLCS that year. He had surgery that November and hasn’t been the same since.

The Red Sox would need to thoroughly review his medical history and have him undergo a physical, but the further removed Bellinger is from surgery, the more strength he should regain. Unfortunately, it’s also possible that irreparable damage has been done and he’ll never fully recover, but it’s fair to be optimistic that this isn’t the case. Bellinger showed some progress this year, increasing his slugging percentage from .302 to .389 and his ISO from .137 to .179. Those figures are still far lower than expected but he’s trending in the right direction. The power is definitely still there; the only Red Sox player to hit more home runs than him in 2022 was Rafael Devers.

If the Red Sox are satisfied with Bellinger’s medical records, there are additional reasons why he would be a good fit in Boston. His left-handed swing has always been a bit pull-heavy but Bellinger’s 19.4 Oppo% this year was a career-low. He would benefit from using the opposite field more at Fenway Park where he could take aim at the towering green wall in left field. Bellinger’s Oppo% has topped 22.0% three times in his career so moving closer to that rate would allow him to take advantage of his new environment.

Bellinger’s spray chart on FanGraphs shows that when he did use the opposite field this year, the vast majority of balls put in play were fly balls, many of which turned into long outs. Several of those fly balls would reach the wall at Fenway, turning those outs into doubles.

This spray chart also shows a large cluster of ground balls when Bellinger pulls the ball to the right side of the field. These grounders often turned into routine outs since the opposing defense was prepared with their alignment. Opposing defenses shifted against Bellinger 90.5% of the time this year, tied for the 17th highest rate in the majors, per Baseball Savant. His wOBA dropped from .302 without the shift to a .283 wOBA against the shift.

MLB will be implementing new rules beginning in the 2023 season that ban the shift. With only two infielders allowed on the right side of second base, more of those ground balls should sneak through. Bellinger’s .255 BABIP was well below league average this year but the removal of the shift should help. It doesn’t mean that he’ll suddenly be in the hunt for a batting title but he shouldn’t be barely above the Mendoza Line, either.

Even when he isn’t hitting, Bellinger can still provide value in other areas. He has adequate range to cover center field and would fit fine in Fenway’s challenging right field. He was tied for 13th among major-league outfielders with 7 Outs Above Average this year and tied for 15th with six runs prevented.

Bellinger is also an excellent base runner, stealing 14 bases in 17 attempts this season. While that total didn’t put him among the league leaders, it would have led the Red Sox in steals this year. He ranked 19th in the majors with 4.5 BsR, FanGraphs’ all-encompassing base running statistic that turns stolen bases and other base running plays into runs above and below average. Only Xander Bogaerts (4.7 BsR) rated better as a base runner among Red Sox players this year. Bellinger doesn’t have blazing speed but he ranks in the 71st percentile in sprint speed and he’s a smart base runner. He could provide the Red Sox with an element on the bases that they are severely lacking.

Another reason to target Bellinger in free agency would be to keep him away from a division rival. According to MLB Network’s Jon Morosi, the Toronto Blue Jays have expressed interest in Bellinger. The Jays are in need of an outfielder after trading away Teoscar Hernández. If the Red Sox beat them to the punch by signing Bellinger, it could leave Toronto thin on outfield depth or force them to settle for a lesser option.

Bellinger probably won’t ever regain his MVP form but he has plenty of upside, to borrow one of Bloom’s favorite terms. Between the rule changes outlawing the shift and escaping pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium in favor of the cozy confines of Fenway Park, Bellinger could be set up for a bounce-back season (as long as he’s healthy). On a one-year deal at a reasonable salary, that upside is worth rolling the dice.