At the outset of the 2017 season, Cody Bellinger didn't figure into the Dodgers' immediate plans, but a string of injuries created an opening for him in their lineup, and the 21-year-old first baseman/outfielder has hit his way into an extended stay in the majors. With just 15 games under his belt, he's currently tied for the team lead in home runs with six, and with every passing day, the odds of him ever playing another minor league game diminish. Here’s a quick look at five aspects of his career thus far.
The Kid Stays in the Picture
A fourth-round 2013 draft pick out of Hamilton High in Chandler, Ariz., the 6' 4" lefty-swinging Bellinger drew acclaim for his athleticism, power, defensive mobility and ability to make quick adjustments while rising through the Dodgers’ chain. In 2015, he mashed 30 homers at Class A Rancho Cucamonga and saw significant time in centerfield—which he hadn’t played since high school—as well as at first base. In 2016, he hit .263/.359/.484 with 23 homers at Double A Tulsa and added three more homers in three games at Triple A Oklahoma City last year. He picked up where he left off at OKC with five homers in 18 games this season.
Meanwhile, the Dodgers began the year with Adrian Gonzalez entrenched at first base and a veritable logjam in the outfield, with Brett Eibner, Andre Ethier, Franklin Gutierrez, Kiké Hernandez, Joc Pederson, Yasiel Puig, Scott Van Slyke, Trayce Thompson and Andrew Toles all vying for time. A herniated disc sent Ethier, who missed most of last season with a fractured tibia, to the disabled list to start the season, and on April 12, Gutierrez was sidelined by a hamstring strain. Thompson and Eibner received brief cups of coffee, but when Pederson suffered a groin strain on April 23, it was Bellinger who got the call. He debuted two days later, playing leftfield and reaching base via an intentional walk and a ninth-inning infield single against the Giants, but he went just 1-for-8 over his first three games, at which point it was reported that he'd likely be sent back down when Pederson and Gutierrez returned. He collected two hits on April 28 against the Phillies, and then a pair of homers the next night; his second one was part of a string of three straight ninth-inning shots off Hector Neris, flanked by homers from Puig and Justin Turner. Still, he appeared fated for a return to the farm.
Then Bellinger collected five hits over a three-game span, and even as Pederson and Gutierrez began brief rehab assignments, the Dodgers began adjusting their thinking. With a roster crunch looming and the kid hitting .303/.361/.576, Gonzalez, who was hitting just .255/.327/.309 with one homer, told the team that he should go on the DL due to his ongoing bout with elbow tendinitis, an absence that could be a prolonged one. That guaranteed a longer stay for Bellinger, who responded by clubbing a pair of homers and driving in four runs against the Padres on the same day as the move (May 5), then adding a grand slam and an RBI single the next night. He homered again on May 10 against the Pirates, and through Thursday is hitting .322/.385/.695 in 65 plate appearances.
The Power Binge
Bellinger's flurry of home runs to start his career isn't quite on the level of the start Rockies shortstop Trevor Story had last year, and he's got a ways to go to put himself in the company of the extended jags of Yankees rookies Gary Sanchez (2016) and Aaron Judge ('17). But with Ethier transferred to the 60-day DL and Toles lost for the season earlier this week due to a torn ACL, he'll at least get the chance. Already, Bellinger is just the 17th player since 1913 to hit at least six homers in 15 games, and the second Dodger:
Interestingly enough, only one player from that group has gone on to win Rookie of the Year honors, namely McCovey, and none of the 29 players with at least five homers through 15 games (including Sanchez) won either. Speaking of rookies…
The Rookie Race
At the outset of the season, the SI baseball crew anointed Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson as the favorite to win NL Rookie of the Year honors. It made perfect sense, as the No. 1 overall pick of the 2015 draft had come up in mid-August of last season and hit .320/.361/.442 while falling one at-bat short of losing his rookie status. Four of our eight respondents (this one included) tabbed Swanson, with two choosing Padres rightfielder Hunter Renfroe, and one apiece pointing to Pirates pitcher Tyler Glasnow and Mets pitcher Robert Gsellman.
Maybe we jinxed them. In what are admittedly small sample sizes, all four of those picks are currently below replacement level. Swanson has hit just .162/.242/.225 with -0.5 WAR; Renfroe's at .206/.241/.351 with five homers but -0.7 WAR; Gsellman has been torched for a 6.54 ERA and -0.7 WAR; and Glasnow has a 6.33 ERA and -0.6 WAR. That’s not to say they won’t recover to battle for the hardware, but right now, each has his work cut out just to remain in the majors.
By the looks of it, Bellinger’s in the thick of the now wide-open race. Among NL rookie position players, his 0.6 WAR is second behind Brewers catcher Manny Pina (.313/.352/.448), with Toles and Mets infielder T.J. Rivera (.300/.382/.467) at 0.5 and Giants third baseman Christian Arroyo (.242/.286/.409 with three homers) at 0.4. A pair of Rockies starting pitchers, Antonio Senzatela (2.86 ERA in 44 innings) and Kyle Freeland (2.92 ERA in 40 innings), lead the NL pitchers with 1.6 and 1.3, respectively, with Reds reliever Wandy Peralta (1.20 ERA in 15 innings, 0.6 WAR) the only other rookie hurler above 0.3.
History is on his Side
The Baseball Writers Association of America and Major League Baseball began recognizing the game's top rookies in 1947, inaugurating the award by choosing Jackie Robinson, who had just broken the color barrier. The award was renamed for him as of 1987, and either before or since, no team has dominated the honor as the Dodgers have:
Rookie of the Year
Corey Seager (2016)
Derek Jeter (1996)
Andrew Bailey (2009)
Scott Williamson (1999)
Gregg Olson (1989)
Marty Cordova (1995)
Dustin Pedroia (2007)
Kris Bryant (2015)
Jose Abreu (2014)
Albert Pujols (2001)
Buster Posey (2010)
After Robinson came pitchers Don Newcombe (1949) and Joe Black (1952), second baseman Jim Gilliam (1953), outfielder Frank Howard (1960), second basemen Jim Lefebvre (1965) and Ted Sizemore (1969), pitcher Rick Sutcliffe (1979), Steve Howe (1980), and Fernando Valenzuela (1981), second baseman Steve Sax (1982), first baseman Eric Karros (1992), catcher Mike Piazza (1993), outfielder Raul Mondesi (1994), pitcher Hideo Nomo (1995), outfielder Todd Hollandsworth (1996) and then Seager.
Given their total and those of the New York teams (eight Yankees, five Mets and one Giant), it's fair to suggest that the big-market teams have an advantage in this category, but it's also worth noting that Branch Rickey's jump in integrating the team played a role here and that the Dodgers have long prided themselves on their bountiful farm system.
More than a Chip Off the Ol’ Block
Bellinger is the son of former Yankees utilityman Clay Bellinger, who hit just .193/.257/.363 with 12 homers in three seasons with the Yankees (1999 to 2001) and two games with the Angels (2002). If he were to win Rookie of the Year honors, the younger Bellinger would become the third second-generation major leaguer to do so after outfielder Ben Grieve (1997 A's) and shortstop Bobby Crosby (2004 A's). Grieve's father, Tom, played nine years as a major league outfielder between 1970 and '79, while Crosby's father, Ed, was, like Bellnger's dad, a light-hitting utility infielder who played sparingly over six seasons from 1970 to '76.
Those three are hardly the only second-generation players to eclipse their fathers in talent. Hall of Famers Roberto Alomar (son of Sandy) and Ken Griffey Jr. (Ken Sr.) both outdid dear old dad, as did current candidate and all-time home run king Barry Bonds (Bobby). Among other active major leaguers, Michael Brantley (Mickey), Peter Bourjos (Chris), Robinson Cano (Jose), C.J. Cron (Chris), Jason Grilli (Steve), Pederson (Stu) and Jayson Werth (Dennis) have already eclipsed their fathers' brief major league careers.