Dodgers leftfielder Cody Bellinger is more than three weeks away from turning 22. But after Monday night’s two-homer game—in which he in the first inning completed his inadvertent quest to tie the record for the fastest player ever to hit 20 homers before in the second inning setting the record for fastest player ever to 21 homers—he’s probably only a night or two away from hitting 22. His 21 homers are tops in the NL, and it’s taken him just 51 games (to reiterate, the first 51 games of his career) to get there. His quick, powerful left-handed uppercut is well on the way to becoming one of the most fearsome swings in baseball; Statcast says he’s got one helluva launch angle.
Let us stipulate that something wonky is going on with the tater situation this year (and not just the supposed juicing of the balls that has led to more homers across the board). It’s the latter half of June, and season statistics should be rounding into normalcy. Instead onetime washouts Logan Morrison, Justin Smoak and Eric Thames are in sniffing distance of their leagues’ dinger crowns, and the heretofore unknown Scott Schebler, of the Cincinnati Reds, has hit 18 homers (against only 17 walks). The Reds also featured a four-home-run game from career slap hitter Scooter Gennett, and what about, one division over in the National League, the Ryan Schimpf Experience in San Diego? Schimpf is in the minors now, but before being sent down the 5-foot-9 infielder had hit 14 homers in 165 at-bats. How does a credible power hitter get demoted from a team that’s 17 games out of first, you might ask? Well, Schimpf supported those 14 bombs with all of 12 base hits.
Of course stud Yankees rookie Aaron Judge, who’s got close to a foot on Schimpf in height, is the profoundest dinger anomaly of them all; he’s managed a majors-leading 23 homers in 236 at-bats and would be leading the AL in all three Triple Crown categories if not for the pesky, high-average bat of … the Mariners’ Ben Gamel. By virtue of playing in New York and keying the early-season success of the winningest and most freewheeling Yankee team in some time and being just so damn big, Judge has earned the lion’s share of the “Watch this whippersnapper homer!” headlines.
But what Bellinger has done—again, yes, in this cockamamie, caveat-laden, 1968-turned-on-its-head power environment—is plenty impressive even when stacked up against Judge’s performance. Bellinger is just one homer away from Judge’s total, despite having had about 50 fewer at bats this year and despite being more than three years younger than Judge. (The pair had similar amounts of minor-league seasoning, in the neighborhood of 1,500 plate appearances, though Judge played at more advanced levels.) Judge had an instructive if seemingly unproductive late-season callup in 2016, but Bellinger had no major-league experience prior to late April. The only major-league influence to speak of on Bellinger’s game came from his father, Clay, who by dint of his utilityman role on Joe Torre’s Yankees, won World Series rings in ’99 and 2000. That said, Cody’s father hit all of 12 career home runs.
It would be premature to call Bellinger a star or even a complete hitter. His propensity to strike out (65 in 215 plate appearances) calls to mind his frustrating companion in the Dodgers outfield, Joc Pederson. Unlike Pederson, though, Bellinger has held his own against lefties (.273 batting average in 44 at-bats). And also unlike Pederson, Bellinger is still in that sweet honeymoon phase. And he will remain there as long as he keeps homering. Here’s hoping 22, 23, 24, and plenty more come before the big 22.