How does a player who hit just four home runs in his first two years of pro ball go on to break the NL record for rookie home runs just three years later? “A swing change,” Cody Bellinger said in the Dodgers’ clubhouse after Game 2 of the 2017 World Series. But it wasn’t quite that simple, the 22-year-old acknowledged, taking a deep breath. “It’s kind of hard to explain.”
When the Dodgers drafted him in the fourth round in 2013, Bellinger was a 17-year-old, 170-pound log of clay. His lefthanded swing produced natural bat speed honed during countless BP sessions with his dad, former big leaguer Clay Bellinger, in their backyard batting cage in Chandler, Ariz. But that swing produced just one home run his senior year at Hamilton High School, the same number he hit in his first season as a pro, in rookie ball in the Arizona League.
“Cody hit .220 that summer, with one homer,” recalled John Shoemaker, who was in the dugout every day and has mentored so many Dodgers’ prospects in his 41 years with the organization that he was recently named “captain” of its minor league development system. “I can still remember the homer. It was a high off-speed pitch in extra innings.”
Former big-league infielder P.J. Forbes was Bellinger’s manager that summer. “The power wasn’t there, but I remember that the ball off his bat made that sound,” Forbes said. “It was just a different sound, and he had it when he was 17 … But everything he hit was either a hard ground ball or a line drive.”
The next year Bellinger was in Ogden, Utah, playing for ’93 Cy Young winner Jack McDowell. “He was a Gold Glove caliber, major league first baseman at age 18,” McDowell recalled, “you could tell that right away, but when you’re in high school, you don’t see a lot of 94–95 mph fastballs. When you get to the minor leagues, that’s all you see, from rookie ball on. So at first it was just a matter of getting his tall, lanky body synched up and on time."
Just when that process seemed complete, Bellinger separated his shoulder while receiving an errant throw to first and colliding with a baserunner. Once he was able to swing again, a deeper transformation began.
Calm, media-shy, and obsessed with the craft of striking baseballs since grade school, the likely NL Rookie of the Year credits two men, Shawn Wooten, the Dodgers’ Triple-A hitting coach, and Damon Mashore, the organization’s hitting instructor (who now works for the Rangers) for what happened in the winter of 2014-15.
“I could see that he wasn’t tapping into his maximum amount of leverage points,” Mashore said. “He said he always felt like he could hit for power, but he’d never worked on it. So we had a conversation: Was this something he wanted to dig into?”
The biggest tweak that Bellinger, Mashore, and Wooten made together was not with Bellinger’s swing, but his stance, specifically the crucial, one-second coiling movement that coaches call “load phase.” Bellinger had always held his bat erect over his left shoulder. Mashore and Wooten advised him to drop his barrel parallel with the earth and curl it behind his head, aiming its cupped end toward the first baseman. Once the pitch was on its way, they advised, Bellinger should wag his bat slightly to get his hands and wrists moving, preparing them to be thrust by his hips and through the inside of the strike zone, with the bat head following like the business end of a whip.
Before this adjustment, “I was super stiff and didn’t know how to use anything,” Bellinger recalled. After it, the floodgates opened. He hit 30 home runs that summer for the Single-A Rancho Cucamonga [Calif.] Quakes, with a .538 slugging percentage and 103 runs driven in. He added four more bombs in the playoffs.
“It wasn’t all roses,” Mashore recalls. “There were times he struck out a lot, because once you tap into power you feel like you can hit for power whenever you want.” He laughed. “But it doesn’t work like that.” It’s true: nearly one-third of Bellinger’s 478 at bats that summer resulted in strikeouts (150)—a ratio that survived into his magical 2017 season with the big-league club (146 strikeouts in 480 at bats). But those two seasons sandwiched his 21st birthday, a frightening indicator that Bellinger’s education as a hitter is only beginning.
“Cody is extremely intelligent in a baseball sense,” said Mashore, who spent the winter of 2014–15 watching video of Bellinger taking cuts in the cage his dad built, coaching him via phone. “I tried not to tell him how I wanted him to do it. I just wanted him to educate himself. The goal was to make him his own best coach.”
“When we saw him that year in Rancho,” said Bill Haselman, his manager that summer, “we knew we had something special.”
Bellinger wanted desperately to make the big-league club in 2017 spring training. When the four-time defending NL West champs sent him to Triple-A Oklahoma City instead, Bellinger swallowed his pride and got back to work.
“I said, Look, when your time comes you’re the type of player who never comes back to the minor leagues,” Mashore said. “When you get called up you’re going to be there to stay.”
The call came in late April. Bellinger, whose frame now carried 200 pounds, hit 21 homers in his first 51 major-league games, setting a record for home runs to start a career. “I wasn’t surprised that the power came,” recalled Forbes, his first pro manager. “I knew he was going to hit home runs, but the amount of them, and how fast they came surprised me.”
“Did I expect him to hit 39 in the big leagues this year? No chance,” said Haselman. “But I did expect him to do that at some point in his career. It just happened sooner than most of us expected.”
“I’ll admit, when he got called up I was a little bit surprised,” Haselman continued. “I told him, ‘I would have liked to see you fail in Triple A before you went to the big leagues.’ I couldn’t have been more wrong. He got called up and never looked back.”