I’ll be honest, I don’t like the term sophomore slump. As with most “catch-all” phrases, there are times where use can be misleading, likely because the definition is ambiguous. We know it occurs in the second year of a player’s career, characterized by noticeable decline after success, but that’s pretty much it. Does it matter how long the player was in the league during the preceding year? What if the player began to slightly decline in his “freshman” season and it carried over into the subsequent year? How about a scenario during a player’s second season where the consensus is the lack of production is luck based? Is that technically a sophomore slump or simply poor luck?
Struggles come after success because pitchers are smart; they adjust to their opposition with exceptional haste. The never-ending game of chess – aka, baseball – requires constant adjustment and by using the phrase “sophomore slump”, we omit the complexity of this adjustment for a simpler, verbal shrug of one’s shoulders.
Cody Bellinger warrants that shrug. But while some may cite the sophomore slump, the immensely more valuable alternative is to venture under the hood.
Let’s start with how Bellinger is being pitched…
A clear shift has occurred in how left-handers are pitching Bellinger: less fastballs, more breaking balls. It’s a natural flip, given Bellinger’s ability to square up fastballs last season and the want for most pitchers to keep balls away from the big lefty.
Part of Bellinger’s success in 2017 came from his ability to hit left-handed pitching, something few lefties with max-effort, lofting swings are able to do with any success (especially for 132 games). While Bellinger was still stronger versus right-handed pitching last year, his wRC+ between each handedness was virtually even, and he was actually striking out more versus righties.
Fast-forward to 2018 and Bellinger has been sitting versus left-handed pitching – and right-handed pitching for that matter – but his underlying skillset suggests left-handed pitching might not be the entire issue. Evidence for this point comes from his increase in patience this season against breaking balls and slight drop in whiffs versus left-handed pitching. It’s an encouraging sign even if Dave Roberts doesn’t have the confidence to start him all the time versus lefties.
Flipping sides, right-handed pitchers haven’t shifted dramatically versus the Rookie of the Year winner, with slight changes from sliders to more changeups and curveballs, uneventful given the aggregate results off Bellinger’s bat have been equally as poor.
The natural progression after analyzing usage of pitches is the location of said pitches. This unearths the widening of a hole in Bellinger’s swing.
Perhaps better visualized using this graph from BrooksBaseball, the above shows the more precise shift in Bellinger’s hole and its growth. Even though in the aggregate Bellinger is seeing less fastballs, the fastballs he is seeing, from either handedness of pitcher, he is missing.
Is this a common issue? Absolutely. Numerous power hitters have holes in the upper-third of the strike zone. 2017 Aaron Judge was one of them. He has done a fabulous job of closing off this hole in 2018. Given the four-year age difference between Judge and Bellinger, I can’t say I’m surprised Judge has adjusted quicker than his West Coast counterpart has this season.
The simple suggestion would be to stop offering at pitches up, but baseball is unfortunately not that easy. I speculated last season that Judge’s issue with pitches in the upper-third of the zone might have been because of his shoulder ailments, which I still cannot confirm or deny, but seem to now at least be loosely correlated, given Judge’s health and offseason surgery. Could Bellinger be nursing an ailment? Speculating on injury is an art I never want to master given the lack of case-t0-case predictability; it’s a losing proposition. So the alternative is to suggest Bellinger changes elsewhere.
We might be able to accept Bellinger’s upper-third issue if we can hope for improvement elsewhere. His approach from last season to the fastballs he is able to hit was a productive, gap-to-gap approach. That has largely dissipated in the early stages of 2018.
This is tied to Bellinger’s increase in the total amount of balls he is hitting to his pull side, up about four percent overall and 10 percent versus right-handed pitchers specifically. Simple math suggests Bellinger’s pull-side tendencies must be down versus left-handed pitching, which we can confirm (~10 percent drop from 2017 to 2018). That leads us back to the encouraging case of Bellinger versus left-handed pitching. He seems to be consciously using the whole field, being more patient and laying off breaking balls, but the results haven’t manifested.
Like my Chris Archer column from last week, Bellinger is perplexing. To enhance the confusion, let’s toss in a swing change.
(Videos via Baseball Savant – 1, 2)
Bellinger has always had an upright stance, with a slide-step stride that is one of the main reasons many consider him a rotational, upper-body hitter (as especially explosive one). That hasn’t changed, but what has is the positioning of his bat. While the peak load of his upper body remains similar from the angles I’ve seen thus far, inverting his barrel towards his back shoulder as opposed to keeping it parallel, in theory, lengthens the time from barrel to load.
Seeing this led me towards some confirmation bias of Bellinger increasing his hole against fastballs in the upper-third of the zone. The minor increase in his amount of movement might be throwing his timing off for balls up, which are tough to get to with a longer swing or less-than-plus bat speed. But this application fails to confirm why he’s pulling the ball more versus right-handed pitchers, which suggests he’s getting around on pitches quicker than the previous realization that he’s having trouble with pitches up would suggest.
While I often love GIF’ing up adjustments and suggesting they’re the main reason for emerging success, in Bellinger’s case, I think reversion back to his parallel bat doesn’t fix his issue against high fastballs or his tendency to pull the ball against right-handed pitchers. Both those matters are workable issues he can fix with further mechanical adjustment or a conscious gap-to-gap approach (think early 2017 Kris Bryant for the latter). Rumors of a demotion to Triple-A are radically unnecessary, especially given Bellinger’s ability to play a viable centerfield and the fact that he’s been almost neutral offensively as opposed to holding a liability position like the Austin Barnes or Logan Forsythe.
The league adjusts back to hitters and we’re in the middle of exactly that for Cody Bellinger. Razzball’s Player Rater still views him as a top 75 player for the rest of the season, lower than where you drafted him, but not a player to completely dismiss. I view Bellinger as a plus-plus raw power bat with intriguing statistics against left-handed pitching and the need for further adjustment versus right-handers, both of which suggest my lean towards support of the big lefty.
I never slump on Twitter!
Great write up! I Traded Goldy for Bellinger a couple weeks back. Kicking myself a bit, but hopefully Bellinger can make some adjustments and end in top 75 like you say!
The morning before this article came out, I was commenting to Grey that Bellinger looked slower to the ball. Then, I read this excellent article showing why. Tonight Bellinger just hit a homerun. I frame by framed the swing: hands further forward and bat in a more upright position.
There is perhaps no greater joy in watching baseball than when analysis translates to outcomes on the field. Thanks for the excellent read, and I hope this change translates to repeatable mechanics and better outcomes for Cody.
@Fred Garvin MP:
I see he’s adjusted back a little bit. Hopefully this kick starts a turnaround and gets back to staying gap to gap. Would love to see him take back off.
Thanks too, agree on that feeling!
Great post, I was just offered Bellinger for my Acuna in a H2H redraft. Tempting offer as I owned him last year and he carried me several weeks. I have Mazara, Brantley, and Soto currently in my OF and Freeman at 1B so I don’t necessarily need him, but at the same time I have the ability to wait on him and be patient if you think he will be better than Acuna. Thanks buddy!
This is tough primarily because of Acuna’s injury.
Based on projections, I think I might side Acuna and really hope that knee injury doesn’t bog him down. There is a fine line where there might be some setbacks that slow his production when back and Bellinger outperforms him purely because of ABs rest of season.
Either way, I wouldn’t kick myself.
Relatively shallow only-league keepers where we can carry 3 minor leaguers, I have 1 slot open in each. Who do you like best out of the following?
NL – Heliot Ramos, Monte Harrison, Michel Baez, Kieboom
AL – Florial, L. Taveras, Jesus Sanchez, Justus Sheffield, Nick Gordon, Mountcastle
Cases to be made for a few of these guys, I’d go…
NL – Carter Kieboom
AL – Jesus Sanchez
Lot of volatility with your NL crop. Monte/Ramos have big swing and miss issues, but I can see the upside play with Ramos if you just want to shoot for the moon. Baez is an arm so I’m going to shy away from that with other viable options.
Jesus Sanchez is a personal favorite of mine, has been for a while. He’s outperformed Florial. Leody (close second here) is playing well with an aggressive assignment, but I still think he might need some swing tinkering and is more speed based than anything. Sanchez’s knock is that he doesn’t walk. Sheffield is an arm that I actually like a lot, and he’s the immediate return if you want to go that way. Nick Gordon just doesn’t have the power potential to intrigue me. Mountcastle I’m not as high on as others.
Could go a lot of ways, but that’s where I’d end up. Other alternative would be Leody and Ramos, if you want to shoot for the moon.
I drafted Cody in third round this season and just traded him (and Clevinger) away for Stanton. I think I made the right call. 12 team 5×5 H2H.
Similar to Goldschmidt and Stanton, these players are producing just not at their respective draft value. I have more confidence in the veterans reverting to their norms than Bellinger, but I still think Cody will be fine and top 75 sounds right.
Yep, I like that trade a lot for Stanton, well done.
Statistics and projections will generally like the vets as well because of the large sample you can fall back on.
Good article. Conforto is having a sophomore slump too! He’s slowly been coming to life over the past month.
@LadyScorpio: A little different case for Conforto, who is also not a sophomore. Conforto had his sophomore slump in 2016 and a trip to the minor leagues helped save his season. He’s coming back around now, but more likely as a result of getting 100% and his shoulder stronger.
You are writing some unbelievable posts. Amazing stuff.
1 question for you – what do you think the outcome of a duplantier is? Does he end up being a top of the rotation guy? He’s been amazing in lower level minor league games the past couple seasons.
I really appreciate the kind words.
I think Duplantier is a high-floor, low-ceiling arm. I really like him and think he’s relatively slept on. I don’t think it’s ace potential, but I think there is a solid chance he’s a #2 and I’d be surprised if he’s not at least a 4. Heavy fastball sink is going to play up, athletic kid.
@Lance: thanks. Your posts disecting players are full of knowledge. I’m thrilled when I see a new one posted.
I thought of one more for you… :-)
Cavan biggio. I know he lost some of the hokie arm position when he rebuilt his swing and his power doesn’t seem to be going away. It takes a lot to stay somewhat with vlad jr for a third of the season.
Do you think the swing change made him the real deal?
Every Monday! Hopefully each is better than its predecessor!
I’ve actually seen Cavan Biggio multiple times live, with Ralph (prospect writer for Razz, as I’m sure you might know). His power is legit, but I think it’s heavily to the pull side, I don’t see the gap-to-gap feel that I see with a guy like Bichette. (Don’t want to compare to Vlad for obvious reasons). While that doesn’t really worry me extensively, it also doesn’t make me fully buy into him as say, a top 50 overall prospect.
I didn’t actually know much about him regarding the adjustment either, but I’d be stunned if it’s a fluke, rarely things like this are, he’s not just stumbling into power for two months. I’d be really interested to see how major league pitchers pick him apart, and that might be an issue for him.
Overall, I like it, but I’d be cautiously optimistic.
Very interesting read. Someone in my league just traded Bellinger and Strasburg for Whit, D. Price, and Braun. What do you think should i have vetoed?
@Papa Jean Segura:
Nope. I’m against veto unless collusion.
If the Bellinger owner doesn’t think Bellinger can bounce back then that’s fine value for Stras. I would want the Stras side, but it’s not egregious.
I am Scoresheet player, witch is like playing real baseball. My league is NL only.
I am going to have four of the first six or so picks . I have a fifth pick witch I am going to use to grab Dodger 1B Max Muncy (they plan to use him at 2B in the future).
Going by the draft, my first three picks are no brainers I think:
2- Bart – C – SF
3- Bohm -3B – PHI
5- India -3B – CIN
My fourth pick is more difficult. I love 3B – Nolan Gorman (Cards) and his powerful bat, but that is three 3B and I am having second thoughts.
I know you love RHP Cater Stewart (Atl), please talk me into going that way with my fourth.
What are your thoughts in all the picks? Can you please give me a line or two on each.
This is interesting because of how much heat you have at the top and how you might have to stray from general consensus of the best available to have it make sense.
The easiest switch would be to go with Madrigal above Bart. I like Bart, but if this scoresheet league (which I admit I’m not proficient with) is anything like fantasy, the valuation on catchers and their development is going to be something to keep an eye on.
I love Stewart, but I’m going to stay away from any high school arm in a fantasy-style league.
I think your picks are fine, but if I could construct my own crop of guys here, assuming they’re available, I’d go Bohm-Madrigal-India-Kelenic. I think that’s a blend of upside with floor and gives you an upside piece in Kelenic, all while staying away from the volatility of arms.
Main thing is basically my understanding of whether scoresheet resembles fantasy or if it takes into account other things like defense, etc.
Scoresheet definitely takes defense into account, Scoresheet is a simulated game, they collect all the stats from your players and your opponent’s players and then play the games with their own formulas. Each position player has a defensive range number, for example J.D. Martinez is one of the worst OF and has a defensive range of (2.01), while Billy Hamilton is one of the best defenders (2.20). We also are not crazy about stolen bases, actually most owners would not allow a player to steal unless he has about a 80% success rate.
One of the things I like about Bart , is that they say he has being calling his own games in college and is a good defender and has great power to all fields.
I wanted Madrigal and Libertore, but they both ended up in the A L, with Chicago and Tampa bay respectably. I like Bohm and Bart for the powerful bats and that they both seem to have high OBP also.
I am not crazy about Kelenic, if I am going to go with another bat, I will stay with the slugger Nolan Gorman and hope that either he or Bohm moves to 1B. Also in Scoresheet any infielder can play 1B without a defense penalty.
Really cool article. Thanks for posting!
wow that is a great analysis……..that heat map says alot
Thanks! It’s intriguing for sure.
Any faith in Margot turning his season around? He seems to be hitting better lately and even walked 3 times yesterday. I can use another OF and he has the most upside of any FA in my league. Not sure if I should chase a hot bat or grab Margot and hope the good stuff comes later and get it on it before it happens. Thanks
Don’t have much faith in Margot this season unfortunately.
Having major issues with breaking balls this season. I think it’s going to be a longer fix for him. Hot streak might happen, but it’d be on the back of steals, which are more opportunity based than anything for me.
If he’s the best guy available however, go for it. Would need to know who else is around to decide.
Lance thanks for the write up. Before this season I had a choice between Cody and Rhys Hoskins for my one bat keeper for this season…… I cant say I definitely made the correct choice or the incorrect one. I would love to see the construction of the analysis with Rhys this year as well. A lot of noise out here in philly on the air waves about taking a player out of their ‘natural’ defensive position will screw up their offensive performance. My question boils down to – are their technical differences between the swing for Rhys? Are pitchers approaching him differently- yes they are but how? and do the magnitude fo these difference say hey- their might be something to the notion of him playing OF instead of 1B. I’m inclined to think yes, the defensive stuff carries over.
This is a very interesting question and well said.
I can’t say I know much about Hoskins year over year differentially that would allow me to be even semi-confident in stating an opinion about if he’s fixable. But his peripherals are fantastic and that’s something I think you have to hang on, even if the raw pop isn’t as high as Bellinger.
In terms of the defensive switch affecting offense? I don’t really buy it. The league adjusts to everybody, it’s likely happening to Rhys. It’s just a coincidence, especially because Rhys was hitting well in April, so what was the excuse then?
The technical differences between Rhys and Bellinger’s swing aren’t insanely different honestly. Bellinger is more explosive, little bit more reliant on his upper body, whereas Rhys hovers with his front foot, engages a little bit more, but it’s really tough to comp between both in terms of pitcher approach. Everybody in the league is likely seeing more breaking balls, so how one handles that is going to matter, regardless of other moving parts.
Great post, Lance!
Very well done! Thank you for this.