THE ANGELS — There was a time when Cody Bellinger thought he would be a Dodger forever.
“At some point, for sure,” the 27-year-old former MVP said Friday as he looked toward Dodger Stadium from the visiting dugout for the first time. “But life doesn’t always go to plan.”
Bellinger said he tries to stay in the moment and appreciate what comes next. For now, that means cherishing a return to the place he thought he’d never leave — the place where he became Rookie of the Year, where he hit 27 of his 47 homers in 2019 en route to winning the MVP. the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Awards and where he became one of the most promising young players in the game.
It is now, after three subpar seasons, also the place that represents its past. But in his first trip back to Chavez Ravine since not being called up this offseason, the Cubs outfielder wasn’t wistful.
“I’m really excited,” Bellinger said. “Looking back, so many incredible memories here on this field. Just a lot of incredible memories. No sadness. I might get emotional, but those will be happy tears if they come.”
Three years ago, his absence from the Dodgers’ roster would have seemed unfathomable.
Bellinger was a two-time All-Star at age 23. But after a season in which he hit 47 homers with 115 RBIs, he couldn’t repeat that feat in the shortened 2020 season. He was still hitting the ball hard, it just wasn’t the type of season one would expect from a reigning MVP whose bat was so feared that he was intentionally walked 21 times in 2019.
In the 2020 playoffs, however, he began to look like a version of that player. He hit five runs in the National League Division Series against the Padres and stole Fernando Tatís Jr. a home run He scored five more runs in the NL Championship Series, the last of which came on his third home run of the postseason. With two outs and nobody on in the seventh inning of the decisive Game 7 against the Braves, Bellinger broke the tie with a no-doubt 400-foot blast that helped send the Dodgers to the World Series.
One of the biggest moments of Bellinger’s career also marked the beginning of his decline.
Before returning to the dugout, he celebrated with teammate Kiké Hernandez with a hit to the forearm that left Bellinger in obvious pain. He persevered through the Dodgers’ championship run, but his dislocated shoulder required offseason surgery.
Bellinger, already looking to regain his swing and form, would find neither again. More injuries prevented him from picking up any semblance of a rhythm. Four games into the 2021 season, he suffered a hairline fracture in his leg and missed the next two months. He later missed time with a hamstring strain and a non-displaced rib fracture.
He didn’t look like the same player anymore. His strikeout rate dropped. His hole rate skyrocketed.
“I think it was really tough for him because he knows what kind of player he can be,” Dodgers third baseman Max Muncy said. “Everyone has seen the type of player he can be, and he wanted to get back to that very badly.”
Bellinger finished the year with a 44 OPS+ and 47 wRC+ that ranked behind all but two other major leaguers with at least 300 plate appearances. Despite steady defense in center field, Bellinger was still nearly two wins below replacement level.
Amidst the struggles, Bellinger continued to play with his setup and swing. He tried to open his position to find a better time. He worked with the Dodgers’ hitting coaches looking for a straighter, simpler path to the ball. A shorter swing could improve his contact skills. Power, ideally, would follow.
“You lower your changeup, you lower your expectations, you’re going to be surprised where you think you’re trying to hit him and sometimes where he goes,” then-coach Brant Brown said.
The adjustments paid off. Bellinger’s RBI single in Game 5 of the 2021 NLDS sent the Dodgers ahead of the division-winning Giants. And, after struggling to pick up velocity all year (he hadn’t homered on a fastball above the zone all season), Bellinger produced a compact strike with a 95.6 mph fastball in Game 3 of the NLCS against the Braves for a home run. that erased a three-run deficit in an eventual victory.
“I think when you hit rock bottom, there’s a lot of opportunity for openness and change,” manager Dave Roberts said. “To his credit, he got his hands down, understood he had to hit the ball squarer, flatter, take the loop out of his swing.”
Bellinger’s teammates tried to cheer him up after the performance: “Tell them, Belli,” Mookie Betts said. “They’re good, but you also drive a Benz.”
But the Dodgers couldn’t complete another NLCS comeback against the Braves, and an offseason lockout meant more time away from the team. For Bellinger, it was time to regain his strength. It was also time to play as he tried to regain his form, perhaps to his detriment.
“Sometimes, we all know hitters’ feelings will get the better of them,” Brown said in March 2022, shortly before the start of the season.
“If he has a thought, he has a right to try,” added hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc. “It’s his swing, his career, and we have to be there to help him and support him, even if we don’t necessarily think it’s the right thing to do at the time.”
While the 2022 season represented a step forward, Bellinger was a 1.2 WAR player, still nothing like the talent he once was. He hit the ball a little harder, but his strikeout rate continued to climb, his walk rate went down, and the one-time superstar finished the year with a 79 OPS+.
“I don’t think it’s ever been done on the spectrum of going from NL MVP to the struggles we’ve seen over the last couple of years,” Roberts said. “He’s one of those things that you kind of expected him to be a Dodger his whole career, but he just wasn’t meant to be.”
In November, with Bellinger about to earn about $18 million in arbitration, the Dodgers did not tender their former prodigy. They expressed that Bellinger was coming back on a lesser deal, but the Cubs were willing to pay him that $18 million in a one-year flyer.
“I don’t think it’s Cody’s fault, I don’t think it’s our coaches’ fault, but sometimes a change of scenery is good,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said.
On Dec. 14, the Dodgers posted a video thanking Bellinger on social media that showed his growth from Little League World Series star to major league star. That’s when the reality of the situation finally sunk in for Bellinger, who became emotional watching the video.
The tribute included Bellinger’s first hit, his first home run at Dodger Stadium and a display of the 152 home runs he hit during his six-year career with the Dodgers. There was his cycle, the unanimous Rookie of the Year announcement, athletic catches in center field and outbursts. It was all a reminder of the kinds of performances that once had broadcaster Joe Davis musing on air, “Is there anything Bellinger can’t do?”
Now, with Bellinger in the opposite dugout, all that’s left to wonder is exactly what happened.
“I think the injury had something to do with it,” Roberts said. “There’s no one answer. I think Cody has to take some responsibility. I think we as coaches have to take responsibility. And sometimes maybe a different voice could unlock some things in it because you can Don’t debate skill set or talent.”
On Friday, memories of that skill and talent flashed across the DodgerVision boards as his video tribute played. In a different uniform, with a different number, Bellinger stood in right field, reabsorbed the video and doffed his cap in front of the home crowd cheering his name.
In his first at-bat, he continued to receive cheers from tens of thousands of Dodger fans: and suffered a pitch violation in the process. Two innings later, he hit his 71st double at Dodger Stadium.
For the first time, it wasn’t for the home team.
“Obviously, it didn’t end the way anybody really expected it to end,” Bellinger said. “But that’s life. I think I’ve come to terms with it.”
Rowan Kavner covers the Dodgers and NL West for FOX Sports. He previously served as editor of the Dodgers’ digital and print publications. Follow him on Twitter at @RowanKavner.
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