Hernández: Cody Bellinger says he’s still an MVP player. He has another chance to prove it

Cody Bellinger still sees himself as an MVP-caliber player.

“One hundred percent,” Bellinger said.

He hit .165 last season and .239 the season before that, but he doesn’t think he’s still about to define who he is as a major league.

“I don’t feel that way,” he said. “Maybe people do. They do.”

Bellinger chuckled.

Now three years away from his MVP season, Bellinger is the biggest mystery at the Dodgers’ spring training camp.

The 26-year-old fielder is a former Rookie of the Year, two-time All-Star, World Series Champion, Gold Glove and Silver Slugger winner, but who will he be this season?

The fearsome slugger who hit 39 home runs as a rookie and 47 two years later?

Or the player who was significantly slowed down by off-season shoulder surgery in 2021 and became an offensive liability?

Bellinger has typically been either spectacular or terrible on offense over the last five years and rarely anything in between.

“It’s up to him to change that narrative,” manager Dave Roberts said. “I think there’s no mistaking what we think of him as a ball player and what he can and has done to help us win baseball games, win a championship. But as far as consistency goes, that’s up to each individual player. I’ll say he has a much better chance if he’s healthy.”

Uncertainty over Bellinger increased the Dodgers’ urgency to pursue left-hander Freddie Freeman, whom they signed to a six-year, $162 million deal last week.

After Corey Seager’s offseason departure, the Dodgers’ top three lefties were three players with big questions: Max Muncy, who is recovering from an elbow injury that sidelined him for the postseason; Gavin Lux, who has struggled with his transition from top prospect to everyday gamer; and Bellinger.

Bellinger is confident he can help even out the lineup’s left-right balance, noting how much better his surgically repaired shoulder feels compared to last year. He injured his shoulder in a freak accident during the 2020 run of the Dodgers’ World Series when an overly enthusiastic Kiké Hernández smacked him on the forearms to celebrate a home run.

“It was just extremely weak last year,” Bellinger said. “This is your leading shoulder. Strength was the biggest part.”

Another problem was the limited flexibility.

“Also, there was no outside rotation,” he said. “It was just extremely stiff.”

Bellinger, who became a father over the winter, said he spent the offseason strengthening the muscles at the back of his shoulder.

“I feel stronger,” he said. “I feel like the ball bounces off the bat, more so than last year.”

Dodgers' Cody Bellinger chases a fly ball during batting practice at a spring practice.

Dodgers outfielder Cody Bellinger chases a fly ball during spring training in Phoenix last week.

(Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press)

However, Bellinger’s inconsistency predates his shoulder injury.

His rookie-of-the-year campaign was followed by a sharp drop in production in his sophomore season when pitchers discovered they could tackle him effectively with a combination of raised fastballs and outside curveballs.

He bounced back by winning the National League MVP award in his third season.

However, a disappointing end to an otherwise spectacular season prompted Bellinger to modify his swing in 2020. The results worsened.

Then came the shoulder injury. His return from last year’s injury was complicated by a broken leg sustained in the opening week of the season. He was sidelined for almost two months and failed to find an offensive rhythm during the regular season.

A frustrated Bellinger changed his swing again, this time in early September, propelling him to shine in October.

He drove in the deciding run in a winner-take-all Game 5 in the NL Division Series against the San Francisco Giants. His eighth-inning homer in Game 3 of the NL Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves erased a three-run deficit and set the stage for Mookie Betts’ go-ahead double.

Bellinger said he maintained the momentum he used to hit .353s in 12 postseason games last year, with his hands down and his stance spread.

When the Dodgers’ spring training facility was unavailable to him during the baseball lockout, Bellinger hit the batting cage of former teammate Andre Ethier’s Phoenix-area residence.

In addition to training at his home, Bellinger sought advice from the now-retired longtime Dodger.

“He was a great hitter for many years,” Bellinger said. “I definitely picked his opinion.”

Roberts cited Bellinger’s character when explaining why he thought Bellinger would have another bounce back season.

“His defense was never compromised,” Roberts said of how Bellinger continued to play a Gold Glove-caliber defense in midfield.

Bellinger nodded as he relayed Robert’s words. He said his confidence has not been diminished.

“One can always wish to have Mike Trout’s career,” Bellinger said. “But everyone’s story is different. I’m writing mine right now.

The next chapter will have 162 games. Hernández: Cody Bellinger says he’s still an MVP player. He has another chance to prove it

Andrew Schnitker

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