AnalysisNL West

The Center (Fielders) of Attention

It’s something every sports fan has seen over the years – your favorite player, a person who has created so many of your fondest memories, will eventually fall off, and there will be nothing you can do to stop it. Usually, we see the decline begin in the mid-thirties as athletes exit their primes. What you don’t expect to see is your favorite athlete fall off a cliff in the middle of what is supposed to be their prime like Cody Bellinger has. An MVP at age 24, Bellinger seemed poise to be one of the faces of baseball for the next few years.

Three years later, he finds himself in the midst of another subpar season with legitimate talk about his future with the team and another player coming for his starting job in center field. That man is none other than Trayce Thompson, a 31-year-old outfielder who has a career 96 OPS+. However, since returning to the Dodgers in June this year, he has been on an absolute tear as Bellinger continues to struggle. With the Dodgers looking to win their second World Series in three years, who gets the start in center field may ultimately determine whether or not the Dodgers begin to form the outline of a dynasty or add to their collection of October disappointments.

The Fall of Cody Bellinger

Going into the 2020 season, many Dodgers fans were confused as to why the reigning National League MVP would undergo a swing change, but he was coming off a disappointing second half of 2019 (compared to his torrid start to the year) and a dreadful division series where he had a minuscule .549 OPS and -1.9% cWPA. The swing change did not help as Bellinger put up his worst season to that point, posting a 112 OPS+. The plate approach was still strong as Bellinger had put up his second-highest walk rate and second-lowest strikeout rate of his career. The underlying metrics were a weird in between of his 2017 and 2018 seasons, with a sharp uptick in his ground ball rate leading to a similarly sharp drop in his BABIP. Ultimately a strong postseason made fans optimistic about Bellinger going into the 2021 season.

What followed next was truly disheartening, as Bellinger’s OPS+ fell by 60.7% from his 2020 campaign and 73.7% from his last full season in which he won NL MVP. For as much as his BABIP fell off from 2020 to 2019, his BABIP fell of equally hard from 2020 to 2021. The main culprit was a drastic increase in launch angle, leading to an increase in his fly ball rate (47.5%), which have a BABIP of .117 across all of baseball. 2022 hasn’t been much better as Bellinger’s 73 OPS+ is still far below league average, and there were no major injuries that can be used to justify his anemic production either.

Meanwhile, the metrics paint wildly different pictures of how good Bellinger’s defense actually is. Bellinger has a negative UZR/150, slightly above-average in terms of his outfield jump, the same number of defensive runs saved as Thompson, yet nearly top 10th percentile rank in outs above average. Ultimately Bellinger’s defensive stats are a Rorschach test of how you view defensive metrics, and I tend to view his defense as slightly above-average in a premiere defensive position.

The Rise of Trayce Thompson

On May 14th this year, the Padres released Trayce Thompson, who would go on to sign with the Tigers five days later. A month later, the Dodgers would purchase his contract bringing him back to Los Angeles. Since returning to LA, Thompson has put a 144 OPS+ in 60 games. Thompson has been a surprise for the Dodgers this year and has put up great numbers throughout. He has provided a nice all-around game for the team and fills Bellinger’s spot better than Bellinger can.

Defensively, Thompson’s outfield jump is in the 92nd percentile with the same amount of defensive runs saved as Bellinger. On top of that, his UZR/150 is an impressive 14.4, and far and away outclasses Bellinger’s -1.2. Meanwhile, one of the things Bellinger is best known for, his clutch hits, are equaled by Thompson as his 161 WRC+ in high leverage situations is not too far off from Bellinger’s 166, making Thompson a legitimate threat to Bellinger’s playing time.

The Decision

Bellinger holds a special in my and a lot of Dodger fans’ hearts. He has delivered many key moments like his robbery of Fernando Tatis Jr. in Game 2 of the 2020 NLDS, the go-ahead home run against the Braves in Game 7 of the 2020 NLCS, and one of the greatest hits in the long history of the Dodgers-Giants rivalry, his single off Camilo Doval in Game 5 of the 2021 NLDS. Yet ultimately, all that is not enough to excuse his pattern of poor production since his 2019 MVP campaign. Meanwhile, Trayce Thompson is exactly the kind of hitter the Dodgers need to solidify an already deep Dodgers lineup and make them a pitcher’s nightmare to go through in October.

Bellinger is without a doubt a postseason legend for the Dodgers with his numerous clutch hits ranging from Game 4 of the 2017 World Series to Game 3 of the 2021 NLCS against the Braves, and those are memories that Dodger Nation will cherish for a lifetime. However, reputation doesn’t win World Series; only great play in the present can do that. While Thompson doesn’t have the name recognition that Bellinger has, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the talent to create moments of his own. Ultimately, with Trayce Thompson starting in center for the Dodgers this October, we may see the birth of a new Dodger postseason legend, and I, for one, can’t wait to see it.

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