Readers, I must apologize for Matt Provenzano on behalf of Beyond the Box Score.
Our managing editor recently published a perfectly well-written article about Christian Yelich. I will provide a link here, but be forewarned! You will be misled. The article posits several facts that prove Yelich is an excellent ballplayer having a phenomenal start to the season. This is fine; the facts are all true.
The sinister element is the insinuation that Yelich is the best player in baseball this season. Provenzano doesn’t say this outright, but it is the only reasonable conclusion when his 95- home run pace and 222 wRC+ are thrown at susceptible readers.
Folks, allow me to free your minds. Yelich, while exceptional, is NOT the best player this season. That honor belongs to Cody Bellinger. Here are some of his otherworldly numbers in bullet-point format, just as Provenzano dubiously presented those of Yelich:
- .424 batting average
- .500 on-base percentage
- .882 slugging percentage
- .552 wOBA
- 255 wRC+
- 2.3 fWAR
All of these stats are not only better than Yelich’s, they’re better than everyone else’s in the National League. While the disgraced Provenzano wasn’t wrong when he described Yelich’s 222 wRC+ as Ruthian, Bellinger’s 255 wRC+ goes far beyond The Babe. The single season record for wRC+ is 244 set by Barry Bonds in 2002. This makes Bellinger’s start to the season, uh, super-Ruthian? Mega-Bondsish? Trout-in-rookie-ball-like? Whatever, it’s crazy good.
Building a Better Bellinger
Bellinger’s ascendance is a little more out-of-nowhere than Yelich’s. While the latter won the MVP last season, the former suffered a minor sophomore slump. Despite 84 more plate appearances than his rookie year, his home run total dropped from 39 to 25. In the playoffs, he was benched against left-handed pitchers.
The difference appears to be in his approach to pitches out of the strike zone. Last year, his O-swing percentage was 29.1. In 2019, he’s dropped it down to 21.0 percent. Even more impressively, when he does swing at a pitch out of the zone, he rarely misses. His O-contact percentage made an enormous leap from 61.0 in 2018 to 86.7 this year. He also improved his contact rate on strikes from 78.6 percent to 88.7 percent.
Naturally, making contact is good, and hitters improve when they do it more often. Bellinger’s 87.8 percent contact rate is seventh in MLB this year. In 2018, his 72.4 percent contact rate was ranked 125 out of 140 qualified hitters. Correspondingly, his strikeout rate dropped from 23.9 percent to 12.0.
However, contact alone is not what makes a player special. The players ahead of Bellinger this year are mostly slap-hitters like David Fletcher and Brett Gardner (plus Mike Trout, who is also okay at baseball). It’s necessary to hit the ball with ferocity as well.
Bellinger has treated several baseball with said ferocity. According to Statcast, his 54.9 percent hard hit rate is among the 94th percentile of MLB, while his 16.9 percent barrel rate is in the 91st percentile. (Further evidence of his unfair athleticism: he’s 95th percentile in sprint speed!)
With better, more frequent contact, Bellinger’s xwOBA has jumped dramatically. While his .328 was scarcely above average last year, he’s now leading MLB with .557.
Bellinger > Yelich (Epstein > Provenzano)
To conclude, swinging at fewer pitches out of the zone, making more contact than almost everyone, and hitting the ball harder than almost everyone is a stellar combination. This is why Matt Provenzano is a disingenuous stinker.
To be fair, our resident Yelich stan did invoke Bellinger in his inflammatory article:
There is one player projected to have more fWAR when this season is all said and done: Mike Trout. Despite the fact that Cody Bellinger has been on fire, the sample is smaller in terms of hotness than what we can say for Yelich.
While both players’ Scoville scales are off the charts, Bellinger’s fire is burning the hottest of all. Perhaps if Yelich had just one extra home run...
Yelich thought he had homer No. 14... but he thought very very wrong courtesy of @Cody_Bellinger— Yahoo Sports MLB (@MLByahoosports) April 21, 2019
(via @MLB) pic.twitter.com/O2gTjrVPWB
Who was that gravity-defying Dodger outfielder who stole a dinger away from Yelich? That’s right: CODY BELLINGER! Eat that, Provenzano!
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983