Last summer, Major League Baseball, spotting a rare national marketing opportunity, made Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich the center of an impromptu ad campaign. It made sense. They were the clear top two NL MVP candidates at the All-Star break. They emerged as superstars in their markets. Belli vs. Yeli, a friendly contrived rivalry, was born. In the end, Bellinger was named MVP.
That now seems like a long time ago. The two outfielders will meet in the wild-card round starting Wednesday when the Dodgers and Milwaukee Brewers play Game 1 at Dodger Stadium, but they aren’t coming off MVP-caliber regular seasons. For 60 games, they were part of a group of All-Stars across the majors that saw their production nosedive in 2020.
Yelich didn’t cross the Mendoza Line until his 22nd game Aug. 19. The 2018 NL MVP finished with a .205 batting average, .705 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and 12 home runs. His wRC+ plummeted from 174 last season to 112, which estimates the 28-year-old right fielder was just 12% better than the average hitter.
“I don’t have the reasons,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said Monday. “We’ve hopefully addressed them if we did. He got off to a really poor start. That’s probably the thing I would suggest the most.”
The root of Bellinger’s troubles is easier to pinpoint.
Last season, Bellinger posted a 162 wRC+ while batting .305 with 47 home runs and a 1.035 OPS. But he wasn’t satisfied with his second half. In a vacuum, he was still one of the best sluggers in baseball after the All-Star break — he recorded a .917 OPS — but he thought he should’ve been better.
So he implemented notable changes to his swing — particularly in his stance — during the shutdown between spring training and summer camp. He didn’t stand as upright. His hands were lower and pulled back. He slightly bent his knees.
Bellinger, 25, never specified the reason for the modifications — he declined an interview request for this story through a Dodgers spokesman — but opponents exploited him with pitches down and away late last season.
“I’ve never had that much time and I got a chance to work on my swing and it could be a blessing in the long run,” Bellinger said in July. “I’m not making any big adjustment. There’s always small points in your swing that you realize make you good. You just try to be as consistent with those as you can.”
But the changes were obvious and a problem surfaced during summer camp: Bellinger was constantly late to fastballs inside, particularly high and inside. In an attempt to address a weakness, he'd created another one. The troubles were enough to prompt Bellinger to make tweaks to more resemble his 2019 look by opening day. Adjustments continued into the season as he got off to a slow start; on Aug. 19 he had a .178 batting average and .592 OPS in 26 games.
“We had many conversations with him but when a player is convicted to doing something, you have to give him the opportunity to do it,” Dodgers co-hitting coach Brant Brown said. “Since then, we have talked things through and we've made some modifications to what he was trying to do to make things better and then what he needs to do to make things better."
Ultimately, 2020 was also a tale of two halves for Bellinger, just in reverse. He batted .295 with seven home runs and a .960 OPS in 133 plate appearances over his final 31 games. He finished with a .239 batting average, .789 OPS, 114 wRC+ and 12 home runs.
“We're trying to get to a point now where we're kind of done tinkering and you kind of go with what you've got,” Brown said. “And you either use your steel or you use your scrap. Whatever you have on that night, you have to understand that.”
The Dodgers absorbed Bellinger’s down season without blinking. They went 43-17 as he tried to figure things out. They scored the most runs in the majors. The offense remained a juggernaut.
The Brewers' lineup was not nearly deep enough to absorb Yelich’s dropoff. Their offense was anemic. Lorenzo Cain, one of their best hitters, opted out of the season after a week. They got below-average production at almost every position. They were no-hit by Chicago Cubs right-hander Alec Mills. They scored three or fewer runs in each of their final eight games.
And yet Milwaukee, after going 29-31, secured the No. 8 seed on the final day of the regular season. On Wednesday, the Dodgers and Brewers will take the field for Game 1 in an empty Dodger Stadium. It’ll be Belli vs. Yeli all over again.