Cody Bellinger still thinks of himself as an MVP-caliber player.
“One-hundred percent,” Bellinger said.
He batted .165 last season and .239 the season before that, but he doesn’t think he’s still in the process of defining who he is as a major leaguer.
“I don’t feel like that,” he said. “Maybe people do. You do.”
Now three years removed from his MVP season, Bellinger is the greatest enigma in the Dodgers’ spring training camp.
The 26-year-old outfielder 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 whacked 39 homers as a rookie and 47 two years later?
Or the player who was clearly slowed in 2021 by an offseason shoulder operation and became an offensive liability?
Bellinger has usually been either spectacular or horrible offensively over the last five years and rarely anything in between.
“It’s on him to change that narrative,” manager Dave Roberts said. “I think there’s no doubt what we think of him as a ballplayer and what he can and has done to help us win baseball games, win a championship. But as far as the consistency part, that’s on every individual player. I will say that being healthy gives him a much better chance.”
Uncertainty over Bellinger increased the Dodgers’ urgency to pursue the left-handed-hitting Freddie Freeman, whom they signed last week to a six-year, $162-million contract.
Following the offseason departure of Corey Seager, the Dodgers’ top three left-handed hitters were three players with major questions: Max Muncy, who is recovering from an elbow injury that sidelined him for the postseason; Gavin Lux, who has struggled in his transition from top prospect to everyday player; and Bellinger.
Bellinger says he is confident he can help even out the left-right balance of the lineup, pointing to how much better his surgically repaired shoulder feels compared to how it did last year. He injured the shoulder on a freak accident during the Dodgers’ World Series run in 2020 when an overly enthusiastic Kiké Hernández bashed forearms with him to celebrate a home run.
“It was just extremely weak last year,” Bellinger said. “It’s your lead shoulder. Strength was the biggest part.”
Diminished flexibility was also a problem.
“Externally rotating wasn’t there, either,” he said. “It was just extremely stiff.”
Bellinger, who became a father over the winter, said he spent the offseason strengthening the muscles on the back of his shoulder.
“I feel stronger,” he said. “I feel like the ball is jumping off the bat, more so than it did last year.”
Bellinger’s inconsistency, however, predates his shoulder injury.
His rookie-of-the-year campaign was followed by a sharp decline in production in his second season, as pitchers discovered they could effectively attack him with a combination of elevated fastballs and outside curveballs.
He recovered by winning the National League MVP award in his third season.
A disappointing finish to the otherwise spectacular season, however, prompted Bellinger to modify his swing in 2020. The results worsened.
Then came the shoulder injury. His return from the injury last year was complicated by a leg fracture he sustained in the opening week of the season. He sat out nearly two months and failed to find an offensive rhythm throughout the regular season.
A frustrated Bellinger changed his swing again, this time in early September, which set him up 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 has kept the swing with which he batted .353 in 12 postseason games last year, with his hands lowered and his stance spread out.
When the Dodgers’ spring training facility was unavailable to him during the baseball lockout, Bellinger hit in the batting cage of former teammate Andre Ethier’s Phoenix-area residence.
In addition to working out at his house, Bellinger solicited advice from the now-retired longtime Dodger.
“He was a great hitter for a lot of years,” Bellinger said. “I definitely picked his mind.”
Roberts cited Bellinger’s character when explaining why he thought Bellinger would have another bounce-back season.
“His defense has never been compromised,” Roberts said of how Bellinger has continued to play Gold Glove-caliber defense in center field.
Bellinger nodded when passed on Roberts’ words. He said his confidence wasn’t diminished.
“You can always wish you can have Mike Trout’s career,” Bellinger said. “But everyone’s story is different. I’m just writing mine right now.”
The next chapter will be 162 games.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.