The 2023 season was a career resurgence for Cody Bellinger. He was once again the heart and soul of a ball club’s offense, this time with the Chicago Cubs, and he proved that he can still be one of baseball’s most dangerous threats at the plate.
This season showed that a lot can change over the course of a year. Last winter, the Dodgers non-tendered Bellinger after struggling mightily in his final few seasons in Los Angeles. The once rising superstar sputtered into free agency, and it appeared that Bellinger was a shell of the player he once was in 2019.
Now, the former NL MVP will hit the open market for the second time except this time around it will be on the heels of a tremendous season in the Windy City. He re-established himself as one of the best outfielders in the National League, and he is now in line to receive a lucrative contract this winter.
Cody Bellinger bet on himself when he signed a one-year, $12.5 million deal with the Chicago Cubs prior to the 2023 season. Now, he is going to win big in free agency because of it.
Bellinger’s 2023 Year in Review
Cody Bellinger impacted the game in a multitude of ways in 2023. For starters, it was the most active he’s ever been on the base paths. He ended the season with a career-high 20 stolen bases, which was the second-most on the Cubs, and he demonstrated that he still has elite speed.
Defensively, he brought his usual athleticism and strong throwing arm to Chicago’s center field position. It didn’t end there though, as he provided a reliable glove while demonstrating impressive range as first base as well. In the end, Bellinger finished the 2023 season in the 88th percentile in outs above average.
And yet, it was Bellinger’s strides of improvement offensively that will earn him his paycheck this offseason.
He finished the year hitting .307, which was the highest mark of his seven-year career and was the second-highest batting average among qualified National League outfielders. Likewise, he posted an impressive on-base percentage of .356, which was the second-highest mark of his career.
Additionally, his OPS of .881 was his best since 2019, and it was the fourth-best OPS among qualified NL outfielders. He was an extra-base hit machine in 2023. He totaled 56 extra-base hits, which included 29 doubles and 26 homers. In turn, his ability to rack up extra-bases yielded his highest ISO since his 2019 season (.218).
Bellinger posted an fWAR of 4.1 in 2023, which was his best WAR total since his MVP campaign. For context, in the three seasons between 2020-’22, Bellinger accumulated an fWAR of just 2.2.
When analyzing what changes Bellinger made to warrant such substantial improvements, his refined approach at the plate is at the heart of his bounce-back season.
Overall, while it was still a successful season in terms of power output, Bellinger sacrificed some of his pop in order to see better contact rates in 2023. Despite seeing some of his quality of contact metrics dip, he managed to put together quality at-bats by improving other aspects of his offensive game. These changes it led to more sustainable offensive production.
Most significantly, he ended the year with a strikeout rate of 15.6%. That rate was in the top 13 percent of baseball and was a whopping 11.6% better from his 2022 number. It was also easily the lowest mark of his career and an astounding improvement for a player who was highly susceptible to swing-and-miss in his previous seasons.
When looking at Bellinger’s plate disciple, it’s no surprise to see such a noticeable drop in strikeout rate given the strides he made in his contact rates.
Bellinger’s zone contact rate ballooned to an impressive 85% on the year. That was by far the highest mark of his career, by nearly five percent, and it was a 7.5% increase from his number in 2022. Relatedly, he saw his overall whiff rate drop to 20.1%, which was also the best mark of his career and a 7.1% decrease from the previous season.
What’s more, Bellinger’s improved bat-to-ball numbers allowed him to boost his line drive rate to 26.4% on the year. This was the second-best rate of his career (only behind his 2019 season), and it was a 4.2% increase from 2022.
Bellinger displayed much more offensive consistency in 2023. His ability to slash his strikeout rate, while boosting his line drive production added an element of consistency to his offensive production. However, another explanation of his steady offensive performance is his sensational boost in performance versus several different pitch types.
Success Versus All Pitch Types
There were no holes in Bellinger’s game in 2023, as he was a tough out for seemingly every pitcher he faced.
He hit with runners in scoring position, he produced against both left and right-handed pitchers, and most importantly, he saw strong results against all types of pitches.
It’s difficult to articulate just how significant of an improvement Bellinger made this season in terms of his bat-to-ball numbers. In order to further illustrate the significance of his offensive strides, below are tables comparing of his numbers across his previous three seasons in terms of his performance versus various pitch types, starting with the fastball.
|Versus Fastballs||BA||SLG||wOBA||WHIFF %||PutAway%|
Admittedly, Bellinger’s performance against fastballs is where he saw the least significant improvements when compared to previous seasons. Still, they were important improvements nonetheless.
Bellinger saw his whiff rate against the pitch type continue to decline in 2023, which is an intriguing trend that has been in motion since his 2021 season. In turn, his 4.2% drop in fastball whiff rate this year helps explain his 36 point bump in batting average from a season ago.
Bellinger’s ability to punish fastballs was the foundation of his MVP-winning campaign back in 2019, so it’s encouraging to see his numbers continue to improve in that area.
|Versus Breaking Balls||BA||SLG||wOBA||WHIFF %||PutAway%|
|Versus Offspeed||BA||SLG||wOBA||WHIFF %||PutAway%|
It doesn’t explain the entire story, but Bellinger’s successful 2023 campaign can be attributed in large part to his enormous boost in performance against the two pitch types highlighted above.
Bellinger significantly improved both his power and contact numbers against breaking and offspeed pitches in 2023, and much of that success stemmed from the slashing off his whiff rate against both pitch types.
In 2022, Bellinger saw breaking pitches 28.2% of the time, and he posted a whiff rate of 34.6% against the pitch type. This season, Bellinger saw breaking pitches more frequently (28.9%), and he managed to cut his whiff rate by 9.7% and his putaway rate by 13%.
A similar feat occurred against offspeed pitches. He saw his swing-and-miss rate get slashed in half from 31.4% in 2022 down to 15.7% in 2023. In turn, he saw a 12.7% decrease in his putaway rate, and it more than doubled his batting average, slugging percentage, and wOBA against the pitch type.
Against these pitch types, Bellinger put the ball in play more often, he was able to increase his slugging numbers, and it led to sustainable success in 2023 for both him and his ball club. It’s a big reason why he was a consistent run producer in the heart of the Cubs’ lineup all season long.
Bellinger’s Demand on the Open Market
Now that we’ve covered just how impressive of a season Bellinger had in 2023, let’s take a look at some potential landing spots for him this offseason.
Outside of the highly-anticipated Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes, Cody Bellinger could be the hottest commodity on the free agent market.
The 28-year-old stands out as a potential building block for a ball club’s outfield in a free agency class that lacks an abundance of star talent. After cashing in on his “prove it” deal with the Cubs, he is hitting the open market at the exact right time.
Simply put, Bellinger is going to earn a sizeable multi-year deal in his second stint of free agency this winter. So, who could be in the market for his services, and what could a potential deal look like?
For starters, the Cubs likely remain in the market to extend Bellinger. He was the perfect fit for the Chicago Cubs in 2023. He led Chicago in wRC+ (134), he drove in the most runs on the team (97), and he paced the ball club in home runs (26).
Bellinger played an integral part in the Cubs’ offense, and he was a key component to Chicago’s surge up the standings in the second half of the 2023 season. He’s on the right side of 30, he fits multiple positions of need, and Bellinger demonstrated that he is clearly comfortably at Wrigley Field. There should be mutual interest from both parties to strike a long-term deal to keep him in the Windy City.
However, there is a real chance that Bellinger’s demand forces him out of Chicago. Bellinger can be a valuable contributor at some premier positions, he can play high-quality defense in the corner outfield if needed, and he can be a productive designated hitter as well.
That kind of player profile will always have demand on the open market, and there’s a chance that his demand generates a contract value that is out of the Cubs’ comfort zone. There will be organizations who will be willing to spend a significant amount of money in order to lock Bellinger up as a foundational piece of their ball club.
Other Potential suitors: San Francisco Giants, New York Yankees, San Diego Padres, Toronto Blue Jays, Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies, Miami Marlins, Minnesota Twins
Admittedly, it’s difficult to predict what the value will be on a long-term contract for Bellinger.
On one hand, he was one of the best outfielders in the National League all throughout the 2023 season. He’s still just 28 years old, and he has flashed his potential of still being a franchise-altering player for an organization.
On the other hand, he is still just one year removed from several below average seasons with the Dodgers. That’s something that is likely at the forefront of many of these front office’s minds as they think about what a potential long-term deal could look like for Bellinger.
With that being said, Bellinger is a Scott Boras client, and that always gives a player of his caliber an opportunity to secure a luxurious contract. So, what could a potential deal look like for Cody Bellinger?
Jim Bowden of The Athletic recently projected a Bellinger contract that would be worth $144 million this offseason. This felt to be on the lower end of recent projections.
A few months back, there were also rumblings that Bellinger’s potential contract could near or exceed the $200 million mark. Again, given that Bellinger is a Boras client, it’s possible this is their asking price heading into contract negotiations.
Now, there’s a likelihood his actual contract falls somewhere between those two projections.
In terms of average annual value, or AAV, Bellinger will warrant an AAV no less than $20 million. On the flip side, it’s likely his AAV will not exceed the $30 million mark unless a ball club is completely confident that they will be getting this version of Cody Bellinger for the next few seasons. In reality, Bellinger’s AAV on his upcoming contract will probably settle around the $25 million mark.
The contract length is where things will get interesting for Bellinger. At 28 years old, a deal between five and seven years seems to be the most realistic outcome. A contract of this duration would have him hitting free agency once more around ages 33 to 35 years old.
For the ball club, a contract of this length would allow them to maximize Bellinger’s defensive abilities in the outfield for the foreseeable future and cash-in on him still being in his physical prime. There could be some reservations to give him a contract that is significantly longer in length due to the roller coaster that has been his career.
For Bellinger, a five-to-seven year deal puts him in a position where he could sign one final multi-year contract if he were to reach free agency once more. At that time, he would likely still have value even as a first baseman or a designated hitter on the open market if he were to move out of the outfield.
While he will obviously work to secure a longer deal, and it’s possible a ball club extends it to him, a contract duration between the five and seven year feels like the most realistic agreement.
My inclination is that Bellinger strikes a deal near the middle ground of both the contract length and price estimations discussed. At the end of the day, Bellinger can be one of the more electric players in baseball when things are clicking, and he stands out as a star in a relatively weak free agency class.
Prediction: Bellinger re-signs with the Chicago Cubs on a six-year, $162 million deal.
Cody Bellinger’s career changed course after his stellar 2023 season with the Chicago Cubs. Not only was he one of the best hitters on an exciting Chicago Cubs team, but he turned in one of the best offensive seasons in the National League.
The Cubs took a flier on Bellinger last offseason in an attempt to see if they could turn his game around. As it turns out, perhaps a change in scenery is exactly what Bellinger needed to get his career back on track.
An offseason ago, Bellinger’s career outlook appeared bleak after several sputtering years with the Dodgers. Now, he re-enters free agency as one of, if not the top target behind Shohei Ohtani, and he is in line to receive a lucrative multi-year contract with a ball club this offseason.
Sometimes, betting on yourself can pay enormous dividends, and Bellinger’s 2023 season is a perfect example of that.