Spoiler Knight: Cody Bellinger isn’t hitting, so how concerned should the Dodgers be? By Molly Knight 51m ago 2 Cody Bellinger stepped into the batter’s box in the first inning Thursday night against the Padres, took a deep breath and swished the dirt around with his toe as he had done 1,922 times already in his young career. When he was 22 years old in 2017, Bellinger won the National League’s Rookie of the Year award. At 24, he was voted the league’s most valuable player. And now at the ripe old age of 25, he is mired in the worst slump of his professional career. A day earlier, his manager, Dave Roberts called him a “work in progress.” That was a gentle way of putting it. Anyone who has watched Dodgers games over the past four seasons can see that Bellinger is swinging through hittable pitches he doesn’t often miss and popping up fat pitches he usually plants in the bleachers. Entering Thursday’s game, Bellinger was hitting .171 with a .276 slugging percentage and a .499 OPS. He had struck out (11) more than twice as often as he had walked (five). During his MVP campaign last season, Bellinger hit .305 and posted a 1.035 OPS. He walked (95) almost as often as he struck out (108). He was hitting .404 on the morning the Dodgers played their 50th game. It is cruel to judge a baseball player by a small sample size, but this pandemic-shortened season is already a third of the way over. And for Bellinger’s 2020, it’s getting early late. Bellinger isn’t the only name-brand slugger who is struggling during this bizarre sprint of a season. Last year’s NL MVP runner-up, Christian Yelich, entered Thursday’s action hitting .175. Last year’s third-place finisher in the AL MVP vote, Marcus Semien, was hitting .207 with a .554 OPS. And it’s not as if Belinger’s stats stand out on the Dodger Stadium scoreboard: After Thursday’s game, teammate Max Muncy is hitting .169, and Joc Pederson is hitting .167. The Dodgers have withstood the slumps of three of their best hitters because they are a good team. Their long lineup of tough outs, coupled with a deep bench, has allowed them to put runs on the board and let their MLB-best pitching staff do the rest. New Dodgers star Mookie Betts has been as good as advertised, posting a .1062 OPS with seven home runs despite a mini-slump to start the season. Bellinger went 0-for-3 on Thursday with two hard-hit balls and a flailing strikeout before being given a breather on the bench in the seventh inning. Betts hit three home runs in the 11-2 win, tying Sammy Sosa and Johnny Mize for the major-league record for three-homer games at 6 (!). Shortstop Corey Seager has been sensational, hitting four home runs and posting an OPS of nearly 1.000 despite dealing with a lingering quad injury that kept him out for several games. A.J. Pollock has shown why president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman awarded him a four-year contract worth $55 million before the 2019 season. Pollock, whose claim to fame as a Dodger was going 0-for-13 with 11 strikeouts in the NL Division Series loss to Washington last year, has picked up the slack for Bellinger, Muncy and Pederson by posting All-Star numbers: five home runs in 18 games with a 1.015 OPS. So, with the playoffs just six weeks away, how worried should Dodgers fans be about Bellinger’s slump? My colleague Eno Sarris wrote an excellent rundown of why offense across baseball has fallen this year. He cites hitters having fewer opportunities to face live pitching during the shutdown, a baseball that isn’t flying as far as it did the past few years and better defensive positioning taking away ground-ball hits — especially from lefties like Bellinger. Let’s also not undercount the negative impact of trying to play baseball during a pandemic and what worrying about family, feeling socially isolated from friends and fearing a deadly disease might do to a person’s concentration in the batter’s box. Thanks to fake crowd noise, the games seem pretty similar to the TV viewer as they do in non-pandemic years, save for the shots of thousands of empty seats. But being at Dodger Stadium during games this season has been, in a word, weird. The cardboard cutouts of perma-smiling people can seem creepy. The random crowd noise at strange times makes the stadium feel like a haunted house. The lack of fans makes the games 80 percent less fun for the few people in attendance. I often miss home runs when I’m typing away and then look up and see someone rounding third. During normal times, the roar of the crowd (or the cursing) alerts me that Something Has Happened within a split second of the crack of the bat. Playing before nobody but teammates, coaching staffs and a few dozen media has to affect players used to playing in front of 45,000 to 50,000 fans every night. Depending on the way their brains and limbic systems are wired, some higher-strung players might be thriving in the quiet with their concentration tighter than ever. It’s also possible that laidback players might be suffering from the lack of juice the crowd provides. When I was working on a story about at-bat music years ago, a Harvard neuroscientist told me that high-energy and high-intensity players should choose silly or playful songs as their walk-up songs to help them relax. She also suggested that players with a slow burn might choose high-octane heavy metal to get pumped up. Bellinger is a fine, young baseball player who always looks a bit sleepy, even when he has been selected as an All-Star starter. Is he a guy who especially misses the energy of 50,000 screaming Dodgers fans? It’s hard to say. Cody Bellinger went 0-for-3 on Thursday to have his average drop to .165. (Kelvin Kuo / USA Today) During the 469 regular-season games Bellinger has played entering Thursday, he hit 113 home runs while posting a .273 batting average and a .909 OPS. But in 36 career playoff games — when crowds are the loudest — he has hit .178 with four home runs and a .560 OPS. If those numbers look familiar, it’s because they look so similar to his stats from 2020. To be fair to Bellinger, every hitter faces the best pitchers in baseball during the playoffs. Even Betts, who won an MVP the year his Red Sox won the World Series over the Dodgers, has a .654 career playoff OPS. On Thursday, Bellinger did show some signs of coming out of his slump by hitting a 109.9-mph line drive in his first at-bat. But because slumps aren’t fair, the ball landed in the glove of Padres center fielder Edward Olivares. It would have been a great night for Bellinger to get off the schneid as the Dodgers battered San Diego ace Chris Paddack. In addition to Betts’ three home runs, Seager, Pollock and Barnes each homered. Bellinger and third baseman Justin Turner checked out of the game for a rest after the Dodgers built a nine-run lead. It’s tough to say whether the Dodgers need any one player to excel to have a shot at winning the World Series. If Clayton Kershaw or Walker Buehler were to falter or get hurt, perhaps Tony Gonsolin or Dustin May could step up. If Kenley Jansen is shaky, maybe Blake Treinen, Jake McGee and Brusdar Graterol could fill the void. If Bellinger, Muncy and Pederson don’t regain form before it’s too late, maybe Betts, Seager and Pollock can carry the Dodgers all the way. This is the sign of a great team. This is also why the Yankees, who just lost Giancarlo Stanton to a hamstring strain for at least three weeks, are not being written off in the slightest. For the Dodgers to finally — FINALLY — win it all in October, somebody is going to have to get hot and spray home runs when it matters. Some years, a franchise player like George Springer is the one who does it. Other years, it’s journeymen like Steve Pearce or Howie Kendrick. The Dodgers would love Cody Bellinger to regain his 2019 form tomorrow. But they’re already 13-7 without the NL’s reigning MVP hitting well at all. And that’s a terrifying thought for the rest of MLB.