Cody Bellinger’s swing is grace itself: The two-handed power, the force of the rotation of his hips, the vicious scything of his swing path. It’s a big reason why the 21-year-old is a consensus top-30 prospect, with Baseball America and Keith Law of ESPN considering him top-10.
But there’s something else to Bellinger that makes him special besides the raw power. He is a first baseman whose scouting reports always mention his defense. Here’s Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs:
“[Bellinger is] an excellent defensive first baseman, garnering several 70 grades from scouts … Bellinger’s leatherwork at first is special and major-league clubs like sound defensive first basemen because they’re constantly handling the ball.”
Wait, a 70 defensive grade for a first baseman? A left-hander with that kind of glove and footwork skills would normally find themselves in center field, maybe a corner if a team wanted those skills to really play up and the middle spot was already filled. First base is at the bottom of the defensive spectrum for a reason, and while the position may handle the ball a lot, it requires far less athleticism and snazzy glove skills one needs elsewhere between the white lines.
The position is the primary driver behind Bellinger going in the fourth round and 124th overall in the 2013 amateur draft. If people are already labeling you a first baseman when you’re not even 18 yet, then you’d better have the chops to walk 100 times a year with 30 home runs. Otherwise, you’re a massive risk.
And yet, there is Bellinger, holding strong at first base with that 70 grade every prospect writer throws into their writeups with such carefree whimsy. Suddenly, with his sky-high offensive ceiling and that head-turning leatherwork, Bellinger now looks like a massive steal in the fourth round. The power makes the loudest noise, but it’s Bellinger’s glove that makes him sing.
How is Bellinger so good at such a forgotten defensive position? What makes him so special that the Dodgers front office and coaching staff are loath to move him to the outfield? To answer those questions, I decided to ask the relevant parties themselves.
‘I’ve always taken great pride in my defense’
The first thing you notice about Cody Bellinger is the body itself. He’s listed at 6-foot-4, 213 pounds. In person, he is long and wiry, with rope-like arms that seem to take over his whole frame. Every part of him leans forward, his shoulders pushed out away from his torso, hips tilted back, his head cocked downward, as if always on the prowl for ground balls. Even his hat is fastened low and down, the brim guiding the rest of him toward home plate.
He’s also a local kid at the Dodgers’ spring training facility in Glendale, Ariz.: He’s the product of Hamilton High School in Chandler, a mere 44 miles from Camelback Ranch, straight across I-10. He moved from the outfield to first base after a growth spurt his junior year. He’s less than four years removed from his early successes as an amateur, that just-able-to-drink youth worn ebulliently on his sleeve when he steps up to the Dodgers clubhouse ping pong table.
So his body seems tuned up and ready for anything. His novitiate energy suggests the same. Does any of that apply in practice? Dodgers manager Dave Roberts sure thinks so.
“There’s just something about guys who are so comfortable around the bag,” Roberts told me. “To be able to save a run here or there, to shorten innings and not extend them with throwing errors–these things are huge.”
Dodgers infield coach Chris Woodward has worked with Bellinger extensively in spring training, and has seen everything Roberts has seen, and more. “He makes plays look easy,” he says. “His actions are off the chart.
“He’s just athletic. Most guys who play first base are bigger guys. With his ability, he would actually be good enough to play third base [if he wasn’t left-handed.] He moves around really well. He can actually play center field! That just shows you his athleticism is a tick higher than most guys, especially in the big leagues.”
Even Bellinger himself realizes that he’s different than most first basemen his age, and has cultivated it for years.
“For me, being a first baseman–saving your shortstop and second baseman three errors a year, saving your pitcher some throws–it’s a thing I take great pride in, so I work on it a lot,” he says.
You expect a manager and a coach to praise their star prospect, especially when they know that a curious fact like first base defense has caught the attention of carpetbagging journalists from back east. So I decided to assess Bellinger’s glove for myself.
Bellinger played first base for 11 innings across two days when I was at Camelback. He was a fifth-inning substitute on Friday night against the Rangers, and started against the Angels the next afternoon. I never took my eyes off him when he was on the field. Certain tendencies began to emerge, tendencies I had first observed when he took pregame infield practice.
First, Bellinger is a keen observer. Roberts described him to me as “a sponge.” After rocketing some moonshots in batting practice, he makes his way over to Tommy Lasorda to chat for a few minutes, a rite of passage all young Dodgers would be wise not to avoid. When the game begins, he hangs off the top step, talking with veterans like Andre Ethier. Roberts also tells me that Adrian Gonzalez, currently away with Mexico in the World Baseball Classic, is the one from whom Bellinger tries to learn the most, to the shock of no one.
Bellinger then takes the field. What immediately pops out is that he is constantly in motion. Scott Van Slyke doesn’t hop around as much when he’s posted up at the corner. Nor does the Angels’ Jefrey Marte when a de facto Freeway Series game kicks off on a hot Saturday afternoon.
In fact, none of the other infielders on either the Dodgers, Rangers or Angels kept themselves moving in the way Bellinger did. These movements ranged from shuffling his feet to pounding his fist with his glove. Normally, one pounds the glove with the fist. Not Bellinger. His wide first base mitt swings down onto his clenched left hand, reminiscent of an oil derrick pumping the barren Texas earth. It occurs to me that Bellinger may be subtly indicating which hand is going to do the talking.
Bellinger never once hugs the line in the 11 innings I watch him. Sometimes, this is because the shift is on and he has to cover most of the right side. Other times, he’s just out there, even with a lefty up to the plate. His counterpart, Marte, stays behind the bag whenever a Dodgers left-hander is hitting.
There are some caveats to this observation. Maybe the Rangers and Angels don’t have a lot of pull-happy lefties in their lineups in these two games, and maybe the Dodgers staff is shading Bellinger over; maybe the staff wants to take advantage of Bellinger’s left-handedness, and the natural range that comes with it. One can’t help but think, however, that the staff plays him so far off the line because they know what Bellinger can do. The team can loosen Bellinger’s leash, a luxury other first basemen couldn’t afford their squads.
Perhaps the most distinctive thing about Bellinger is what happens when the pitcher moves into his windup. At that moment, all of that natural pronation of his body snaps into place. His glove flicks open, his right arm opens wide and perpendicular to his torso. His right leg stabs forward, essentially a first step toward the ball before the ball is even hit.
This is not standard practice for a first baseman. The motion allows for Bellinger to be prepared for a worm-burner in the gap between him and second. He seems to cry out for the ball to be hit to him without ever saying a word.
Bellinger knows he’s doing it. “Everyone has their own different way to get ready,” he says. “For me, it’s making sure my glove’s open and in front of me as the pitch is coming. These guys can hit some crazy line drives at you.”
“Everyone has their own different way to get ready,” he says. “For me, it’s making sure my glove’s open and in front of me as the pitch is coming. These guys can hit some crazy line drives at you.”
That coiled anticipation applies when holding a runner on first, too. Upon the pitcher’s windup, Bellinger reacts in a flash off the bag, his body switchblading toward home plate.
His footwork is clearly superlative, but his glove is what caps the balletic flow of his defensive profile. Every catch, no matter how routine, is squeezed so gently, with such stillness. Bellinger is the definition of soft hands, and he plays the position where such tenderness is required the least. He cleans up hopped throws from second base with a blasé fluidity.
When third baseman Darnell Sweeney pulls his throw wide of the target and toward the first base line, Bellinger reaches across and flicks his glove out like Javier Baez applying a tag, fielding the ball cleanly and preventing an error. Again, I can’t stress enough that we’re talking about a power-hitting first baseman, here.
“I think [my hands] just kind of came naturally to me,” says Bellinger. “You gotta be ready every pitch, because you never know when you’re going to be involved. It’s little techniques, like keeping your thumb down and through the ball when you’re picking it.”
Bellinger seems to have found the golden ratio of talent and hard work that has taken him to another level.
Is there anything that he could work on? One thing I notice is that since he flicks the glove open and lunges to his right, his backhand toward the line might get exposed a bit, something Woodward confirms to me.
“On his backhand, he needs to keep his head over glove, because he has that tendency to reach for it,” he tells me. “On balls that have some slice or some hook to them, they might get away from him. But that’s more of a preventative thing. I haven’t seen him miss one yet.”
That final line is almost confirmed by the Sweeney throw he cleans up later that afternoon. Bellinger also betrays his youth when he confesses that his attention can sometimes wander during a game.
“I sometimes tend to look around. For me, it’s focusing on every pitch,” he says. Woodward agrees, but also admits that such focus will come with more game experience.
Aye, there’s the rub.
“I think that his skills play up the most at first base,” says Roberts. “I think that he can be plus-plus at first base.”
Everyone wants the kid in the infield, but Gonzalez looms large, and rightly so. So how do you get Bellinger more game experience at the position? If Bellinger’s bat is needed later in the season, he’ll end up in the outfield. If Gonzalez needs an occasional off day, Bellinger is ready to step in. But regular reps at the major league level will likely not be available for a little while, at least until Gonzalez’s contract winds down at the end of 2018.
It doesn’t seem to matter much. Bellinger just seems thrilled to be part of the conversation. Everything he does is infused with the exuberance of youth, and of love for the game. Perhaps that is most evident when he’s in the field.
“He’s got a chance to be an elite first baseman,” Woodward says. “I always stress that to him. ‘I’m not trying to make you just adequate; I want you to be the best in the game.’ He’s got that kind of ability.”
It won’t be long before everyone knows what Roberts and Woodward are talking about. For Dodgers fans, the pleasures offered by Cody Bellinger can’t come to Chavez Ravine soon enough.
By Evan Davis