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Yes, Cody Bellinger is the pivot

The Giants won’t get the versatile former MVP, but they should be all in on him.

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Pittsburgh Pirates v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

If the San Francisco Giants are serious about playing to the top of the market then there’s still one pivot left and it’s to the player with the most question marks. Cody Bellinger, the 2017 Rookie of the Year, the 2019 NL MVP, a three-time All-Star and two-time Silver Slugger, an MVP at 23, and a meme is the best remaining position player in free agency.

To get him, the Giants will have to spend a lot of money, make a lot of pilgrimages to Mount Boras, pull out all the stops. Theoretically, he improves any team he signs with, and while the Giants might not need another outfielder, there’s no denying that a player with his floor and possible ceiling is not something currently in their inventory.

All the way back in November 2023, Grant Brisbee wrote for The Athletic (subscription required):

Bellinger is perfect for the 2024 Giants in so many ways. Are you tired of watching chug-a-lug baserunners going from station to station? Here’s a quick guy. Are you tired of watching average center fielders go deep into Triples Alley and thinking, “Boy, it would sure be a lot cooler if that average center fielder was an outstanding corner outfielder instead”? Here’s a true center fielder. Do you like long home runs that go sploooooosh into the water? Here’s a power hitter.

But as with any free agent, he’s not without his warts, and those warts could be very costly for any team that signs him. He could be an immediately massive bust a la Mitch Haniger and Tommy La Stella. He could be a flop a la Michael Conforto. The Giants are no strangers to their sound decision-making crapping out on them the instant they use it to sign a free agent. Add that to the collective “SF sucks” that the team disputes yet never fails to mention, and you’d be correct in suggesting that there’s literally no reason for them to ever try to get the best player available ever again.

Besides, the same contact data that told them to stick with LaMonte Wade Jr. after 2022 despite his injuries would tell them that Bellinger is a bad investment. He has too many important blue icicles on that Statcast page:

His 31.4% Hard Hit rate was 232nd out of qualified MLBers, technically tied with Jose Altuve and just behind Harrison Bader (31.7%) and Charlie Blackmon (31.5%). That average exit velocity is just ahead of free agent Tim Anderson (87.8%) and last year’s Dodger reclamation Jason Heyward (87.7%), but also tied with James Outman (87.9%). His Barrel % was between Xander Bogaerts’ (4.5%) and Marcus Semien’s (4.9%).

Why am I comparing him to players who got big deals last season or have been paid a decent amount recently? Just to show that his red flags aren’t especially different from the red flags of any free agent, and that the risk of giving him a big deal isn’t a different kind of big risk just because of some blue bars.

His tenth percentile Hard Hit rate isn’t far removed from Wilmer Flores (32.5%). Wilmer Flores is great! The Giants are lucky to have him. But they also paid just $6.5 million for this Statcast:

Is Bellinger really worth five times that? I think the answer is... maybe? There’s enough data to support the pursuit that closing themselves off to it would be a very strange decision on the part of the front office. As Grant noted in November,

The upside is literally an MVP-caliber player.

Now, most free agent contracts don’t age well because the players are simply old when signed and get older over the course of the deal. When I was growing up, a player’s prime years were considered to be 27-30. I think the data has shifted a bit on that and it’s more 25-28 for their prime, with 29 and 30 sort of being wild cards. There’s ample evidence to show that once a player turns 31, it’s all downhill, unless you’re a pitcher.

But still, since it’s already difficult to hit a ball with a bat, declining vision and motor skills — an unavoidable aspect of aging — makes the game that much more difficult. Bellinger’s injury history suggests that he’s going to get hurt in a similar way again which will no doubt knock out his performance or push him closer to what he was in 2021 and 2022 after his arm got knocked out of its socket during a celebration: .193/.256/.355 in 900 plate appearances.

A sterling defender who will dive all over the place is at risk for another dislocation. He might also have had a fracture in his leg that impacted his swing. We can assume normal health when wishcasting, but for an actual projection it gets a little dicey. I really like Bellinger in right field to supplement Jung Hoo Lee in center and outfielder du jour in left. That he can play first base, too, is irrelevant for the time being because the Giants have plenty of those at the moment and that should be a position he ages into.

He played centerfield exclusively with the Cubs last season, and his +4 Outs Above Average there is perhaps a bit down from someone you’d consider an elite defender, but Ian Happ’s -7 OAA in left field before Mike Tauchman came in makes a compelling case that he was doing the best he could under the circumstances! Statcast has existed for his entire career, and it’s interesting to note that his floor in right field is average with a ceiling of amazing ) +7 in 2019). Age-wise, he’s a little bit younger than a random free agent — not in the realm of Lee, Yamamoto, Bryce Harper, and next year Juan Soto — and his birthday is in July, giving him a positive aging curve over the course of a long-term deal. For the sake of this discussion, let’s say an 8-year deal:

2024: 28-29
2025: 29-30
2026: 30-31
2027: 31-32
2028: 32-33
2029: 33-34
2030: 34-35
2031: 35-36

Now, the Giants just paid a 36-year old $16 million to hit .194/.273/.314. Should this in any way be construed as a comparison of Brandon Crawford to Cody Bellinger? No. It’s only a data point to demonstrate that Farhan Zaidi is capable of making moves that conflict with sound sabermetric principles in the right situation.

Bellinger could move to first base permanently at some point and be an average defender with an average-plus bat. Brandon Belt’s age 31-34 seasons were under Zaidi’s eye, and during that stretch he hit .249/.357/.465 (.822 OPS) with plenty of injury time. His 122 OPS+ in that stretch means he was also 22% better than the league average — though, the real breakdown is a bit more dire: 97 OPS+ in 2019, 177 in 20, 160 in 21, 93 in 22). Belt did bounce back to hit .254/.369/.490 (136 OPS+) in his age 35 season primarily as Toronto’s DH.

MLB Trade Rumors estimated a 12-year deal for Bellinger and you get the sense that his agent Scott Boras has platformed him in the Harper-Judge realm. Yesterday, frequent Boras collaborator Jon Heyman wrote up Bellinger’s profile in the New York Post:

Consider, Bellinger is:

1 of 3 players with an 80 percent contact rate and .525 slugging percentage (Acuna, Betts, Freddie Freeman)

1 of 5 with an .800 OPS and a positive outs above average on defense (Freeman, Harper, Luis Robert, Corbin Carroll)

1 of 6 with a .300 BA and .500 SLG (Corey Seager, Acuna, Freeman, Betts, Shohei Ohtani)

The age thing is really something to think about, though. Despite the red flags (another one: I don’t consider his .319 BAbip to be red, but smarter people do), he has a bit of age on his side. In any long-term free agent deal, the conventional wisdom is that you should really only expect the guy to perform for maybe four seasons of the deal, and really maybe only the first four years. Well, those first four seasons take him through his age 31 (and, yes, into 32, but!) and I think that’s noteworthy.

There have been just eight position players in the Oracle Park era to have at least 1,500 plate appearances in their age 28 to 31 seasons as an outfielder, first baseman, or DH.

Rich Aurilia, Pedro Feliz, Mike Yastrzemski, Wilmer Flores, Brandon Belt, Hunter Pence, Buster Posey, and Gregor Blanco are the sum total of starting position players who’ve stuck on the roster from age 28 through 31. That’s not much recency and it’s not a long list, but I will say it’s longer than the Dodgers’ (7), Cardinals’ (5), Atlanta’s (3), and Houston’s (3), three teams who have sort of defined what it means to be a successful organization in the 21st century (though tied with the Rays and fewer than the Yankees and Red Sox). Pedro Feliz was mostly there for his defense, and so it’s mostly true that players in this age range who are full time players just tend to be good.

[Indeed, if you have Baseball Reference’s Stathead, you can see this list of all players age 28-31 since 2000 with at least 1500 PA. Just 395 players across all positions. 186 were league average or better, offensively (47%).]

The main thing is that it’s tough to get a player like this who can stick and Bellinger has all the bells and whistles and fundamentals you’d want in a player his age. That he’s a free agent only adds to the price tag (and for the Giants, there’s probably an additional 25-30% markup). It’s the injuries and post-injury performance issues that grotesquely increase the slope of the downside; but the Giants should be a creative enough organization to make their pursuit more than an exercise in futility.

They gave Jung Hoo Lee an opt out after four years, then can give Bellinger a bevvy of opt outs — after year one, after year two, after year three, after year four... All that really matters is that the team is committed to getting the best available players. His health and his Statcast flags are certainly a factor for any team, but you have to imagine the Giants are even more involved on the health side. That’s where last year’s disaster helps them. Carlos Correa’s deal can be a model for a Bellinger deal.

In that one, the Twins signed Correa to a 6-year, $200 million deal that could increase the value to 10/$270 million. It works because Bellinger will be playing his age-28 season in year one of a new deal, same as Correa. 8 years, $240 million with a series of opt outs and escalators is something well within the team’s financial wheelhouse and if they’re going to lose a draft pick, I’d say Bellinger over Matt Chapman is a better deal because of the age and the ceiling.

Of course, this is all an illusion because the Giants don’t acquire top of the market free agents, but if they want to continue the theater of being an organization that will always play to the top of the market, then they’ll need to do the whole song and dance one last time this offseason to show that they’re committed to getting the very best player left.