Los Angeles Dodgers slugger Cody Bellinger learned about launch angle back in 2015 without even realizing it. His hitting coach at the time, Damon Mashore, took him aside and showed him videos of Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire hitting. The message was clear: Do that.
Bellinger took to that lesson well. After being called up in late April last season, Bellinger clubbed 39 home runs for the Dodgers en route to a unanimous Rookie of the Year selection.
“I started learning about launch angle two years ago,” Bellinger told Yahoo Sports. “Ever since I learned about it and made some tweaks to my swing, I’ve seen results positively. So I’m kinda in on it. I think I’ve always had a natural, uppercut swing, so it’s a little easier for me to do it. But I’m pretty satisfied with the results so far.”
While Bellinger is proud of what he accomplished last season, he’s looking to make improvements in 2018.
“Obviously, I was proud of what I did last year,” he says. “But I’m kinda hungry this year to keep it going. And just and have a better year.”
After last year’s debut, it’s tough to imagine any scenario where Bellinger adds more power. But his approach is geared for power. In December of 2016, Bellinger re-tweeted a gif of himself hitting a home run in the minor leagues.
— Bobby DeMuro (@BobbyDeMuro) December 8, 2016
The version Bellinger sent out featured a comment, not written by Bellinger, that read, “As you can see, hitting the ball the other way on the ground is highly prized in top prospects in MiLB.”
Bellinger’s re-tweet seemed to imply that he was yet another proponent of the fly ball revolution taking over Major League Baseball. The message behind that strategy is simple: Ground balls don’t lead to home runs, so forget about driving the ball up the middle or going the other way. Always try to hit for power.
Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson has been one of the most vocal players to utilize this strategy. He’s explained his hitting philosophy during in-depth segments on MLB Network. He has simplified that message on Twitter, telling his followers, “Just say NO … to ground balls.” New Boston Red Sox outfielder J.D. Martinez — who also embraces fly balls — has used some more colorful language in regards to grounders.
Those quotes, combined with the league-wide home run explosion, has led to plenty of talk about “launch angle.” It’s become a popular buzzword baseball fans can’t escape. You hear it on broadcasts. You read it in articles. It’s everywhere.
While Bellinger knows and endorses launch angle now, it wasn’t the explanation of the stat that got him to buy in. It was video. He just saw that approach worked for Bonds and McGwire, and that’s how it clicked.
“I still don’t completely understand the numbers side of everything,” Bellinger says. “It’s not me. I would rather watch video and talk about it, and that’s what I did in 2015 to kinda learn about it.”
Part of the reason Bellinger was convinced to make tweaks to his approach involved his experiences moving up the ladder on his way to the majors. Turns out, professional pitchers are pretty nasty these days, and hitters need to maximize their chances of making contact.
“You watch video of the guys now, and they’ve got leg kicks, or a certain hitch,” he says. “And I think with the kind of velocity that we’re facing nowadays, and the kind of stuff that the bullpens are throwing out, you want to do anything you can to have a consistent load and to try and put the ball on the barrel as much as you can.”
If there’s still room for Bellinger to tap into more power, he’s going to have to focus on retaining his weight throughout the season. He says he lost between 10 or 15 pounds last season.
To combat that, Bellinger came into spring training with a focus on retaining his weight all year. He partnered with MET-Rx, a company that makes sports nutrition products, in order to help fuel his workouts. While nutrition will be a big part of Bellinger’s plan to keep his weight up, he also says he’s planning to spend more time in the weight room this season.
The early results have been encouraging. For the first time in his life, Bellinger says he hasn’t lost any weight during spring training.
Topping last season’s power numbers might be tough. Even in an era where power is abundant, hitting 40+ home runs is still a challenge. But, in studying Bonds and McGwire, Bellinger has the right teachers to make it happen.
Bellinger doesn’t want to set expectations that high just yet.
“Obviously, those are freak talents,” he says, perhaps not realizing he’s the youngest of that trio to flirt with a 40-home run season.
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