In 2021, two of the brightest stars in the game in Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger concurrently struggled. Yelich produced just a 101 wRC+ and Bellinger a 48, each the lowest of their respective careers. Have other players in baseball history struggled so mightily, and later bounced back to their previous performances?
Coming off historic 2019 seasons, Yelich and Bellinger appeared poised to become faces of Major League Baseball for the foreseeable future. In addition to their 1-2 finish in the National League MVP voting, and a charming spring training video in which they competed in a variety of bar games (for the record, I think Yelich finished his beer first, but Bellinger got his cup down to the bar first), both players finished with a wRC+ offensive performance above 160, meaning they each hit more than 60% above league average.
2020 saw a significant drop-off at the plate for both players, with nearly identical plate appearances (243 for Bellinger, 247 for Yelich) and wRC+ (113 for Bellinger and 112 for Yelich). After the stellar 2019 seasons, Dodgers and Brewers fans may have been disappointed, but both were still productive players, and in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, it was difficult to take too much away from a weird year in which rules, routines, and life in general were severely disrupted.
It’s jarring to see two top outfielders in the game struggle so deeply, and especially at the same time, as both players did in 2021. Though it’s also not without precedent.
Since 1900, 531 players with 350 plate appearances or more have recorded seasons with a 160 wRC+ or better. Of those players, 36 (6.7%) have had seasons of 105 wRC+, and then later bounced back with a season of 125 wRC+ or greater.
Researching this list of “bounce-back” players yields potential pathways back for Yelich and Bellinger, with some of the news seemingly promising but much of it very, very concerning.
The Bad News
The worst news out of the Bounce-Back All-Stars is that none of them reached their previous performance level after dropping to roughly league average. The closest would be David Ortiz, whose 2012 wRC+ of 170 was just five points below his 175 in 2007 after dropping to exactly league average in 2009.
For Bellinger, the road back is seemingly more difficult, as the previous low wRC+ from a player to bounce back to 125 wRC+ is 74 (Jimmy Wynn and Rico Carty in 1971 and 1973). Bellinger’s 48 wRC+ in 2021 would represent the largest deficit bounce-back of all time, and by quite a large margin, if he is able to get back to a high level of offensive output. History is against both players, but it’s absolutely stacked against Bellinger.
Another concern for both players is their age. On one hand, perhaps it’s an advantage to have a lot of time left to make adjustments and get back on track at the plate. On the other, there just aren’t a ton of examples of young all-star players slumping for a year and then coming back to perform at a high level. The average age of bounce-back players during their “slump year” since 1980 has been 33. Yelich (29) and Bellinger (25) are in even more rarified company in terms of mounting comebacks. However, one of only two players on the “comeback” list that slumped before the age of 30 may provide a template that Yelich and Bellinger could follow.
The Good News
That player is Juan González. In 1993, 24-year old González produced an offensive output 64% above the league-average hitter. Then, the following season, he seemingly lost it at the plate, hitting 4% below league average for a 96 wRC+. There don’t seem to be any indications of clear or persistent injuries from González that year, though the year was shortened by the players’ strike. After that slump year, though, just as quickly as his hitting dropped off, it came roaring back. For the remainder of González’s career, he averaged a 135 wRC+ in the seasons in which he had 300 or more PA, and never dropped below 112 in those seasons.
González was forced to retire at age 35 from MLB after subsequent and persistent injuries kept him out of action. While injuries are never good news, they do also provide an explanation and perhaps offer a bit of strange optimism for Yelich and Bellinger joining the list of MLB bounce-backs. Thirteen players fit our “bounce-back” criteria since 1980, and seven of them had serious injuries that would explain their slumps.
Bellinger and Yelich certainly fit that bill as players coming back from serious injuries. For Bellinger, surgery on his right shoulder in the 2020 offseason followed by rib and leg fractures in the 2021 season would clearly contribute to a down year for anyone, world-class athlete or not. Yelich, after breaking his kneecap late in the 2019 season, was plagued by back problems throughout 2021, limiting him to 117 games.
There are, obviously, no easy answers for getting these all-star and MVP hitters back on track. Looking at historic precedents will always be flawed because of a skewed sample size. It’s so difficult to get back to previous levels of performance because the players on the bounce-back list had such great years to begin with.
But even lowering the threshold of what constitutes a “bounce-back” season to hitting 25% above league average rather than the world-beating 160 wRC+ these players previously reached provides a sobering outlook on our expectations for these players moving forward. It’s not impossible, and injuries probably carry more than their share of the blame.
For Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich to come back to MVP-level production, they’ll have to do so in an historic way — either due to their age, play level, or how far they’ll have to come to reach those heights once again. We’ll all be hoping they’re able to do so.
Photos by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire, Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire, Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire, Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire, and Larry Radloff/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Ethan Kaplan (@DJFreddie10 on Twitter and @EthanMKaplanImages on Instagram)