It was a friendly non-rivalry turned into what looked like a relatively contrived ad campaign. After all, in baseball, there are no one-on-one matchups between position players, and so Major League Baseball’s decision to pit Cody Bellinger against Christian Yelich, to “run it back,” as the two photogenic lefty sluggers put it, seemed forced, at best.
Except it worked.
Bellinger and Yelich dominated the National League landscape in 2019, pushing themselves and their Los Angeles Dodgers and Milwaukee Brewers to greater heights, more than justifying the 60-second ad and the decision to mic the two up for an inning of the All-Star Game in July.
Belli vs. Yeli was exquisite theater all summer, their credentials as the NL’s top player excellent fodder for parlor arguments or stathead parsing.
And then it ended, so abruptly, when Yelich fractured a kneecap on Sept. 10, leaving Bellinger to succinctly distill the feelings of many.
“It definitely sucks,” he said.
So the National League Most Valuable Player award went from a two-man epic to Bellinger’s to lose. And on Thursday night, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America confirmed his excellence and staying power.
Bellinger received 19 of 30 first-place votes, with Yelich taking 10 and Washington Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon getting one.
Bellinger, 23, becomes the first Dodger MVP since Clayton Kershaw in 2014, and the first position player to win the honor since Kirk Gibson in 1988. Gibson hit just 25 home runs that year and batted .290, his honor coming as much for the leadership he brought to that unlikely World Series-winning team.
Bellinger’s accomplishments were a bit more tangible.
He slammed 47 home runs and led the NL with 351 total bases, his .406 on-base percentage and 1.035 OPS both second to right fielder Yelich’s .429 and 1.100. Bellinger also won a Gold Glove in center field and held a significant advantage in Wins Above Replacement, as calculated by Baseball-Reference (9.0 to 7.1), though Fangraphs’ version had them even (7.8).
And Bellinger certainly boosted the Dodgers’ runaway performance in the NL West.
As late as May 7, he was batting .403 with a 1.280 OPS, and the Dodgers were an NL-best 24-14. By June 1, they held a nine-game division lead and it never dropped below that mark. They eventually won 106 games.
Still, Yelich was a worthy – if amicable – adversary. He finished the season with an NL-best 7.1 Win Probability Added, topping Bellinger’s 5.1.
But a foul ball off his knee froze those stats forever, clearing the lane for Bellinger. Thursday night, he finished.