Cody Bellinger still has chance to have one of Cubs’ best seasons by center fielder since 1961

His Fangraphs WAR in 37 games before getting hurt was 1.3. That put him on a pace for a full-season fWAR of about 5, which is on the All-Star/superstar divide.

SHARE Cody Bellinger still has chance to have one of Cubs’ best seasons by center fielder since 1961
The Cubs’ Cody Bellinger was producing 22% more offense than an average hitter when he got hurt May 15.

The Cubs’ Cody Bellinger was producing 22% more offense than an average hitter when he got hurt May 15.

Michael Reaves/Getty Images

When last we saw Cody Bellinger, he was on his way toward having one of the better seasons for a Cubs center fielder in the expansion era, which started in 1961.

After spending a month on the injured list after hurting his left knee May 15 against the Astros, Bellinger is playing first base for now. But he still has a shot to climb the center-field list.

The Cubs have not been blessed with stars in center, especially since the 1961 addition of the Angels and Senators (now Rangers) started the expansion from the 16 teams of 1960 to the 30 of today.

Using Fangraphs’ wins above replacement as a guide, the top three and five of the top nine center-field seasons in Cubs history were by Hall of Famer Hack Wilson in the 1920s and 1930s. Wilson, who played center in 913 of his 1,262 career games, maxed out at 8.0 fWAR in 1930, when he hit 56 home runs with a major-league-record 191 RBI.

Fangraphs lists WARs of 4 to 5 as All-Star level, with 5 to 6 as a superstar and 6 or better as an MVP candidate.

Through May 15, Bellinger was hitting .271/.337/.493 with seven home runs, 20 RBI and 122 weighted runs created plus. That means he was producing 22% more offense than an average hitter.

His fWAR in 37 games was 1.3. That put him on a pace for a full-season fWAR of about 5, which is on the All-Star/superstar divide.

Since expansion, the Cubs have had only two seasons of 5 fWAR or better by center fielders: Adolfo Phillips at 5.2 in 1967 and Corey Patterson at 5.0 in 2004. Jim Hickman posted 5.1 in 1970, but he started only 50 games in center to go with 71 at first, 24 in right and one in left.

None repeated the success. Phillips’ second-best season — 3.4 in 1966 — was split between the Phillies and Cubs, and his best thereafter was 1.8 in 1968. Patterson’s 3.8 for the Orioles in 2006 was the only other time he topped 3. Hickman’s shining moment was 1970, when he hit .315/.419/.582 with 32 homers, 102 RBI and 154 wRC+, but his next-best fWAR in a 13-year journeyman career was 2.2 in 1972.

Only two expansion-era Cubs center fielders have topped 3 fWAR twice. Dexter Fowler hit .276/.393/.447 with 129 wRC+ and 4.1 fWAR for the 2016 World Series champions. The previous season, his fWAR was 3.0.

The other was Brian McRae, who had matching 3.6 fWARs in 1995 and 1996.

Bellinger, who entered Monday having played three games at first since his return, stands at 1.2 fWAR. Since his 7.4 as the National League MVP in 2019, Bellinger has dropped to 1.4 in the 60-game 2020 season, minus-1.0 in 2021 and 1.8 in 2022.

Early returns pointed to a big comeback season. If he returns to that pace, picks up center-field time and remains with the Cubs at the trade deadline, an fWAR close to 3 is well within reach. And, including Hickman, the Cubs have had only 12 seasons of 3-plus fWAR by center fielders since 1961.

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