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5 things to expect from Josh Bell this season

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MLB: Washington Nationals at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

As Opening Day creeps closer, Pirates regulars and major league hopefuls are trying to solidify roles and come out of the gates running. Arguably none of them have appeared more locked in than Adam Frazier and Jose Osuna, who currently sit at first and second in batting average among qualifying batters this spring. Obviously, it is important to approach March stats with sobriety, but the former has done nothing to dissuade Clint Hurdle from using him, and the latter is starting to make his case for a future role with the team.

On the flip side, Josh Bell just wants to get things going after what’s been a disappointing past two months due to an unexpected knee procedure. He healed and rehabbed quickly enough to rejoin the lineup a few weeks ago, but the results have been lacking as he’s gone 2-for-27 at the plate with an uncharacteristic 10 strikeouts. Nevertheless, he appears poised to grab a larger role in his first full season in the majors, and the Pirates need him to take a gigantic step forward, especially given the continued absence of Jung Ho Kang. So what can we expect from Bell this season if he remains healthy?

1.) An elite approach & ability at the plate

One of the trademarks of Bell’s game has long been his ability to take walks and limit strikeouts, and that talent did not skip a beat last season in Pittsburgh as Bell posted a 13.8 percent walk rate and a 12.5 percent strikeout rate. To put that in perspective, only two players with a strikeout rate under 15 percent possessed higher walk rates than Bell in the 2016 season. In fact, the league averages were eight percent and 21 percent, respectively, so it shouldn’t be surprising to find that only 23 hitters topped his walk rate, which was only slightly more than the number of players who surpassed his strikeout rate.

Of course, it is always essential to be cautious in interpreting short-term success of rookies by examining the underlying numbers rather than relying on the total numbers. When it comes to examining Bell’s numbers, there is arguably nothing more revealing about his walk and strikeout rates than his plate discipline metrics.

Fangraphs: Plate Discipline

Player O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% SwStr%
Player O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% SwStr%
League Average 30.3% 66.7% 46.5% 63.9% 86.3% 78.2% 44.6% 10.1%
Josh Bell 24.8% 70.7% 44.6% 73.6% 87.2% 82.9% 43.1% 7.6%
Joey Votto 20.8% 68.6% 42.2% 75.8% 85.5% 82.9% 44.7% 7.1%
Ben Zobrist 20.5% 56.1% 35.5% 76.7% 94.2% 88.3% 42.0% 4.1%
Cutch 2013 27.0% 71.5% 46.3% 65.8% 87.6% 80.4% 43.4% 8.9%
Pedro 2015 31.20% 70.00% 47.00% 51.60% 84.30% 71.40% 40.60% 13.20%

From the zone percent, we can infer that Bell was pitched fairly normally in the sense that opposing pitchers didn’t continuously throw him junk or attack the zone noticeably more. Also, the swinging strike percent suggests that while he wasn’t Ben Zobrist, he was in the upper echelon of players when it came to not whiffing. Also, unlike Zobrist, he wasn’t hesitant (or overly patient) to swing, but he also wasn’t hacking away at every pitch thrown his way. Instead, he was both intelligent and selective when it came to choosing when to swing or the pitch pass; when the ball was in the zone, he recognized it, and when it was outside of the zone, he exhibited maturity on par with incredibly gifted players.

He was not just gifted at discerning balls and strikes as he undoubtedly flashed the bat speed to and coordination to make contact. If you recall 2015 Pedro Alvarez (or pretty much any year of Pedro), you will see an extreme example of a player who often chased unhittable pitches outside of the zone. This was definitely not Josh Bell who boasted an outside contact (O-Contact%) roughly 10 percent above the league average player. Despite that, he won’t ever be confused with Vlad Guerrero, but he was similar to a 2013 Andrew McCutchen and a current Joey Votto.

While none of that speaks to level of contact Bell made, it does suggest he wasn’t overmatched, but was discerning beyond his years. It also paints the picture of how elite that approach was because the reality is that only these other eight players accomplished the same feat as Bell in posting better than average plate discipline numbers across the board:

Above Average Swing & Contact Rates: 2016

Player Player
Player Player
Buster Posey Bryce Harper
Francisco Lindor Yonder Alonso
David Ortiz Jacoby Ellsbury
Wilson Ramos Yunel Escobar

2.) A penchant for spraying the ball across the field

With the exception of Yonder Alonso, that’s a prestigious list of players to be a part with all of them producing a stellar season last year or multiple times prior to that. Granted, Yonder Alonso, the disappointing Padres’ first baseman notorious for his lack of power, is precisely what Pirates fans and management hope Bell never becomes.

On the surface, the comparison is striking. Alonso was a highly touted draft pick described as mature at the plate with power on the way. He hit .296/.374/.486 with 12 homers and 26 more extra-base hits in his last tenure in AAA before arriving in the big leagues. There, he hit .330/.398/.545 with five home runs and four additional extra base hits. His K% jumped to league average, but other than that he exhibited comparable plate discipline. Similarly, Bell slashed .295/.382/.468 with 14 homers and 27 extra-base hits before joining the Pirates, where he slashed .273/.368/.406 with three homeruns and eight more extra-base hits.

Thankfully, the batted ball profile along with a few other items set apart Bell as a superior player or, at least, a superior prospect.

For one, Bell has the profound ability to utilize the whole field, going opposite field on 43% of his batted balls, which was the second highest number from the last 5 years among players with 150 plate appearances. Even if those numbers are likely to regress, it’s a skill he consistently displayed in the minors, and one that makes it difficult for opposing players to position themselves. This is also a large reason that Adam Frazier has excelled the way he has in spite of low power production. Meanwhile, Yonder Alonso isn’t an extreme pull hitter, but he is predictable enough to struggle at times against the shift or well positioned defenders.

3.) Burgeoning power

Their categorization of hard/medium/soft contact isn’t all that different, but Bell boasted a stronger HR/FB ratio, 9.4 percent, than Alonso, who has yet to eclipse eight percent in more than a cup of coffee. To be fair, he plays his home games in PETCO Park, but the numbers aren’t all that tantalizing away from there, either.

Obviously, Bell’s 9.4 percent isn’t much to be excited about for a first baseman, but if you recall that Bell made some mechanical changes to get more loft on the ball prior to last season, it’s encouraging to realize that led to a career-best 17 home runs. (It is something that Alonso is reportedly working on as well.) Additionally, it is important to note that Bell’s power has been better from the left side of the plate hitting 14 of his seventeen homers off of righties. This brought his HR/FB rate against righties in the majors over 11 percent, a more palatable number for a regular but still a far cry from the average first baseman.

The hope is that the second season with the added leg kick will enable him to hit 20-plus homers, but a Brandon Belt type of power can still be an incredibly valuable commodity. Belt is not a perfect comparison or ideal ceiling, because Bell could potentially have a better average and on-base percentage while Belt has more speed and strikeouts, but Bell could potentially have similar extra-base hit numbers.

Belt, who has never put up more than 18 home runs, regularly hits 50- or 60-odd extra-base hits to give his team two to three fWAR even with subpar running. Last season, Bell jumped from 40 extra base hits to 54 (and all 11 in the majors came off righties). If he could play in 50 to 60 range in extra base hits, it would be a fairly pleasing first full season regardless of whether the home runs remain in the mid-teens. It is no sure thing, but there is plenty of room for optimism between the left-handed power he exhibited last season and some positive regression from the other side of the plate.

4.) Improved numbers against southpaws

Bell slashed just .211/.304/.211 against southpaws last year, but it’s important to remember a few things. First of all, Bell had only 23 plate appearances against lefties (just under 20 percent), so it’s incredibly small sample size and carried some things that should correct. His BABIP was around .200 and even if peripherals are partly to blame, he’s going to be luckier than that. Also, his flyball percent was around 30 (similar to right hand), but an absurd 20 percent of those were infield popups.

His walk and strikeout rates were comparable, which is a good sign of competency from his weak side. While he’s never been strong in the minors against southpaws, he posted a .267/.366/.427 slash line in AAA during 2016 and hit above .260 the previous season. With that sort of background, it’d be presumptuous to think he’s going produce that slashline this year; it would be fantastic if he did, but there normally is some learning curve. But it’s feasible he can hang around .240/.320 both enabling the team to play him against southpaws and eliminating fears of Pedro Alvarez level of splits. The good news is that David Freese can easily shift over to first if Bell continues to replicate his 2016 numbers against lefties.

5.) A consistently strong work ethic towards learning first base

Ultimately, Josh Bell’s progression as a defender will determine how much the Bucs are willing to roll him out. He hasn’t looked particularly comfortable or fluid this spring, but the knee injury and late start could play some role in that. From various reports this season, Josh Bell heeded Kevin Young’s advice to take up yoga this offseason to give him better balance and flexibility. It was indeed a different strategy for Bell given he’s often tried to bulk up trying to maximize his power, but it’s had obvious results. This year he reported to camp down around 225 lbs. rather than the 240 lbs. he checked in at last February.

Perhaps it will be more “best shape of my life” talk from a player desperately working to get better, but it is certainly encouraging to see the dedication to honing his craft and numerous athletes across sports have benefited from improved balance taken from yoga and ballet. He’s also spent time this spring trying to learn from the defensively gifted “no pun intended” Gift Ngoepe, so he hasn’t neglected the more traditional methodology.

Concluding thoughts

It may seem like “if’s” and “but’s” permeate this piece, but the reality with any prospect is that you never know what to expect once a player hits the majors. Nevertheless, Bell exhibited, albeit in a limited sample size, the potential and ability with his bat that the team has been salivating over since they gambled on drafting him even when he claimed unsignability. Do not expect to see a polished product this season, but Bell’s gifted bat is more than capable of surpassing the Steamer and Depth Charts projections if he can stay healthy and play a passable first base.