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Searching for answers to explain Josh Bell’s struggle

Set to be one of the key run producers in the Pirates lineup, Bell is now a below average player. What happened?

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Cincinnati Reds Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

He was supposed to serve as a major cog in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ run production. After a fitful first two months in 2018, Josh Bell is now a below average batter by most measures. What answers — if any — can account for this?

It has been a trying season for Pittsburgh Pirates 1B Josh Bell.

He has seen production come and go in fits and starts. For the most part, his world renowned patience at the plate is still there. And, to be fair, he played much better in May than he did in the season’s opening stanza.

The thing is, one could look at Bell’s stat lines to date — a .250/.323/.385 triple-slash, three home runs, a .310 wOBA, a 19.4 percent strikeout rate against a 9.9 percent walk rate — and see a perfectly average hitter, one capable of producing at an above-average level at times.

The only problem with that, of course, is that the Pirates need more from Bell.

He was to be an anchor in the team’s everyday lineup. He certainly gave the club and its fans every reason to think he would be. Bell became an everyday player in 2017 and responded with a 108 wRC+ season. His 26 home runs — 18 of which came from the left-hand side – had fans salivating over the club’s power potential alongside Corey Dickerson and Colin Moran. The fourth spot seemed like the perfect fit for Bell, who could enjoy protection in front and behind.

Surely, fans felt, Bell’s 2017 season would serve as a springboard to another stepping-stone type of year in 2018. Perhaps an All Star berth could be in order. And hey, he was starting to look passable at first base.

As we stand today, though. Bell carries a 95 wRC+ and a -0.1 fWAR going into Wednesday’s game. Despite strides taken in May, the 25 year-old is simply not producing at the clip that many felt he would.

The reasons for that may be myriad, but here are a few talking points to stoke the conversation.

Have pitchers figured him out?

When I began looking at what might have changed for Bell between 2017-2018, I was first struck by the changes in what pitchers offer him:

Here I’ve highlighted some peripherals against Bell’s five most-seen ptiches, with major year over year changes highlighted.

Immediately Bell’s performance against sliders stands out, nearly across the board. That’s a near 16-percentage point jump in whiff rate you’re seeing, with his xwOBA against the pitch falling off a cliff.

Could Bell’s struggles be explained away as simply as struggling against a pitch he is seeing more often in 2018? Well, yes and no.

We could say, yes, because the dropoff in performance against the pitch — and relative to other pitches — is profound enough to stand on its own.

But we could refute that by pointing out that he is also struggling against curveballs. Benders enjoyed a modest bump in usage against Bell year to year and though he has drastically lowered his whiff rate against them, his xwOBA and exit velocity leave a lot to be desired.

Mainly, we cannot accept that Bell’s struggles amount to slider performance because we cannot look at that pitch in a vacuum. The need for context is real. So where do we start?

Let’s look at last night’s game. The Pittsburgh Pirates were mounting a comeback, with runners on first and second with one out. Bell came up to the plate against Brandon Morrow and saw a stream of fastballs early in the count, like this one:

It’s hard to say that wasn’t a good pitch. Up and in, Bell might have been thinking it would tail off. Hat tip to the pitchers, who get paid, too. But this pitch was important as it setup the next pitch, which happened to be a slider:

That is quite a drop in eye level. Studies have shown that changing eye levels in an at-bat is still very important in this age of dazzling velocity. Morrow did a great job here in that regard.

Digging a bit deeper into the pairings of pitches that pitchers offer Bell, we find that pitchers threw a slider as the second pitch of a pair 216 times in 2017. Already in 2018, the slider has been the second pitch in a pair 108 times.

In other words, Bell is on pace to see a slider that plays off of another pitch at a clip that is 33 percent greater than last season.

Based on the increased usage and Bell’s performance against the pitch, I believe it would be safe to say that a book on Bell might be in the early stages of being written. He can easily combat this by hunting fastballs earlier in the count. Of those 108 pitch pairs ending in a slider, 51 began with a four-seam fastball.

A breaking ball is only as good as the pitches that they play off of (unless your name is Corey Kluber or Clayton Kershaw), so it stands to reason that a more aggressive Bell, looking for fastballs, can naturally negate breaking stuff.

Is he abandoning his patient approach?

In a word, no.

In another word, maybe?

There is not much year-over-year to definitely state that Bell has become more aggressive to his detriment.

His Swinging strike percentage has only increased 1.1 percent (9.9) while his first-strike percentage has actually been reduced from 55 to 54.5 percent.

Other peripherals tell a slightly different tale:

Here we see that pitchers are not offering Bell as much in the zone as last year (there’s that slider again), yet Bell has started to swing at more outside of the zone (O-Swing) than one might like.

It’s not as if Bell’s contact rates are slumping; In fact, he is making more contact in the zone (85.7 percent) this season as opposed to last (85 percent). However, the key here is that pitchers are offering about six percent fewer fastballs (defined as a combination of four-seam, two-seam and sinkers) in the zone in 2018 (60.6 percent) as compared to 2017 (66.7 percent).

That’s a sizable difference, and one that carries significance projected over a full season of plate appearances.

Some could make the argument that should Bell revert to his ultra-selective ways – even though he is still a far cry from a reckless free swinger – the production on the pitches he does offer at could be more akin to reclaiming a level that was seen in 2017.

The counter-argument is that Bell should be more aggressive, to give his natural hitting ability more changes to do damage.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. However, as pitchers are starting to pitch him differently, Bell might want to consider punching back by..well, by being himself.

It’s a weird paradox, that. Baseball is a game of adjustments, and Josh Bell’s best adjustment may be a simple reversion.

The Pittsburgh Pirates certainly hope that the 2017 version of Josh Bell shows up while they find themselves clinging to contention.

H/T to David Slusser for helping with pitch pair data compilation