With Josh Bell off to a historic start to his 2019 season, blasting 16 home runs and driving in 47 in the team’s first 48 games while compiling a 337/405/713 slash line, a piece from Rob Biertempfel at The Athletic (subscription required) written at the end of spring training points out that Bell’s transformation started before the end of last year.
After a 2017 rookie season that saw Bell blast 26 home runs, in early September of 2018, 138 games deep into the season, he was struggling along at a 255/344/390 clip, with only eight home runs in 494 plate appearances. Bell looked lost, changing his stance seemingly every game, every time at the plate, sometimes between pitches.
“It ate at me,” Bell acknowledged. “I got away from what got me to the big leagues, which was driving the ball really hard to left-center.”
Bell’s approach at the plate — the advice from Branson, the things Bell was tweaking on his own and the ideas put in his head over the years by coaches in youth leagues, high school and pro ball — was confused and conflicted. He’d change his mindset based on that day’s pitcher, becoming a different batter against hard throwers than against junkballers.
“I was trying to do things that I was not certain I could do,” Bell said.
His swing was constantly in flux because he wouldn’t commit to any particular direction.
Finally, on September 4, Bell got the Hurdle Treatment - being sat down for two or three days to allow Bell to clear his head.
Hurdle tempered his normally booming voice and asked Bell what was going on. Bell said he was having trouble pulling the ball because his swing path was too long. Pitchers were banging him hard inside, and he couldn’t turn on those pitches the way he did in the minors.
Being at the end of the season, Bell’s improvement was lost in the pile of stats from earlier - but over the his final 21 games Bell slashed 301/427/534 with four long balls, a third of his season total, with 15 walks and 15 strikeouts.
Right after the season was over, hitting coach Jeff Branson and assistant Jeff Livesey were fired. Instead of the team, Bell headed to California to see his agent Scott Boras, who hooked Bell up with trainers and psychologists.
Bell wound up training with DeMarco [a former coach at UC Irvine who now runs the Elite Baseball training center] for 10 to 12 hours a week, spread out over three or four sessions, from October until the first week of February.
“It was an overhaul,” DeMarco said. “Sometimes, simpler is good. He needed to get on line and get on time. Timing is so essential. For the movement he makes to set up left-handed, he needs to start really early and make sure he gets grounded, then maintain that body position we’re looking for to allow that big, strong, gifted body to work.”
After Bell started that training the Pirates hired Rick Eckstein as their new hitting coach, with Jacob Cruz as his assistant. Eckstein attended Bell’s training session to speak with him and DeMarco. While Eckstein has worked on Bell’s swing path and position in the batter’s box, he seems committed to validating Bell’s new approach and making sure he stays the course.
Working separately, DeMarco and Eckstein each noticed that Bell’s stance in Triple A was slightly taller and he was grounded sooner than he was last season. Bell needed to fire more toward the ball, not drifting forward as he picks up the pitch, and be more direct with his hands.
“My swing path is everything,” Bell said. “That’s what I’m able to control. Working with Rick, I was able to find this stable position for me to hold and repeat.”
“I think this year is going to be pretty fun.”
In the 71 team games since Bell was sat down, he’s played 69, starting 68, and in 294 plate appearances has blasted his way to a 327/412/661 line (1073 OPS) with 20 home runs, on a pace for 99 extra base hits (48 doubles, 5 triples, 46 homers) and 125 RBI per 162 team games.
As for how Bell got there, Statcast reveals he’s doing a much better job at avoiding mishits. He’s been more aggressive in the zone and is putting the bat squarely on the ball, which is before any of his strength comes into play.
Defining a mishit as a ground ball hit at less than 95 mph, a high fly above 55 degrees or any popups, from the beginning of the 2017 season up to Sept 3, 41% of Bell’s batted balls were mishits. Since then, he’s only mishit the ball at a 27% rate.
As a result, Bell is hitting more line drives (below 14 degrees but not a grounder) which produces hits but little power and more fliners (14 to 28 degrees) which produce both hits and power while fewer flies (28 to 42 degrees) which produce only power. These are rates per non-free pass PAs, which exclude walks and hit by pitch but include strikeouts as an opportunity to hit.
The angle that produces the peak exit velocity is analogous to the angle of the swing path. Looking at Bell’s mean exit velocities by vertical angle groups, we can see that his hardest hit balls are now higher, into the fliner range which produces power, instead of line drives, which don’t.
This has resulted in Bell (through games of May 24) having the fifth highest rate of barrels per plate appearance in 2019, the highest hard hit percentage (59.4% of balls at 95+ mph) and the second highest mean exit velocity (96.2, behind only Joey Gallo’s 96.4)
Now, as much as we are amazed at Bell’s production, is his a cautionary tale about how the Pirates’ management has developed talent?
Biertempfel’s piece also quotes Bell as not able to find an identity in the minors, as he swung back and forth between trying to hit for average and trying to hit for power. Bell fixed himself when he got away from the tutelage of Jeff Branson and found his own instructors. The Pirates’ new hitting coach Rick Eckstein has kept Bell on track but the rest of the roster has shown little or no improvement.
This also can’t help but remind me of the Pirates’ former top pitching prospect Tyler Glasnow, who once he hit Triple-A encountered coaches telling him to change what had led him to be dominant at all previous levels of the minors. Glasnow then was a mental wreck when he reached Pittsburgh and didn’t get straightened out until he was traded away.
Could this be the same thing that befell the next top pitching prospect Mitch Keller as soon as he reached Triple-A?