In 2020, nobody was immune from production woes on the Pittsburgh Pirates, including 2019 All-Star, Josh Bell. The first baseman saw regressions in nearly every facet of his game. Disclaimer: As with everything, who knows how much the peculiar circumstances impacted Bell’s ability to produce on the field. This article isn’t being written to speculate whether or not Bell will lack production next season.
To start, Bell’s OPS was .669, a nearly three-hundred point departure from his output the season before. Additionally, his 78 wRC+ was well-below average and certainly under Bell’s standards. Over the course of a 162 game season, Bell’s eight homers wouldn’t come close to touching his totals from 2019 (37). What, then, changed between 2019 and 2020?
Firstly, his strikeout percentage went way up. Bell went down on strikes 26.5 percent of the time, up from 19.2 percent the year before. This is in spite of swinging at roughly an equivalent amount of pitches outside the zone as the year before. Overall, he swung less frequently than the year before and was making contact seven percentage points lower than 2019. It could be that Bell was suffering from a lack of aggression at the plate. While teammate Colin Moran increased his willingness to swing and saw improvements because of it, Bell did the opposite: He showed a greater apprehension towards swinging the bat and thus experienced a lack of production.
Another interesting number is how frequently Bell hit the ball on the ground. His GB/FB rate was 2.17, way up from his 1.18 number in 2019. While his line drive rate remained fairly stagnant, his groundball rate jumped nearly 12 percent, while his flyball rate dipped in equal measure. In a game that prioritizes the long ball, having a high groundball rate doesn’t often bode well for hitters, particularly not for a hitter like Bell whose major ability at the plate stems from his power. If you’re consistently rolling over on the ball, you won’t hit home runs.
To conclude, these two numbers seem to be working in tandem with one another. The lack of ability to read the ball last season may have resulted in Bell not only striking out more frequently but also missing the sweet spot on pitches that he should’ve otherwise been hitting hard and into the air.
While a high strikeout rate doesn’t necessarily equate to failure in this day and age, Bell’s big problem from 2020 can be boiled down to his increased strikeouts, as well as his inability to put the ball in the air. As mentioned, for a slugging first baseman like Bell, a spike in groundballs could result in disaster down the line. In order to reach the heights he saw in 2019, Bell is going to have to find a way to get the ball back into the air.