Going Deep: Saved by the Bell?
Coming off an impressive 26 home runs and 90 RBI in his first full year in the majors, Josh Bell looked like a nice potential target for many owners in the later rounds of drafts this past year. But it just wasn’t meant to be as the Pirates first basemen could only muster 12 home runs in his second year. As we march into 2019, he seems to be an afterthought with his NFBC ADP sitting at just 256. In our first mock a few weeks back, I noticed he was still on the board and took him in the final round. Then a little later came the top 30 first basemen of 2019 here at Pitcher List. The thing that struck me was no Bell.
It’s anecdotal, but this seems like a familiar story doesn’t it? A young player emerges with a really nice first year, people jump on board, then that player falls flat. His value plummets, and he’s more or less left forgotten the following year. But let’s take a closer look and see if perhaps Bell makes sense as a buy-low type player.
Before the Majors
Bell’s talent has always been highly regarded. Back in 2011, he was drafted in the second round — 61st overall — by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Bell bypassed a scholarship to play college ball for the Texas Longhorns, instead opting to receive a $5 million signing bonus to play for the Pirates. Let’s take a look at his minor league numbers:
The first thing that stands out is that Bell has had an advanced eye at the plate for quite some time now. Ever since his 2015 stint in AA, he’s carried a double-digit walk rate along with a very tidy strikeout rate at or below 15%. He has also hit for a high batting average in the minors too. The power, however, has been slow to develop. But that’s not really a surprise. Prior to the 2016 season, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said of Bell, “He’s, in our minds, the classic power come as he matures kind of guy.”
Fast forward to this off-season, and the Pirates GM continues to reiterate his confidence in Bell’s ability: “Josh has the ability to be a good hitter. He has the ability to be a power hitter. We’re going to continue to push him to be a good hitter with power.”
Now granted, you wouldn’t expect the GM to publicly denigrate one of his players, but this repeated belief in him is encouraging to see.
|2018 MLB Average||.254||.335||.411||100.4||10||28.6||86.9||10.8||24.6||19.6||16.6||10.5||18|
The xStats glossary can be found here. I’ll cut to the chase: Although the overall profile is far from poor, for fantasy purposes, it’s not exciting and closer to marginal right now. There isn’t a ton that stands out. His xSLG, xBACON, and HD% are all very close to league average. The one thing that does stand out though is a nice jump in average exit velocity from 86.9 mph to 89.1 mph. Unfortunately, that didn’t result in any gains in value hits because of an above average ground-ball rate. Notice too that this past year his expected slugging dropped 40 points. The power just wasn’t there, and xStats confirms it.
There were some improvements this past year though. In addition to his average exit velocity going up, Bell also cut his strikeout rate from 18.9% to 17.8% while increasing his walk rate to an excellent 13.6%. The MLB average for walk rate in 2018 was just under 8% and just over 22% for strikeout rate, so Bell is a player with superlative plate discipline. This past year’s swinging-strike rate of 9.7% was also an exceptional mark.
The one final thing I’ll also say here is that if you liked Bell going into 2018, then you should really like him this year just about the same. Really, the batted-ball profile was almost identical. The only thing that changed was the HR/FB rate, which cratered to 9.2% this past year as opposed to 19.1% in 2017.
And yet his value has seemingly plummeted this year. In 2018, Bell’s 15-team NFBC ADP was right around 187. This year, from Feb. 1 to date, it stands at 251.
2018 Spray Chart
Above, you’ll see Bell’s spray chart from 2018, first as a left-handed batter (479 plate appearances) and second as as a right-handed batter (158 plate appearances). It’s hard to get too much from the spray chart as a right-handed hitter because of the much smaller sample size. But the one thing you can appreciate with Bell is that he has shown an ability to use all fields.
He had a below average 32.6% pull rate this past year (MLB average was 36.3%). Contrast that to an extreme pull hitter like Matt Carpenter, who had a 47.6% pull rate this past year. His ability to make contact extraordinarily well and also use all fields indicates that there could be untapped batting average upside with Bell too.
As far as splits go, it can be really tricky evaluating switch-hitters, particularly switch-hitters similar to Bell who are still early enough in their careers that they don’t quite have the requisite plate appearances to accrue a good enough sample size from one side of the plate. What we have from this past year shows a .341 wOBA as an LHB and .320 as an RHB. His batting average was .264 from the left side and .254 from the right side. His strikeout rate was a little higher as an RHB at 21.5% as opposed to 16.5% as an LHB, so from that, it’s reasonable to assume he’s stronger from the left side.
So here we are. The underlying numbers don’t jump off the page, and I have to be honest, this version of Bell has a rather muted ceiling for fantasy purposes. But there are a couple of key changes this past offseason that could unlock that next level that many scouts believe Bell possesses. Bell has been what you’d call a tinkerer in that he had in the past constantly adjusted his stance sometimes even throughout the course of a single game. In previous seasons, he had been preoccupied with having his stance look exactly the same from both sides of the plate. This past offseason, however, Bell has made a commitment to sticking with two different stances one for each side of the plate.
In an article by Tim Williams of Piratesprospects.com, Bell recently had this to say about his right-handed stance: “I’m going back to the no-stride. I feel like I had the most success there throughout the minor leagues and then my first year. Every year, for the most part, I’ve tried to come in with the same swing from both sides, and this is the first season that I haven’t done that, which is kind of comforting. I know what works righty. I know what works lefty. And now I’m just hammering those things out. We’re a week into games, and I feel really good.”
As a casual observer, it’s pretty amazing to me what Bell has been able to do thus far considering how often he was apparently changing his stance — and as a switch-hitter no less — so it certainly speaks to his tremendous natural ability. What we should take away from this is that Bell being a switch-hitter has not surprisingly taken a little longer to find a consistent approach at the plate. He’s trying something a little different this year. And he, not surprisingly, has the full attention of the new hitting coach in Pittsburgh.
Here’s what recently hired hitting coach Rick Eckstein recently said of Bell: “I think when you have a player who has incredible hand-eye coordination like he does, his ability to put the ball in play — not everybody has that ability, and he does — so he puts a lot of balls in play that he just can’t do a whole lot of damage to. Basically, solidifying a good base that he’s going to fire the consistent swing, I think, is going to really help him hone in on the strike zone, where he’s going to do the most damage.”
Bell clearly has tremendous talent. And that has helped him cover some flaws he has mechanically at the plate. The big key for him in 2019 is going to be nailing down a repeatable approach from both sides of the plate.
A New Hitting Coach
I mentioned it above, but you may have missed it this past offseason. The Pittsburgh Pirates hired a new hitting coach in Eckstein along with assistant hitting coach Jacob Cruz. Tim Williams of PiratesProspect.com also recently wrote about the new coaches and their philosophy. The crux of it comes down to how to best maximize the potential of each individual player, and that applies to Bell, of course. Huntington reiterated his commitment to adjust the team’s hitting philosophy with an eye toward better implementing data-driven development. That’s not to say the Pirates organization was previously behind the times, so to speak, but rather they wanted to refine their approach.
One of the new resources that Eckstein will be making more use of is Rapsodo. It’s a magic box that’s used during batting practice to measure exit velocity and spin among other things.
Some in the fantasy baseball sphere are quick to write off Bell because of his penchant for ground-ball contact. Yes, the power numbers were underwhelming last year. But the Pirates know this too. And they are actively working to remedy this because they know Bell is a player whose performance is critical to their success.
New assistant hitting coach Jacob Cruz had this to say of Bell: “The fact is that JB has incredible upside. We’re excited to see what this kid can actually do once he reaches his max potential. So you see a kid who is 250 pounds, if we can maximize his attack angle and how he gets to the ball, working up through it, we should see a lot more balls in the air. He hits the ball incredibly hard, and we know that. It’s a little bit more negative, as far as negative launch angle, when he does hit the ball right now. So getting the ball in the air is just going to play big dividends for him and our organization.”
Part of the challenge and focus for Eckstein and Cruz is finding that optimal swing plane for each player. Some in the fantasy sphere, myself certainly included, may be guilty of oversimplifying the process of a hitter finding that optimal plane (launch angle). But it’s not as simple as flipping a switch. It’s a conscious and choreographed decision that requires a tremendous amount of diligence and fine tuning on the part of both the player and coaching staff. It’s a puzzle that presents both physical and mental challenges.
This is a fascinating topic in its own right and one that certainly deserves its own space, but the point here is to say the Pirates are a team that has recently refined their player development strategy. Bell is a player who stands to benefit from this. His physical size, tremendous knowledge of the strike zone, and exceptional ability to make contact point to a player with appreciable upside.
Some may look at the lack of tangible growth this past year as a negative. But I see a really talented young switch-hitter who got another year of valuable MLB experience under his belt. I think it would be a big mistake to write him off as a finished product. He’s just barely scratched the surface of his potential.
Some alterations will have to be made to tap into more game power. And both he and the new coaching staff have been working on that in earnest. These changes will take time, but they could also happen faster than you think. And with Bell’s fantasy value priced to move, I’d be more than happy to find out.
(Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire)