I was planning on finishing up a mid-year report on the Altoona Curve for today’s article, but a few great conversations with Josh Bell, Kevin Young, and Hitting Coach Kevin Riggs changed my plans. Obviously, Josh Bell’s promotion timeline has been an everyday topic for many people on this site, as well as for many people covering minor league baseball. I plan to address some topics at hand about the Pirates’ average timelines for promotions between Double-A and Triple-A in the near future, but I figured that talking specifically about Bell is very appropriate right now.
First, let’s take a look at what Josh Bell has already accomplished this season in Altoona. He finished Monday night’s game against Erie with a .318 average, good for second (tied with Max Moroff) in the Eastern League. Batting average isn’t the only statistic among the league leaders for Bell, as he is second in hits with 82 (behind Moroff), third in OBP at .390, and tied for first in triples with six.
Bell currently has an OPS of .828, ranking best out of all players in the Pirates minor league system who has played a full season. He has 33 walks on the season compared to only 30 strikeouts, for a walk rate of 10.8% and a strikeout rate of 9.8%. His ISO is .122, slowly creeping up towards the numbers we have seen in A+ and A ball in recent years. For the most part, Josh Bell has been the best player for the Curve all year, and maybe even the whole Pirates system.
“PROMOTE JOSH BELL TO TRIPLE-A ALREADY!”
That is probably the one comment that can be copied and pasted across the board by fans, and reasonably so. Bell is having a fantastic year from the plate; however, there are still plenty of things that he needs to work on. The Pirates like to do the majority of their player development before they reach the Triple-A level, and Josh Bell still has a lot of player development to do. Therefore, Josh Bell is currently at Double-A for a purpose and reason, and he should remain there until the Pirates feel he has accomplished everything on their checklist. Let’s take a look at what he needs to work on in Altoona.[mepr-rule id=”108390″ ifallowed=”show”]
Bell has had a season reverse of what you would normally see for a hitter playing for a northern team. Rather than starting slower because of the cold weather, he started off extremely hot, hitting .352/.418/.451 in April. He followed that with a .337/.411/.462 line in May, with his OPS raising slightly due to one home run, and extra triple, and an extra double. June hasn’t been nearly as good to Bell, though, with a stat line of .263/.333/.400. He has hit two home runs in June to raise his season total to three.
Bell is most certainly still one of the best hitters on the Curve, but he has struggled some in June and has been working through those difficulties. In recent games that I have watched him in Altoona, he has hit some slow grounders and doesn’t seem to have the best approach during each at bat. It is preposterous to think that a baseball player has a good at-bat every time he goes up there, but Bell has been working specifically on certain items within his at bats to help him get better.
Hitting Coach Kevin Riggs said that Bell is currently working on slowing down the other moving parts of his body during his approach and swing to allow for his hands to work through the ball and accelerate quicker.
“I give Josh a lot of credit,” Riggs said. “For a guy that has the numbers statistically that he has, he is still eyes and ears wide open for how he can improve. We’re still trying to implement changes, and we are going to have some bumps along the road. It’s a credit to him as an individual as far as accepting constructive criticism and applying it on a daily basis.”
You also cannot ignore the fact that Bell still only has three home runs in half of a season for the Curve. Bell isn’t worried about the lack of power right now, but it is something that he does really hope starts showing up soon.
“In time, it’s going to come,” Bell said about hitting home runs. “I don’t want to change anything right now because the line drive approach is going to help me in the long run as a hitter. As I get older and as I get more developed as a hitter from both sides of the plate, I’ll be able to pick my counts better and attack pitchers when I can.”
Bell went on to talk about the most important thing right now is addressing his two-strike approach and finding ways to barrel up the ball when the count is against him. He also needs to make improvements from the right side of the plate, as he only has a .696 OPS as a right-handed batter compared to .872 as a lefty.
His plate discipline is amazing with his walk and strikeout rates being phenomenal. Right now, Bell needs to start to see that home run stroke come around more often. He bulked up in the offseason, wanting to be able to swing more violently and drive the ball harder. Those results still need to come.
Now, the part of the article you all are looking for. Bell does have plenty to work on from a hitting standpoint, but we all know that his hitting would easily call for a promotion, even with parts of his game to work on. I believe Bell could go to the majors and hit for a .270 average right now based off of his hand quickness and hand-eye coordination, even though he still has plenty to work on including the power. The transition to first base has been a difficult one for Bell, who made the move from the outfield to first base this offseason.
I’ll start by saying that Bell has certainly made great improvements from the beginning of the season until now in certain aspects of first base. He made a great stretch and scoop on a ball in the dirt last night in an important situation, and that hasn’t been the only occasion when Bell has made some nice plays at first base. With that being said, I have become more and more aware that he is still learning the position on the fly.
In a specific example, Bell is still learning how far to leave the base to field. During last Friday’s game in Altoona, Bell misjudged a grounder towards the second baseman and found himself in no man’s land about twenty feet off of the bag. At that point, the runner was easily able to reach first base because of broken coverage (Matt Benedict failed to cover the bag as well, most likely because he thought it was going to be a 4-3 putout). In this particular play, Moroff fielded the ball, Bell tried to get back to the base but got turned around, and the throw ended up hitting him in the glove. He couldn’t hang onto it, and the ball skipped into foul territory resulting in the runners all moving up, and a run scored.
These types of situations, although not as pronounced as that example, are not rare for Bell right now as he is learning the position. His range for fielding ground balls is currently very small, as he specifically has trouble getting to grounders to his left towards the line. I’ve also noticed that he has trouble deciding which glove position to field a ball in, as he regularly fields like an outfield on a hop to the chest with the palm of his hand facing down (rather than your palm facing up like a normal infielder’s position). This is something that happens with regularity.
An essential part of being a first baseman is how you receive baseballs at the bag, and Bell has had his ups and downs this season. There are times when he looks great, stretching off of the bag to catch a baseball. Other times, you will see Bell either stab at the ball, still catching it but looking extremely unconventional, or catch the ball in towards his chest while in more or a squatting position.
Kevin Young has been in Altoona the past few days working with Bell on his fielding techniques. He is currently there to do a mid-season assessment of how Bell has adjusted to life at the position. Their assessment includes reviewing plays that he has come up against so far this season, challenges that have occurred, and checking to be sure Bell is sticking to the plan and foundation that they established in Spring Training.
“I think the first half of the season is getting accustomed to the position with being able to see things coming at him,” Young said. “The next part for Josh is execution of plays, seeing if he can maintain and do things on his own and if he can manage his fielding techniques on certain balls in different situations. There are a lot of things that come at you at first base. It’s a lot easier to transition when you are an infielder already, rather than trying to make the move from the outfield.”
When Bell left Spring Training, the Pirates felt that he could hold his own for the beginning portion of the season, allowing him to make a natural progression of maturation at first base. They wanted him to make mistakes so that he would understand his impact on the field as a first baseman.
“He’s been taking those lumps while understanding and learning on the job,” Young said. “It’s tough to do that in this situation in particular because you have a lot of people relying on you.”
I asked Bell on his take on his season defensively, so far. He says the he feels ten times better over there now compared to early in the season. He has had to work through difficulties, but he feels more comfortable every day.
Kevin Young is in Altoona this week working with Bell on some specific plays and fielding techniques including Bell’s initial setup on the base on pick off throws, gaining ground off of first after the pitch is delivered, and having his glove in a low, ready position at all times.
Bell emphasized that when Young comes to Altoona to work with him, they like to fine tune different details. Young has been able to develop an overall game plan with Bell, and they work at that plan.
Young said that he has worked with Bell and Pedro Alvarez in a similar fashion concerning their positioning around the base. They also are working on receiving of baseballs from position players in a similar way, as well. Essentially, the backbone of what Kevin Young works with Pedro on are very similar to what he comes in to work with Bell on. There are many differences between the two, though.
“Pedro [Alvarez] has amazing footwork, and he is very quick on his feet for a big man,” Young said. “Josh isn’t quite there yet. We are working with Josh in that area.”
The theme with the coaches when you talk about Bell is that he is a resilient man who is willing to learn and listen.
“He’s done a good job,” Young said. “He continues to swing the bat well, which helps. His approach is a testament to the young man, because he wants to get better defensively, and he wants to do things with the stick as well.”
Curve Manager Tom Prince agreed with that sentiment.
“Have there been bumps in the road? Yeah, he’s going to miss a ball or two. We’re not taking him out of the lineup after missing a ball. We’re going to go back to work and get it right. The goal is to get him ready for the big leagues, and he continues to work hard every day.”
Josh Bell impresses because of his overall sense of understanding in the big picture, both here and in the future.
“I just want to get more comfortable over there, get my reps in, and know where to be,” Bell said. “It’s going to come in time. It’s still my first year over there, and I’m trying to get my feet wet…I just want to become the player that the Pirates need me to be.”
His last comment is the kicker. He knows he needs to work hard to develop. He also understand that there are a lot of aspects of the game that he needs to improve upon. Bell is extremely grounded and willing to learn and accept what his coaches are saying. He projects to be a great player. He is already one of the best all-around hitters I’ve seen; now, he is learning how to be a great fielder, too.[/mepr-rule]