Josh Bell Could Be One of the Leaders For the Pirates, Sooner Than Later

BRADENTON, Fla. – Josh Bell had many goals for his future MLB career when he was drafted. Some of those started to come true last year, as he became a regular, nine inning starter in the big leagues, and started to see his potential show up at the plate.

But there was one goal that he achieved that was incredibly special: He took his place in the order batting behind Andrew McCutchen.

“When I got drafted, that’s a thing I had in the back of my head, whenever I’d get up to the big leagues, I’d protect Cutch,” Bell said. “Watching him go on that run for a couple of months, and seeing him hit basically .500, it was awesome. Just getting the best seat in the house for that.”

That goal might have been short-lived. Bell first hit behind McCutchen this past year on May 18th, and became a fixture in the lineup behind McCutchen over the final three months. But with daily trade rumors suggesting the Pirates will be selling this offseason, and McCutchen involved in those rumors, the days of Bell protecting McCutchen might be over.

That would bring on a new challenge for Bell, where he would be seen as the guy to carry the offense going forward, trying to step up to replace McCutchen’s offense.

Bell showed some promise at the plate in his rookie season. He hit for a .255/.334/.466 line in 620 plate appearances, with 26 homers and a .211 ISO. His power was starting to show up, and he was starting to become an offensive threat. As the season went on, he got better. He hit for a .278/.352/.470 line in the final three months of the year, which was lowered by struggles in the final month of the season.

That’s the type of progress you want to see from a guy in his first full year in the majors. But the Pirates will need more going forward. Not just because Bell needs to be one of their big offensive threats, but because the standard for offense changed in 2017. The stats that Bell put up would have once made him one of the better power hitters at his position. Now? They are about middle of the pack. The league has largely adopted a trend of creating leverage and adding lift to your swing, aimed at a better launch angle and more homers.

But don’t expect Bell to change his game to follow the recent trend and try and shortcut his way to more power.

“In regards to my game, I think if I can focus on barrel control more than anything else, the power is going to be there, and I’ll have that average that doesn’t keep me up at night,” Bell said.

I asked him about the recent league changes, and he said those adjustments to add more lift depend on the player, but that he doesn’t feel he’s the type of player who can be successful with the approach.

“Some guys can capitalize on lifting, and just focusing on that,” Bell said. “I’m going to do my best not trying to be that guy. … I feel like for me personally, whenever I try to lift the ball, I swing underneath fastballs in the game.”

That doesn’t mean that Bell can’t add offense going forward. We shouldn’t expect him to be a finished product based on his age 24 season and his first full season in the big leagues. I could see a lot of offensive improvements from him going forward, just based on the quality of his approach at the plate. His swing from the left side is a thing of beauty, with a quick, explosive bat through the zone. The swing from the right side was once awkward and weak, but now shows easy power potential.

There was a time when Bell’s offense needed to be better than elite, in order to make up for his lack of defense at first base. He had a rough adjustment to the position, and was the worst defensive first baseman in his MLB debut in 2016. The idea was that he would never be good enough to have positive value, and that the negative defensive value would require a load of offensive production just to make Bell a 2 WAR player.

I’m not saying that Bell is there yet defensively, but he’s shown massive improvements. Last year he rated 5th in Plus/Minus and 7th in Defensive Runs Saved at the position out of 21 qualified first basemen. His UZR/150 was lower, rating 15th, but improved over the previous year. He continues to look more comfortable at the position, and now it’s not out of the question to think he could become a guy with positive defensive value, or at the least, neutral value where his bat would do the work and wouldn’t have anything detracting from his overall production.

The Pirates got comfortable with Bell’s defense early in the 2017 season, and he soon became a nine-inning player, rather than a guy who was automatically removed from the game in the seventh or eighth inning when the Pirates had a lead and needed a defensive replacement.

“I was happy to make that leap and start playing nines, and get that last at-bat,” Bell said. “I started making more and more plays, and you start getting more and more trust from the guys making the calls. I felt with all of the work that Joey [Cora] put in with me, and just showing up ready to get better everyday put me in a perfect position.”

If the Pirates do trade McCutchen and other players, then the future of the team will start to revolve around Bell and a few other younger players. They will need him to continue his improvements on defense, and continue adjusting his bat to the majors. Fortunately, if I’ve learned anything from years of covering Bell and all of the adjustments to his swing and game, it’s that he’s never satisfied and always looking for something to improve.

“[The improved defense], coupled with hitting behind Cutch were two big things that happened for me last year. Two big boxes I could check off,” Bell said. “Hopefully there’s more to come this year.”

Hopefully, indeed. Because if McCutchen is gone, then Bell will be the top option to try and step up and take his place.

  • If the Pirates make moves to trade McCutchen, Cole, Harrison and others, do you think the time has come yet to start thinking about extending some of the younger guys such as Bell and Taillon.

  • Joe Block is a reader- who knew!!??

    2 humble suggestions for you Joe, as you seem like a helluva guy.

    1) I know you guys have to walk a delicate balance but try to back off always putting a positive spin on things. Sometimes some harsh honesty is refreshing.

    2) The home run call… maybe try something new

    But seriously, you really do your homework and are well versed in the analytical side of things and I commend you for that.

  • I love this kid. I love watching him play, of course, and he’s easy to root for, but he also gives a great, insightful, detailed interview about the game itself, and I really appreciate players I can enjoy watching play the game and enjoy listening to talk about the game.

    It’s why I also like Joey Votto, even though I also hate him because he’s a Red.

    • Only 2 years at AA and AAA to adapt from the OF to the infield and grasp the intricacies of the 1B position. Still not a finished product, but he did that while providing the LH power behind ‘Cutch that had been missing in the Pirate lineup for many years.

      IMO, my path forward is to build on ‘Cutch and Bell. Keep Polanco who is only 26, and Cervelli/Diaz. Harrison we have for 4 months at best, Marte is already 29, Cole is short-term – all 3 are very expendable and tradeable. Meadows, Newman, and/or Kingham/Glasnow up ASAP, and hopefully some trades could get us some offensive (power) working parts for 6 years or longer.

  • With Boras as his agent, can Bucs get a Marte/Polanco deal with him?

    • No.

      • Is his game really that similar to Pedro’s? They may have similar career wRC+, but Pedro got to his in a very different way, with a very different skill set. His power is ridiculous, and that carries him. He also strikes out nearly 30% of the time. Bell, on the other hand, struck out less than 20% of the time, and even walked a little more than Alvarez has for his career, while posting an ISO in line with Pedro’s career mark. He also had a .278 BABIP, which I think is connected to his low K% for a power hitter (too many soft ground balls and pop ups, likely).

        Bell has a much better contact skill than Alvarez ever did. If he can keep his K%, BB% and ISO around where they are and cut out some of those weak grounders and pop ups so that his BABIP increases to something close to Alvarez’s career .292 mark, he’ll produce *at least* as much offensive value as Pedro, and likely more. And given his (to use a Hurdle-ism) barrel awareness, coupled with his studiousness and general work ethic, and the continued improvement as a hitter from the right side, it’s not an unreasonable hope that he’ll take that step. And he’ll reach his value in a more reliable and consistent manner than the rather streaky Alvarez. Throw in Pedro’s yips and Bell’s continued defensive improvement, and he’s definitely a better first baseman than Alvarez.

        Now, whether or not he can match the value at 1B that Pedro produced at his best at 3B is another question. And it’s possible Bell is just average as a 1B. But Pedro was never an average 1B, and he was never going to be, even without the yips. He simply didn’t have the hit tool at the Major League level.

        EDIT: Oh darn it, Tommy, why did you have to delete the Pedro part? Now this reply doesn’t make any sense!

        But I’m not deleting it. I researched it and worked hard on it, so here it is.

        • Pedro .197 career as a cleanup hitter. Ouch. Pedro once again did not play winter ball. His streak is alive. He must be happy with his 26 or so mil earned playing baseball and signing bonus and spinning the roulette wheel with not trying to show some value in Dominican.

          • Yeah what a bum. Who in their right mind would stay at home with their wife and young child after earning enough to make them all financially set for life?!

            • I like that part of it also, but Pedro is not going anywhere because he cannot improve his stock by hitting up a storm in LA. He has developed the NH style of negotiating – just sit back and wait for the phone to ring.

            • Hey it all depends. Different players have different goals. Pedro showed some desire playing aaa last year and learning the of. I guess he is what he is at this point anyways. Still, playing in the Dominican and crushing it wouldn’t hurt him financially. If I was 30 and had a chance at 3-4 years in the majors and 20 more mil, I would stick it out and do whatever it takes.

  • The likelihood of Josh Bell picking up half of Cutch’s historical production is exceedingly low.

    • What are we defining as Cutch’s “historical production?” His MVP season? The four seasons surrounding it? His career average WAR?

      Depending on which definition we use, yielding half of it is very attainable for a steadily improving Bell. If we use his career average starting in his first full season (~5 WAR/season), Bell would only need to get to 2.5 WAR this season to match half his value, and I more or less expect something close to that. The maximum of this range, his MVP season, would require Bell to post a 4.2 WAR, which is unlikely but not out of the question.

      Perhaps it’s semantic, but to call the odds of Bell posting half Cutch’s value is hyperbolic. He’s probably about 50/50 to post 2.5 WAR this season, with odds of it much higher as his career moves on. A 5 WAR season at some point down the road isn’t even “exceedingly low” odds. It’s not the most likely outcome, no, but there’s a definitely finite chance it does happen.

      • I was thinking more of peak Cutch in which he was basically worth anywhere from 6-8 WAR from 2011-2015. But even if want to say 5. Bell has a lot of work to get to 2.5 this year. For all the hype people forget he was not even worth 1 Fwar last year. Depth charts has him for about 1.3-1.4. I would say that for him to get to 2.5 this year would be a 70th-80th percentile projection.

        And yes, a 5 WAR season from Bell would be exceedingly low odds even looking past 2018. That is Goldy, Rizzo, Votto territory.

        • I’m anti getting wrapped up in a 1b the average ones grow on trees . The dwar was a huge concern for me last year but it’s as good as a lot of players generating 3 WAR Santana is a realistic comp but it requires Bell to add/ shave off 3% walk/SO rates and average .278 the whole year – so he could quickly accelerate to 2+ WAR with 3 in striking distance. But yeah it’s not anywhere in the neighborhood of peak Cutch. I dunno about 4&5 WAR it’s a whole other gear for Bell but I can see him in the middle third of 1B WAR for his arb years

          • I generally agree. I like Josh Bell a lot and don’t know if I can remember a Pirate easier to root for. I just feel he is overhyped to a large degree. As you say, he has a fair work to get to being a 2-2.5 WAR guy. With the demands of his position I think the most likely outcome is he eventually becomes an average regular, maybe slightly more. Really wish we would have cashed in some of these chips when window was open.

  • He almost looks like he goes into an arm bar from the right side, which in and of itself isn’t so bad, but it does require his timing to be good.

    • If you mean he’s barring his lead arm (left arm) I agree, if the timing is good the leverage would send the ball a mile, but if it’s off it’ll be horrible. His swing from the left side from the video however is more fluid and smooth in that sense.