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.