Williams: This is the Josh Bell We’ve Been Waiting For

There’s nothing better than watching a highly regarded prospect come up and make an immediate impact in the majors. The jump to the majors can be difficult, even for the best prospects, and the adjustments needed to have continued success can take years. So when a guy comes up and has success right away, it leads to dreams about what that player could become in the future.

But what if the player waits until three years into his career to figure it out? Do you have that same excitement after a few years of sobering reality that the player might not live up to expectations? Do those years of struggles add a cautionary disclaimer which makes you not trust the results? Or can you finally proclaim that a player has figured it out, and go back to dreaming about what the team could be with that player realizing his upside?

We’re starting to find out that answer with Josh Bell. There might be reason for caution, considering he’s got two and a half seasons of numbers that don’t match what he’s done in a little under two months this year. But it’s also really easy to get excited about what Bell is doing right now, and dream about what that could mean for the Pirates in the future. And that’s mostly because one thing is obvious:

This is the Josh Bell we were waiting for.

This is the guy who warranted a $5 M bonus in the second round of the 2011 draft. He’s the guy who basically broke the old draft system, because it was unfair for big spenders like the Pirates to steal away players from the Red Sox with such lavish bonuses.

This is the guy who was rated a top 100 prospect by Baseball America four times in his minor league career, getting as high as 35th overall, entirely due to his hitting skills.

It’s the guy who scouts raved about for his hitting tools throughout his minor league career. The ones sitting in the stands watching him on the field, rather than the ones quoted in Sports Illustrated articles.

This is what Josh Bell was supposed to do all along. And now we’re seeing it happen. The only question is whether this will be lasting. And that’s where the previous struggles and the disclaimer from those struggles come into play.

I’ve already looked at Bell’s numbers this year in comparison to his previous years. But now we’ve got a stronger sample size, and the differences are even more glaring. While Bell’s history could provide some concern that he won’t keep this up, I’d argue that it shows exactly why this year’s numbers are the real deal.

First, let’s take a look at the most glaring difference, which is his batting average on balls in play.  He’s got a .366 BABIP this year, which is much different than the .278-.305 range in previous years. That number is also better than all of his minor league time, minus his 2015 time in Triple-A, and his first taste of the majors in 2012 in Low-A.

A hitter’s BABIP isn’t like a pitcher BABIP. Pitchers generally will stay around the .300 range, and while some might routinely go higher or lower, that tends to be the baseline. Hitters, on the other hand, can go much higher or lower, and tend to stick around the same areas. Since Bell has not traditionally been a .366 BABIP guy, you’d think that this number will eventually fall back to Earth, perhaps settling in the .330 range that he was in for most of his minor league career.

If the BABIP falls, so does the average, and so does the OPS that is currently at 1.101. But I think this BABIP is legit, despite the history that says otherwise. To explain why that’s the case, we go to the next big difference: the batted ball data.

Bell was hitting ground balls about 50% of the time in his first two and a half years. He was hitting fly balls about 28-32% of the time. His line drive rate was 21.4% his rookie year, but dropped to the 18-19% range the following two years.

The BABIP on grounders is low. The league average this year is a .231 BABIP. The number for line drives is the highest, and this year it’s at a .671 BABIP. Fly balls are tricky, because they offer the lowest BABIP, with this year’s total at .115. The trade-off is that this is only counting the balls that end up in play, and not counting the additional home runs that come with additional fly balls. That’s why the OPS on fly balls this year is .986, compared to .484 for grounders with a BABIP that is twice as big.

Bell has gone in the right direction this year. His ground ball rate is at 39.7%, seeing a ten percentage point drop from previous years. His line drive rate is up to 23%. And his fly ball rate is at 37.3%.

I wouldn’t put full stock in the minor league totals for batted ball trends, but they do match what Bell did his first two and a half years in the majors. His line drive rate was traditionally topping out around 18%. His ground ball rate was consistently around 50%, with his best years being in the 46% range. His fly ball rate started off at 39.5% his first year, and 37.7% his second year, but gradually went down to 31.7% by his last run through Triple-A.

Looking at all of these trends, it’s easy to see why Bell has a BABIP that stands out compared to his career numbers. He’s hitting more line drives and fly balls than ever, and hitting fewer ground balls than ever, leading to much better BABIP results. Breaking down his individual stats, he’s got a .260 BABIP on grounders, .235 on fly balls, and .714 on line drives. All three numbers are above the league average, which helps fuel the BABIP even more.

As long as the batted ball trends continue, Bell will continue to put up a number that is much better than his career totals. If he was still hitting grounders at a 50% rate, and still hitting line drives at an 18% rate, I’d chalk all of this up to luck and expect a regression. But this trend looks like the real deal.

There’s another aspect to his batted ball data that shows this all might be legit. He’s got a hard hit rate of 52.4%, which is way up from the 33% range he was in the previous years. His soft hit rate is at 8.7%, which is way down from the 20% range the previous two years. When you’re making harder contact, it explains why you’re above average in BABIP on all forms of batted balls. It also might explain his current 29.8% HR/FB ratio, which stands out as an extreme number.

Bell hasn’t been close to that number before, and a higher fly ball rate wouldn’t explain it. The HR/FB ratio doesn’t take into account how many fly balls you are hitting. It just focuses on how many home runs you get for X amount of fly balls. Right now, Bell is hitting a home run every 3.5 fly balls.

This would make sense when you consider that he’s hitting the ball harder, meaning the ball will travel farther and lead to more home runs.

Bell currently ranks third in all of baseball in average exit velocity at 96.6 MPH. The only people ahead of him are Aaron Judge and Joey Gallo. Judge has a 35.7% HR/FB ratio, while Gallo is at 43.8%.

There are currently 15 players with a HR/FB rate that is better than Bell’s rate, and that number includes Judge and Gallo. The other players with a higher HR/FB rate, and their average exit velocity:

Christian Yelich – 95.8 MPH

George Springer – 91.9

Franmil Reyes – 93.1

Hunter Pence – 94.5

Jake Marisnick – 88.6

Cody Bellinger – 93.9

Joc Pederson – 94.2

Michael Chavis – 93.1

Pablo Sandoval – 89.2

Jorge Alfaro – 88.9

Peter Alonso – 89.4

Willson Contreras – 88.7

Mitch Garver – 92.7

Most of those guys have an average exit velocity that is higher than the league average (89 MPH). Most of these guys are among the leaders in baseball in average exit velocity.

I wouldn’t say that Bell’s HR/FB ratio is a fluke just because it’s a higher number than normal. As we’ve seen with the above players, it’s possible to have a high HR/FB ratio, and higher than what Bell currently has. I would want to see a reason behind this number, and looking at the company he’s in, and the trend of hard hit balls, I’d say that’s a pretty good indicator that his hard hit balls are leading to the higher HR/FB rate.

This is all coming while Bell is seeing a different approach from opposing pitchers. He’s seeing fewer fastballs than he ever has in his career, while seeing more changeups, cutters, and sliders than ever. So it’s not like he’s just crushing fastballs, and prone to pitchers adjusting to his approach. He is crushing fastballs, but he’s doing even better against curveballs, sliders, and sinkers. He even has a .774 OPS against the changeup, which is the first time he’s been over a .700 OPS against that pitch since his first season.

I’ve felt that Bell could be an elite power hitter since I first saw him in 2012, and that hasn’t changed, even with his struggles. Likewise, I feel the same about Gregory Polanco, which means that I think any success he has is legit, and any struggles he’s having just require an adjustment for him to reach his potential.

Because of this, I want to see trends that confirm the good results, and the same trends and stats that I look at for any other player. The fact that Bell is seeing improvements in so many key areas, with valid reasons behind those improvements, suggests that this is all legit, and something that could very well continue, just as the power and offensive productions from guys like Judge, Gallo, and others with similar stats would be expected to continue.

This is what it looks like when a top prospect starts living up to his potential. This is what it looks like to have an impact bat in the lineup. That’s something the Pirates have been missing, and now that Bell is starting to fill that void, it’s time to start dreaming about his future, and the future of the Pirates’ lineup around him.

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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