I know of at least one person who did not expect Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Josh Bell to have the monster breakout season he's currently having. In the days leading up to Opening Day 2019, an anonymous scout absolutely shredded Bell in Sports Illustrated's season preview. The scout did not hold back.
Josh Bell can't play. He's not a good defender. He's a big lump. He has bad agility, bad footwork. He can't run. Supposedly he's a big power threat, but he hit 12 home runs at first base. This is not a kid! This is his third year in the big leagues! I don't think he's got the ability to get better.
I can't help but wonder about that scout's job prospects at the moment. Thank goodness for anonymity, huh? Bell, last week's National League Player of the Week, goes into Friday's game with a .339/.408/.718 batting line and 16 home runs, four more than last season in 382 fewer plate appearances. He leads baseball with 47 RBI and is all over the league leaderboards.
Two years ago Bell authored a .255/.334/.466 batting line with 26 home runs and finished third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting behind Cody Bellinger and Paul DeJong. The bar for a "star" at first base is quite high, but, if nothing else, it certainly looked like Pittsburgh had their first consistently above-average first baseman since Adam LaRoche from 2007-09.
Last season was a mixed bag. Bell lowered his strikeout rate (18.9 percent to 17.8 percent), increased his walk rate (10.6 percent to 13.2 percent), and raised his batting average (.255 to .261). That's all good! Except Bell's slugging percentage dropped 55 points and he went from 26 homers in 2017 to 12 homers in 2018. Ouch.
Back in the day we called seasons like Bell's 2018 a sophomore slump. Nowadays they're grounds to get ripped by anonymous scouts. Credit to Bell for not taking the bait and responding to those comments, and instead making the scout look silly with his play on the field.
As he recent explained to Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times, Bell focused on just being himself during the winter. He's a switch-hitter and he spent years trying to develop identical hitting mechanics from both sides of the plate. That is no longer the case. Bell is a different hitter right-handed as he is left-handed. From McCullough:
As the offseason progressed, Bell polished the edges on his two stances. From the right side, he utilized a toe tap as a timing mechanism. As a left-handed hitter, his leg kick became more pronounced, with the knee of his front leg rising as high as his waist. His timing began to sync up. (Hitting consultant Joe) DeMarco sent videos of their sessions to Bell's management team with a tantalizing prelude: "He's getting dangerous."
As is often the case, Bell's breakout this season comes with a significant increase in hard contact and a significant decrease in ground balls. Among hitters who've put at least 100 balls in play, his average exit velocity (96.2 mph) is the best in baseball by a whopping 1.4 mph (Christian Yelich is second at 94.8 mph). Also, Bell cut his ground ball rate from 48.5 percent last year to 41.5 percent this year.
Here is that paragraph and those stats in an easy-to-understand graph:
Yup. Hit the ball hard and hit the ball in the air and good things -- very good things -- tend to happen. That's how you top last year's home run total two months into the season and put yourself among the game's most devastating hitters like Bell.
I feel like I write this every single day but it worth repeating: Development is not linear. Not everyone hits the ground running from day one. Sometimes it takes young players, even extremely talented young players like Bell, some time to figure things out at the big league level. Bell had a strong rookie year in 2017, lost his power stroke in 2018, and used what he learned to become an even better player in 2019. It is a common development path.
The Pirates are stuck in the game's toughest division yet they sit in third place in the NL Central despite being outscored by 42 runs in 47 games. Bell's excellence is a big reason why. I'm not sure Pittsburgh is good enough to win the division or even sneak into the postseason as a wild-card team. I do know they have a bona fide star in the middle of their lineup in Bell. He is someone the Pirates can built around going forward, and that's exciting.