Prospect Reports

How Josh Bell’s Move to First Base Could Solve His Late-Season Drop in Power

How Josh Bell’s Move to First Base Could Solve His Late-Season Drop in Power

The Pittsburgh Pirates will enter the 2015 season with Pedro Alvarez as their starting first baseman. Corey Hart will get some time as a platoon partner, and Andrew Lambo will be a depth option, likely making the Opening Day roster as a bench outfielder. There are question marks with all three first basemen. Can Alvarez make the transition to the new position, and can he return to hitting like he did in 2012-2013? Will Hart’s knees hold up, and will his bat bounce back? Can Lambo carry his offense from Triple-A over to the majors?

While the Pirates have question marks in the short-term at first base, there is no question who their long-term first baseman projects to be. With Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco holding down the outfield in Pittsburgh for the next several years, there was no need to keep Josh Bell in right field. And with Bell’s power potential, he makes a great candidate at first.

The Pirates had Bell taking grounders at first base last year, and then made the switch to the new position full-time during the Fall Instructional Leagues. Bell then went to the Arizona Fall League, where he continued at first base while getting some extra experience against upper level competition.

“It was good to get some good work in, during instructs,” Bell said. “Struggled out there for the first couple of weeks, and then I found my feet underneath me again. Started getting the reps I needed to get, and I felt good leaving.”

Bell said that the quickness in the infield was the biggest adjustment in moving from the outfield. You get more time to adjust to a ball hit at you in the outfield, while the infield is more “bang-bang,” as Bell described it. The pivot and throw to second is also a key thing when making the transition to first base, and is something Bell has also been focusing on.

“That’s one of the things that we worked on during instructs, just lowering my arm slot a little bit to make a more repeatable throw to second base,” Bell said. “I locked it down then, and actually had success with that in the fall league, which was something I was happy about.”

Bell is expected to be the everyday first baseman in Altoona this year, and as of my conversation with him in January, he hasn’t heard anything different. He has been practicing everyday at first base, even after instructs and the AFL completed. The most telling sign is the fact that while he still has his outfield glove, he hasn’t been using it since the end of the 2014 season.

Of course, Bell is a prospect, which means he’s no guarantee to have success in the majors. He’s got the tools that project for him to hit for power and average from both sides of the plate, giving him a bat you can dream on. But the bat still needs some work, which is the main reason he’s not projected to be in the majors until the middle of the 2016 season.

Over the last two years, we have been pointing out that Bell has had some issues with his swing from the right side. He’s got a two-part swing where he starts open, then squares up before the pitch, and the transition can sometimes look awkward. The numbers against left-handers struggled last year in the first few months, although Bell quickly started turning that around by the middle of the season.

The reason for the two-part swing is simple. Bell likes to stay open to see the ball better, while the Pirates want him getting back sooner to square up on pitches. I talked with Bell’s hitting coach, Kory DeHaan, about this last year.

“If he’s going to err, he’s going to err on the side of getting that foot down and square a little earlier, which at times can make it seem like that two-part swing, where it gets down and then [he] has to get going again,” DeHaan said. “We’re trying to keep that as smooth as possible, where he’s still in a good hitting position as he brings that foot in to square, and then is able to drive through the ball. That’s just an ongoing process of keeping the swing feeling good and then rhythm, and trying to drive the ball up the middle.”

DeHaan noted that Bell’s hands are so good, and he has so much trust in his hands, that his lower half doesn’t do as much work, which is why the swing can look awkward at times.

“We’re trying to get that all synced up, and as consistent as possible, ready for that fastball, ready for his zone, to do damage,” DeHaan said.

Bell did show improvements with his numbers against lefties after the first month and a half of the season. He will still stay open pre-pitch, although it won’t be anything too drastic. The main focus now is his approach, how his hands work, and focusing on driving the ball to the opposite field.

“I think it just came with repetition and getting used to everything on a daily basis,” Bell said of his improvements against lefties. “Virtually from the beginning of the year on, I felt good from both sides of the plate. I hope to start strong again this year. I’m a lot more close than I was two years ago, and I’m seeing success with that.”

Another issue with Bell last year came at the end of the season. He was promoted to Altoona, where his average and on-base percentage looked good. However, his power dropped off at the new level, and didn’t return when he went to the Arizona Fall League. The initial concern here is that Bell won’t hit for power in the upper levels, although I don’t really subscribe to that theory, since he’s got the strength, the bat speed, and the line drive approach to hit for power in the upper levels.

The other factor here was that this promotion came at the end of the year, at a time when Bell was tiring. This seems to be what the Pirates attribute to the drop in power, since Bell’s focus this off-season has been on getting stronger.

“Towards the end of the year I guess the ball wasn’t flying for me,” Bell said of the power drop. “Kind of carried over to the fall leagues as well, but right now, one of the things I’m focusing on this off-season is power in the weight room. Getting my body to where it needs to be. Carrying me throughout the entire season. Keeping my body strong, so I can produce those runs and help my team get the W’s we want to get.”

In previous years, Bell’s focus was more on cardio than on weights. The move to first base from the outfield gives him a chance to add some bulk to his frame. The fact that first base isn’t as demanding will also help keep him fresh all year.

“I realized my legs weren’t strong enough,” Bell said of the end of the 2014 season. “Didn’t feel as good as I wanted to feel at the end of the year. This off-season it’s more strength, and I know that I’m going to be at first base too, so I can kind of bulk up a little bit and get the most out of my body when it comes to my swing.”

Bell will likely spend all of the 2015 season in Altoona, with a chance to jump to Indianapolis at the end of the year if his bat is performing well. He put up strong numbers in Bradenton last year, before falling off at the end of the season. Time will tell if the new strength will help his bat, and help avoid fatigue at the end of the season. As to whether the bat will provide an impact in the upper levels and the majors, DeHaan certainly seemed to think so last year in Bradenton.

“[The bat] can play in the big leagues,” DeHaan said. “He’s going to put the ball in play. It’s going to be with authority too.”

  • pilbobuggins

    Looks like the pirates are just about ready to start rolling over players in the pipeline. This won’t sit well with some folks out there when guys start getting shipped out to make room for the next guy in the pipeline. It’s the way the pirates hafta operate though to remain competitive.

  • BDevito

    If Allie puts up reasonably similar numbers at AAA this year as Bell does in AA, wouldn’t at least make sense to give him some type of audition in Pittsburgh in late 2015 or early 2016 to at least know what they have once and for all with him if Bell isn’t projected to start 2016 in Pittsburgh rather than just automatically planning on Bell leaping over him? I know he has strikeout issues but I dont think his 2014 numbers in every other category could be described as bad.

    • Darkstone42

      I agree. That 12-14% walk rate he posts every year is quite nice, plus the obvious power potential. He seemed to adjust well to AA, lowering the K%, maintaining the BB%, and hitting for slightly more power than he did in 2013. Those are all really encouraging signs, improving across the board while making the biggest minor league competition jump.

      If Hart proves useless or can’t stay healthy, I think Allie has a decent chance to fill that role later this season, and I think he also has a good chance to a useful hitter.

      • piraddict

        I think Hart is here for one year to prove he’s healthy and will loook to sign a more lucrative contract elsewhere with more playing time available, his last “bite of the apple”.

    • Darkstone42

      Also, I should add, I don’t think it’s outlandish to look at Allie as a potential right-handed Adam Dunn type, and Adam Dunn had himself a nice, productive Major League career carrying himself with just walks and bombs.

      • BostonsCommon

        Dunn has smacked 462 bombs will have an outside shot at the HOF… I can’t believe he decided to hang em up, with little doubt that he still had another 38 dingers in the tank.. This would have only been his age 35 season.

        I get what you’re saying about the a comp to that type of player… but you did just compare Allie to a borderline HOFer

        • Darkstone42

          I don’t think he’d be as good as Dunn, but stylistically similar. Adam Dunn light. The poor man’s Adam Dunn.

          It was mostly meant to illustrate the point that high-walk, high-K, high-power can be a model for Major League success.

          • BostonsCommon

            Haha, I don’t know that I’d call it a model for MLB success… But it will keep you in the show.

            There’s no doubt Dunn walked away from another contract.

        • Darkstone42

          Also, Adam Dunn won’t sniff the Hall. He’s got a gaudy home run total, and was a pretty good hitter for his career, but he was so legitimately terrible as a fielder and baserunner that he shouldn’t even get close to the Hall. He was also really inconsistent year-to-year after 2005, which is the bulk of his career.

      • Lee Foo Young

        I think it IS outlandish…Allie has power, but I’ve not seen anything that screams “MLB STARTER” let alone a RH Adam Dunn.

        Allie will be lucky to have a Craig Wilson type of career.

        • Darkstone42

          You think it’s an outlandish ceiling for him? He’s still a prospect, we’re still dealing in potential, but Adam Dunn is stylistically the most similar recognizable player to compare him to. Their offensive numbers are really similar except that Dunn’s power rates were better.

          I also only consider seven of Dunn’s fourteen professional seasons to be MLB Starter caliber. He was below replacement level twice in his career, less than a win above it three more times, and that’s a third of his career basically hovering around replacement level. Sure, he was mostly an above-average to good hitter, but he was so bad at everything else that he was starting in a deep hole.

          His first five years were awesome, and he had two more good seasons later, but Dunn isn’t a lofty comp, home runs or no.

          • BostonsCommon

            Dunn was a liability in the field… which kills his WAR.

            But he could get on based and had elite power. OPS+ of 123 for his career, and it was over 100 in 13 of 14 seasons. Had a 7 year run where he averaged 40 HRs, and still managed to do it as recently 2012.

            Don’t knock the donkey, man. For a 1 trick pony, he had a HELL of a career.

        • Darkstone42

          As for Craig Wilson, that’s a reasonable power prediction for him, but Allie’s got a better eye, which should make him a better hitter than Wilson if he gets the chance.

          Even so, Wilson was actually a pretty good hitter for the Bucs. Comfortably above-average for the first five years of his career. It wouldn’t be a bad result, especially if he’s primarily a bench option. I could see Allie landing somewhere between Wilson and Dunn, fringe starter on the bat alone, but someone you might want to keep off the field defensively if you can, Dunn’s average and walks, Wilson’s power numbers. That would be a hitter in the 110-120 range of wRC+, but capable of more longevity than Wilson carried by the eye. A useful player overall.

        • Darkstone42

          Allie’s floor, though, obviously is never make the Majors and disappear entirely from professional baseball. There’s a lot of room for him to fall into in terms of career arch. But he keeps beating expectations, advancing through the system and handling each level’s pitching, and I’m rooting for him.

          • Lee Foo Young

            I’m rooting for Allie, but there is a reason he is rated #32 in Tim’s book. And my comment was ‘he’d be LUCKY’ to have a Craig Wilson type of career. By that, I meant as a journeyman/platoon type, never a regular. Sure, he could exceed all expectations. Some prospects do.

            You’re dreaming on his ability…I’m being realistic. I hope I am wrong tho, and you are right, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

        • Joe Sweetnich

          Allie will be lucky to get 100 major league at bats…

          • leowalter

            And you know that for certain….right ?

            • Joe Sweetnich

              Much better chance of that than the 462 home runs of Adam Dunn, wise guy

              • leowalter

                I wasn’t the person who compared him to Adam Dunn, wise guy ! Go after him if you are so sure of yourself clown.

                • Rob

                  There you go again, Leo.

          • piraddict

            I think Allie takes Hart’s place on the 2016 while Bell preps is AAA. Depending on what Pedro does in 2015 they may just let him play out his arb years in 2016, make a QO and let him leave rather than trading him at the end of 2015. This would result in Bell and Allie competing for the 1B job in 2017.

    • John Janesko

      I think Allie should see some time at 3rd. There are no 3rd base prospects, he has an amazing arm, hes played 3rd in the past, and there is another 1st base prospect right behind him. At least get him some work at the position. Heck, if nothing else it gives him versatility at a more valuable position for a trade

      • BDevito

        Agreed on all parts. High school shortstop and UNC was interested him at that position I believe before he entered draft.

      • EWS34

        Allie didn’t stay at 3rd very long in the lower minors. I am guessing he didn’t have the athleticism to play there. Does anyone know why the Pirates moved him off of 3rd?

        • Lee Foo Young

          EW…because he was absolutely awful…otherwise, he would’ve stayed there. You don’t move a prospect to 1b unless it is necessary. It’s not like we have a backlog of 3bmen. ;)

          • John Janesko

            He played 3rd in highschool and would have been a legitimate draft prospect there. They only gave him 9 games there, immediately after converting him back to a position player. Seems like a small sample size in a less than ideal situation. And athleticism isn’t an issue, he stole 9 bases last year

        • ginbear

          You know that thing when Allie was pitching where he had no idea where the ball was going to go when he threw it? Was true at third too.

      • Lee Foo Young

        He played 3b in the past and was terrible at it.

    • Bill Kline

      I wouldn’t mind seeing Allie take reps at third. Especially if Harrison don’t work out and Kang is needed elsewhere.

      • Guest

        Or the other way around.

      • Ron Loreski

        There’s a better chance of Harrison being needed elsewhere and Kang not working out.

  • dr dng

    Its currently 2 degrees here and this article has me thinking about my annual road trip to Altoona! Thanks Tim.

Prospect Reports

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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