In 2011, the Pirates gave Josh Bell a $5 million bonus to draw him away from his commitment to the University of Texas. They saw a player with first round talent that was passed over by other teams because Bell sent every team a letter saying he would stick with that commitment. The Pirates recognized that he could become an impact player that can hit for average and power, and opted to sign him. With the Pirates current outfield set for the long-term, and because of Bell’s injury history, he made the move to first base at the beginning of this season to fast track his road to the majors.
There are currently two parts to the Josh Bell story. Has he made the adjustment hitting to Double-A ball from both sides of the plate? Secondly, how has his play been defensively at first base?
From a hitting standpoint, you see a player with the numbers that would impress anyone with a line of .321/.405/.453. Bell has five doubles and five triples, hitting for gap power extremely well. He has never been one to strike out much, and his strikeout rate is even lower this year at 8.3%, compared to 11.8% last year between Bradenton and Altoona. Lastly, he is drawing more walks than he did last year with a walk rate of 12.4%, which is up from 6.9% in Bradenton and 7.8% in Altoona.
The stat that jumps off the page the most for Bell is that he only has one home run on the season. Yes, that one home run was a walk-off three run shot in a 5-3 Curve victory; however, the lack of home runs has to be alarming. Bell and Altoona hitting coach Kevin Riggs maintain that they are just continuing to work on pitch selection and driving balls in the zone, but Bell projected to have at least some home run hitting potential. The pressure to hit home runs is also magnified because of his move to first base, which is commonly known as a position where home run power comes from.
Bell hit thirteen home runs in 2013 with West Virginia. That number fell to nine last year between Bradenton and Altoona. It took 42 games for Bell to hit a home run above Single-A, as he did not hit any after the promotion last season. He also failed to hit any home runs while playing in the Arizona Fall League last fall. He is picking up extra base hits in the form of doubles and triples, but a player of his caliber needs to be able to drive some balls out of the park on a fairly regular basis. You see the gap power in his swing, but the home run power currently isn’t there.
We have written many times on Pirates Prospects over the last few years that Bell’s swing has some issues. The numbers wouldn’t tell you that, but he does look off-balanced quite often at the plate. His hands are so fast, and he is able to make up for any awkward hitches to his swing with amazing hand-eye coordination.
What is Bell working on from the plate? Riggs says that he needs to change his hitting approach to drive balls more when earlier in the count and be more selective with pitches until he gets to two strikes.
“Josh is really an interesting kid,” said Riggs. “His hand-eye coordination is so good. What I am trying to stress with him is to be more selective earlier in the count until he gets to two strikes. At two strikes he has the ability to put the ball in play and make contact with the pitch because of his natural ability. We’re trying to get his swing off and drive balls before two strikes, then with two strikes he can use his normal approach.”
Currently on the season, Bell has an .830 OPS as a right-handed batter in 33 at bats and an .863 OPS as a left-handed batter in 109 at bats. The sample size is not very large, but it looks as though the numbers are there from both the left and the right side.
Defensively, Bell continues to work on his footwork and learn to field the position at a higher level. Right now, he looks awkward at first base. This makes sense because he never played the position until the AFL last fall, but the development in the field has been a long and grueling one so far.
When a grounder is hit to him, Bell fields first base pretty well. Gift Ngoepe has been working with all of the infielders on reading and fielding grounders, including Bell. I haven’t seen any issues fielding a ball; rather, most of the problems occur when he has to cover the bag. He has struggled adapting to the typical first baseman stretch as a throw is coming to him. I’ve seen him in more of a squat position when covering the base, and he has let the ball come into his body on multiple occasions instead of stretching out to the ball. He has also struggled picking balls in the dirt, but there has definitely been improvement in this from the beginning of the season until now.
“I’m taking as many ground balls as I can every day,” Bell said. “I work on drop balls with [Manager Tom] Prince every day, and he tries to hit balls hard to me so I can work on my reaction times.”
With the kind of athlete that Bell is, it is only a matter of time until he fully picks up the position. There have definitely been improvements in his fielding from the first week of the season until now. A lot of people feel that a move to first base is a simple one, but for a player who has never played there before, it can take some time.
For those calling for Bell to move up to Triple-A now, I wouldn’t hold your breath for too long. He has a lot of work to do in both his swing and in the field. Josh Bell has shown signs of greatness, but he has yet to put it all together. With the position change, there is no need to hurry him in his development. He should still project to be a player the Pirates look at come summer of 2016.