I was planning on finishing up a mid-year report on the Altoona Curve for today’s article, but a few great conversations with Josh Bell, Kevin Young, and Hitting Coach Kevin Riggs changed my plans. Obviously, Josh Bell’s promotion timeline has been an everyday topic for many people on this site, as well as for many people covering minor league baseball. I plan to address some topics at hand about the Pirates’ average timelines for promotions between Double-A and Triple-A in the near future, but I figured that talking specifically about Bell is very appropriate right now.

First, let’s take a look at what Josh Bell has already accomplished this season in Altoona. He finished Monday night’s game against Erie with a .318 average, good for second (tied with Max Moroff) in the Eastern League. Batting average isn’t the only statistic among the league leaders for Bell, as he is second in hits with 82 (behind Moroff), third in OBP at .390, and tied for first in triples with six.

Bell currently has an OPS of .828, ranking best out of all players in the Pirates minor league system who has played a full season. He has 33 walks on the season compared to only 30 strikeouts, for a walk rate of 10.8% and a strikeout rate of 9.8%. His ISO is .122, slowly creeping up towards the numbers we have seen in A+ and A ball in recent years. For the most part, Josh Bell has been the best player for the Curve all year, and maybe even the whole Pirates system.

“PROMOTE JOSH BELL TO TRIPLE-A ALREADY!”

That is probably the one comment that can be copied and pasted across the board by fans, and reasonably so. Bell is having a fantastic year from the plate; however, there are still plenty of things that he needs to work on. The Pirates like to do the majority of their player development before they reach the Triple-A level, and Josh Bell still has a lot of player development to do. Therefore, Josh Bell is currently at Double-A for a purpose and reason, and he should remain there until the Pirates feel he has accomplished everything on their checklist. Let’s take a look at what he needs to work on in Altoona.

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Hitting

Bell has had a season reverse of what you would normally see for a hitter playing for a northern team. Rather than starting slower because of the cold weather, he started off extremely hot, hitting .352/.418/.451 in April. He followed that with a .337/.411/.462 line in May, with his OPS raising slightly due to one home run, and extra triple, and an extra double. June hasn’t been nearly as good to Bell, though, with a stat line of .263/.333/.400. He has hit two home runs in June to raise his season total to three.

Bell is most certainly still one of the best hitters on the Curve, but he has struggled some in June and has been working through those difficulties. In recent games that I have watched him in Altoona, he has hit some slow grounders and doesn’t seem to have the best approach during each at bat. It is preposterous to think that a baseball player has a good at-bat every time he goes up there, but Bell has been working specifically on certain items within his at bats to help him get better.

Hitting Coach Kevin Riggs said that Bell is currently working on slowing down the other moving parts of his body during his approach and swing to allow for his hands to work through the ball and accelerate quicker.

“I give Josh a lot of credit,” Riggs said. “For a guy that has the numbers statistically that he has, he is still eyes and ears wide open for how he can improve. We’re still trying to implement changes, and we are going to have some bumps along the road. It’s a credit to him as an individual as far as accepting constructive criticism and applying it on a daily basis.”

You also cannot ignore the fact that Bell still only has three home runs in half of a season for the Curve. Bell isn’t worried about the lack of power right now, but it is something that he does really hope starts showing up soon.

“In time, it’s going to come,” Bell said about hitting home runs. “I don’t want to change anything right now because the line drive approach is going to help me in the long run as a hitter. As I get older and as I get more developed as a hitter from both sides of the plate, I’ll be able to pick my counts better and attack pitchers when I can.”

Bell went on to talk about the most important thing right now is addressing his two-strike approach and finding ways to barrel up the ball when the count is against him. He also needs to make improvements from the right side of the plate, as he only has a .696 OPS as a right-handed batter compared to .872 as a lefty.

His plate discipline is amazing with his walk and strikeout rates being phenomenal. Right now, Bell needs to start to see that home run stroke come around more often. He bulked up in the offseason, wanting to be able to swing more violently and drive the ball harder. Those results still need to come.

Fielding

Now, the part of the article you all are looking for. Bell does have plenty to work on from a hitting standpoint, but we all know that his hitting would easily call for a promotion, even with parts of his game to work on. I believe Bell could go to the majors and hit for a .270 average right now based off of his hand quickness and hand-eye coordination, even though he still has plenty to work on including the power. The transition to first base has been a difficult one for Bell, who made the move from the outfield to first base this offseason.

I’ll start by saying that Bell has certainly made great improvements from the beginning of the season until now in certain aspects of first base. He made a great stretch and scoop on a ball in the dirt last night in an important situation, and that hasn’t been the only occasion when Bell has made some nice plays at first base. With that being said, I have become more and more aware that he is still learning the position on the fly.

In a specific example, Bell is still learning how far to leave the base to field. During last Friday’s game in Altoona, Bell misjudged a grounder towards the second baseman and found himself in no man’s land about twenty feet off of the bag. At that point, the runner was easily able to reach first base because of broken coverage (Matt Benedict failed to cover the bag as well, most likely because he thought it was going to be a 4-3 putout). In this particular play, Moroff fielded the ball, Bell tried to get back to the base but got turned around, and the throw ended up hitting him in the glove. He couldn’t hang onto it, and the ball skipped into foul territory resulting in the runners all moving up, and a run scored.

These types of situations, although not as pronounced as that example, are not rare for Bell right now as he is learning the position. His range for fielding ground balls is currently very small, as he specifically has trouble getting to grounders to his left towards the line. I’ve also noticed that he has trouble deciding which glove position to field a ball in, as he regularly fields like an outfield on a hop to the chest with the palm of his hand facing down (rather than your palm facing up like a normal infielder’s position). This is something that happens with regularity.

An essential part of being a first baseman is how you receive baseballs at the bag, and Bell has had his ups and downs this season. There are times when he looks great, stretching off of the bag to catch a baseball. Other times, you will see Bell either stab at the ball, still catching it but looking extremely unconventional, or catch the ball in towards his chest while in more or a squatting position.

Kevin Young has been in Altoona the past few days working with Bell on his fielding techniques. He is currently there to do a mid-season assessment of how Bell has adjusted to life at the position. Their assessment includes reviewing plays that he has come up against so far this season, challenges that have occurred, and checking to be sure Bell is sticking to the plan and foundation that they established in Spring Training.

“I think the first half of the season is getting accustomed to the position with being able to see things coming at him,” Young said. “The next part for Josh is execution of plays, seeing if he can maintain and do things on his own and if he can manage his fielding techniques on certain balls in different situations. There are a lot of things that come at you at first base. It’s a lot easier to transition when you are an infielder already, rather than trying to make the move from the outfield.”

When Bell left Spring Training, the Pirates felt that he could hold his own for the beginning portion of the season, allowing him to make a natural progression of maturation at first base. They wanted him to make mistakes so that he would understand his impact on the field as a first baseman.

“He’s been taking those lumps while understanding and learning on the job,” Young said. “It’s tough to do that in this situation in particular because you have a lot of people relying on you.”

I asked Bell on his take on his season defensively, so far. He says the he feels ten times better over there now compared to early in the season. He has had to work through difficulties, but he feels more comfortable every day.

Kevin Young is in Altoona this week working with Bell on some specific plays and fielding techniques including Bell’s initial setup on the base on pick off throws, gaining ground off of first after the pitch is delivered, and having his glove in a low, ready position at all times.

Bell emphasized that when Young comes to Altoona to work with him, they like to fine tune different details. Young has been able to develop an overall game plan with Bell, and they work at that plan.

Young said that he has worked with Bell and Pedro Alvarez in a similar fashion concerning their positioning around the base. They also are working on receiving of baseballs from position players in a similar way, as well. Essentially, the backbone of what Kevin Young works with Pedro on are very similar to what he comes in to work with Bell on. There are many differences between the two, though.

“Pedro [Alvarez] has amazing footwork, and he is very quick on his feet for a big man,” Young said. “Josh isn’t quite there yet. We are working with Josh in that area.”

The theme with the coaches when you talk about Bell is that he is a resilient man who is willing to learn and listen.

“He’s done a good job,” Young said. “He continues to swing the bat well, which helps. His approach is a testament to the young man, because he wants to get better defensively, and he wants to do things with the stick as well.”

Curve Manager Tom Prince agreed with that sentiment.

“Have there been bumps in the road? Yeah, he’s going to miss a ball or two. We’re not taking him out of the lineup after missing a ball. We’re going to go back to work and get it right. The goal is to get him ready for the big leagues, and he continues to work hard every day.”

Josh Bell impresses because of his overall sense of understanding in the big picture, both here and in the future.

“I just want to get more comfortable over there, get my reps in, and know where to be,” Bell said. “It’s going to come in time. It’s still my first year over there, and I’m trying to get my feet wet…I just want to become the player that the Pirates need me to be.”

His last comment is the kicker. He knows he needs to work hard to develop. He also understand that there are a lot of aspects of the game that he needs to improve upon. Bell is extremely grounded and willing to learn and accept what his coaches are saying. He projects to be a great player. He is already one of the best all-around hitters I’ve seen; now, he is learning how to be a great fielder, too.[/mepr-rule]

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62 COMMENTS

  1. Should this change the approach of waiting to move players earlier? Josh was talked about as 1b for two years before the position switch. An earlier change may have him more prepared… Would it have affected his bat? Hard to say

  2. A picture is worth a thousand words, compare Bell with the runner at the top of the article. A little smaller Pedro that can hit.

  3. That last paragraph said it all as to why Josh Bell will be at Altoona for this season. He would play in the field much better if he lost some weight. Just compare the picture of Bell and the other player at the top of the page. There are very few Prince Fielders playing this game. Pedro looks more like an OT rather than a 1st. baseman. He could still end up in RF as I think the Pirates are disappointed in Polanco.

  4. Bell needs to stay at Altoona for the balance of this season. He will need to learn the finer points of being a 1st. baseman. Besides, a move to Indy means some donkey was ordered to play 1st. while their best prospect sits on the bench. There is a bunch of has been donkeys on their roster.

  5. “He also needs to make improvements from the right side of the plate, as he only has a .696 OPS as a right-handed batter compared to .872 as a lefty.”

    ^buried the lede

    I don’t place much value on minor league short-side platoon splits alone due to sample size and competition, but when they support the scouting reports of Bell still being somewhat of a mess from the right side it has to be concerning.

    Kid still has a long way to go before being a complete hitter.

    • “Kid still has a long way to go before being a complete hitter.”

      I think that can be said of most, if not all, young hitters. I wonder whether he wouldn’t be better of simply hitting as a lefty and developing a solid lefty approach against his fellow southpaws.

      • It absolutely is, which is why I felt there was a place in mentioning that in a conversation about why Josh Bell hasn’t been promoted.

        I, personally, am not a fan of left hand dominant switch hitters. It’s incredibly difficult to develop and maintain one swing; adding another seems to be more challenging than beneficial when you’re only using it for 20%-30% of at bats.

  6. Do we have a decent first baseman in AAA? Why couldn’t he work on his defensive skills there? We aren’t talking about taking him to the big leagues. Would also allow Allie to continue his development at 1st base in AA which would help his hitting… focus wouldn’t be on learning yet another new position.

    • Try reading Sean’s summary a little more closely. Maybe you will get the point regarding the organization’s development process.

      • I read Sean’s summary and understand what is being said about the development process. Just don’t agree with it given we have a few stiffs at first base in Indy and he isn’t really being challenged by AA pitchers. Just suggesting there is a glaring opening in Indy for a top prospect first baseman and that he could continue to develop his glove and fielding there. Unless there is something magical about the hitting and fielding coaches in Altoona vs. Indy.

        • He isn’t being challenged by AA pitchers ? I suspect you haven’t seen many of his recent games.

        • Eric: Excellent points. The Pirates tossed the “standard” approach for this kid out the window on draft day. Trying to walk backwards now on the “standard” development process excuse does not make much sense to me. Want his fielding to improve? Surround him with better and more experienced infield fielding talent, which is at AAA, and continue the one-on-one work with him at AAA.

          • So which SS in AAA is a better defender that Gift? Being in AAA in no way makes you a better defender than someone at AA.

          • I wonder, also, if this isn’t a convenience/logistics consideration. Altoona is right down the road from Pittsburgh and Young can (foreseeably) work with Bell more and easier in Altoona than in Indy. I wouldn’t want to presume that this has anything to do with it, but it does seem to fit logistically .

  7. For those who want Bell promoted, two cautionary tales: Pedro and Polanco.

    As John D tweeted, GP probably wants to fire his agent.

  8. I will affirm that Bell isn’t light on his feet. He seems to lumber around 1b in the games I’ve seen. Cumbersome, comes to mind.

    • ” Awkward ” is another word you could use also. Lee. I have seen him play numerous home games, and he always manages to do something to remind me of that word.

    • The fundamental question is whether Bell will ever be an acceptable first baseman. I challenge the assumption that you can take an athlete who has never played a position and turn him into a major league position player in two or three years just because he is an athlete and you have a need at the position. Footwork, reads, throws, positioning, instinctive reactions, and CONFIDENCE all come from experience. An athlete with 15 years in the outfield doesn’t automatically become a great prospect at first because of his athleticism. If Pedro’s skills at first are close to the worst in the league, and neutral observers are telling us Bell is worse why keep forcing the issue. I like Bell the outfield prospect with the major league projectable bat. If we lack first basemen then go get them by trading other assets where we are obviously deep. Keep Bell. We are giving away major league wins because of a confidence busting comedy show at first base whose bat doesn’t make up for it.

    • I wonder what Polanco would look like at 1B? I think that may be his eventual destination 10 years from now ala Willie Stargell.

        • Kind of my point vis-avis Bell. An outfielder transitioning to 1B can’t necessarily be expected to go smoothly. But eventually it can work out. Stargell looked smooth at 1B in the twilight of his career.

    • Comparatively we are just below average in the NL with 2 strikes, but its key to note that all teams suck with 2 strikes. Best team in baseball with 2 strikes- Tigers with a .207/.275/.292/.566 slash line. Its not an outlier year either, as it was worse at the end of last year.

      .175 is about the middle of the league, and we are at .172 (batting average isnt the end all be all, but its a quick measure).

  9. The question is, really, whether we think Bell can play 1B at all. Listen, his bat is good and profiles as really good. However, the issue is that you have to look at your team realistically and your prospects realistically. The attrition rate is high. Can Bell be proficient at 1B? If not, then we know Boston loves him…trade him for assets that can help us.

    • I think it would be equally unrealistic to declare that he cant play 1B after less than a year worth of reps. Not to say Bell will ever be great at 1B, but i dont see any reason to rush judgement either way. His glove work shows flashes of promise, and his issues are common “learning the position” stuff. If he goes halfway into next year with the same issues, then its a bigger story.

      If they do trade him, it is what it is. But he does represent the only quality 1B option we can look forward to. In a market where any good 1Bmen is either signed or overpriced, finding a young option to take over seems key for a small market team.

    • He has made great strides so far this season at learning to play infield. A lot of the work now goes into learning that specific position, which happens to be a difficult one. You have to remember that he is making the move from outfield to first base and not another infield position to first.

    • Yes I agree. We become enamored with these guys and somehow they never develop as strong MLB’rs. I hate to keep referring to Polanco but he could of developed better in AAA. Although if he continues his struggles I have to believe he may end up a bust. Taillon is also starting to make me nervous.

      • “Never develop”. Puzzling comment considering we cheer for Cutch, Walker, Marte, Harrison, Mercer, Cole on a regular basis. If these darn young kids never develop, im confused. Maybe you meant they dont all develop.

        Also, how does one “bust” when he isnt drafted and wasnt a high dollar mark international free agent? He busted by over exceeding his original expectations but not dominating in his first ML year?

        • You are taking my comments out of context. I stated that Polanco could have used more time in the minors. Cutch, Walker and Cole were #1 picks so that tells me development should not have been an issue. Harrison wasn’t drafted by the Pirates. Look at those who were or are drafted and never make it out of the gate. I am only saying that Polanco should have spent more time in the minors and that we should be looking at moving a prospect to obtain help in Pittsburgh.

          • Development isnt an issue for #1 picks, or guys we didnt draft but traded for a year out of the draft, so who does it count for? Only guys that struggle? You ignore Marte, a great parallel to Polanco. Both signed out of the international market, both raw, and if anything Polanco had clearly advanced plate discipline skills at most levels.

            Polanco’s raw talent was too great for AAA at the time. Tough to work on your weaknesses when the talent level cant attack them well enough to stop you from hitting over .300.

            Polanco has issues, but i dont see any reason why AAA helps him work on it. He was clearly playing over that talent level, if anything it shows how not easy the skip from AAA to MLB is. Polanco might never turn out, but moving him 1 year in because he is struggling doesnt make sense for me. Many players will struggle early on, his skills are rare.

          • Bill W : turks44 thinks they should bring up young prospects as early as possible, and if they don’t work out,send ’em back to MiLB. Which is it now ? One of you has to be wrong. Correct ?

        • Well, in all honesty and seriousness though, LukeS, which of those players you mentioned were developed in-house by our current management team? I am not questioning them, but really the biggest impact has come with their ability to get bargain players to perform really well…the results have come via trade/FA and not through our own internal prospect development system.

          • Two questions for you Jared : Were Brock Holt, Vic Black and Dilson Herrera developed by their current organizations , or by the Pirates’ development system ? Was Harrison developed by the Cubs or Pirates ?

            • Well, Brock Holt had 1620 of his 2070 PA in the Pirates system. Although, honestly, did the Pirates view him as the player he’s become? They clearly did not value him that way. Vic Black? I am not really all that certain that we even know what he’s become yet, but he spent more time in our development system. About 1/2 of Herrera’s PA were in the Pirates system and the other 1/2 in the Mets (995 of 1713). I am not sure what question you’re trying to answer with these examples, however, as they certainly do not lend any clear and convincing evidence that we develop prospects well.

              • What difference does it matter how they ” viewed him “? They developed him by playing him at 2 positions and giving him enough ABs and MLB time. His biggest problem in that organization was he didn’t show he could play regularly any where but possibly 2nd base, and they already had Walker.

          • Cole, Harrison, Mercer, Pedro, at least a bit of credit for Cutch since a chunk of his development came after NH was hired. Those guys spent the majority or all of their time in PIT under NH.

          • I don’t even know who Bill W is, but I do not think you ought to presume to know what I think. If you want to know, then ask. I certainly do not agree with the idea that prospects should be quickly promoted and quickly sent down, nor do I think that they are all worthless and should all be traded. I also am not completely convinced that we’ve been as successful as we might think we have been with the draft/development of our prospects. I am not overly impressed with our minor league system now, I think that, especially when you look at a team like the Cardinals, other teams get more out of their minor leagues than we have…I hope that some of the top echelon of our prospects pan out (attrition rates say many won’t and I am hoping we can beat those rates a little or parlay those players for value before they falter) and become regulars for us and regulars on winning teams long into the future. At present I am not convinced of our development system.

      • With that awful swing Polanco is already a bust. He makes no adjustments with his swing when he has 2 strikes. He strikes me as a person who has no coordination with his long legs and I don’t think he ever will. I hope I’m wrong but he has been a big disappointment.

  10. also if tallion ever gets healthy, 2 or 3 starts at indy and IF they go well get him to the big leagues. also lets get glasow to indy for a September call-up/ playoff roster. see if the pirates just promote there best players like everyone in mlb does they can make run at the division.

  11. Two words why not promote him Gregory Polanco. I wish he was being called up now from AAA instead of last year. He still looks very bad at times. Also you mention him Moroff tied for second in Eastern League BA why not promote him? What scares me is what KY said about Alvarez. He raves about his footwork. The guy is the worst 1B in baseball. If KY raves about him (PA) then Bell needs about 3 more years in the minors.

    • Damning with faint praise. Pedro does have good footwork. He has poor judgment on how far he can stray from the bag, is atrocious at throwing and has had his adventures receiving throws.

      Did you expect Young to say, “Yeah, it’s really not working out with Pedro…”?

    • not in todays game, everyone is promoting young players some work out some go back to the minors.

    • Young didnt rave about the overall body of work for Pedro, but that his feet move well and he moves well for his size. Thats true of Pedro, he does have good range for his size and has always moved decently.

      Pedro’s issues come from knowing when to go get it/how far to go, and quick decision situations. And, imo, a lack of confidence and trust in his ability on defense. He is uncertain, and makes uncertain decisions.

  12. easy play some right field at indy and get him to the bigs august 1, he can play rf and 1b. 2 position the pirates are a little weak at, also if hansen healthy promote him for volstad when the bull pen get’s caught up.

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