I’ve been able to watch Josh Bell for four months this season in Altoona, and there have been a lot of ups and downs in his play and development while playing for the Curve. After Friday night’s announcement of Bell’s promotion to Triple-A Indianapolis, he is one step closer to becoming a major leaguer. Pirates Prospects has covered Bell’s development, change of position, and overall play since day one, and I went into detail about why Bell was still in Double-A at the end of June. Now, with Bell being promoted, I wanted to take a look at all aspects of his game that got him to this point. Let’s dig in…

Fielding

As we all know, Bell made the move from the outfield to first base full-time this season, with him being introduced to the position in the Arizona Fall League last season. In early May, Tim Williams wrote about the encouraging signs from Bell at first base; however, he still had a long way to go to become a major league ready first baseman. From the seasons opening on April 9th til July 31st, Bell’s performance at first base has been night-and-day.

Making the transition from an everyday outfielder to an everyday first baseman has not been an easy one for Bell. Kevin Young summed up the process very nicely.

“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.”

During the first few months of the season, you could tell that Bell looked uncomfortable and didn’t really know where to go and how to play certain balls. Everything seemed like an adventure – from pickoff plays to backhand scoops to balls in the dirt. Every once in a while, he would surprise you and make a play that you wouldn’t have expected.

Now, Bell has the look of a player that has played first base consistently for four months of a season. He doesn’t look lost. Don’t get me wrong, he doesn’t necessarily look phenomenal over there, but he doesn’t look like a fish out of water either.

When Bell was asked how he feels now at first base compared to earlier in the year, he laughed and very dramatically responded to the question.

“Tons better! That’s an easy question,” Bell responded. “From the beginning of the year or when I really started last year, it’s ten-fold, 100-fold. The comfortability over there. The confidence in everything I do is there. It’s fun going out there every night.”

What have been the keys to his development at first base according to the player himself?

“Not letting any balls go underneath my glove,” Bell said. “A ball that goes underneath your glove is a play that needs to be made for your pitcher. It’s one thing we are looking for. You can’t really control the errors, but you can control effort. Try to leave your feet for balls, and try to have your glove down there early. That’s one thing I can work on.”

He has greatly improved on backhand plays, going to his right, pickoffs, and balls in the dirt. He needs to improve on choosing when to go after a ball to his right (rather than covering the base), leaving his feet, and stabbing at a throw rather than extending towards a throw.

The effort is present for Bell. He is a young man who works extremely hard and is dedicated to his craft.

Hitting

If you look at Bell’s .307/.376/.427 triple slash line at Altoona, you would initially think that he dominated the level the whole time we was here. That wouldn’t be the case. His stats are very loaded early in the year with them dropping off as each month progressed.

  Average OPS BB% K%
April .352 .868 10% 8.8%
May .337 .873 12.0% 7.2%
June .284 .758 10.2% 12.7%
July .264 .719 8.6% 18.3%

Other than the decline of production as the year went on, the lack of extra base hits and power was concerning. I’ve watched Bell hit all year, and the stats back up what I’ve seen. On the season, he has a .120 ISO, which would be considered below average. It’s not a knock on how talented the man is; it’s more saying that his batting average makes things look deceiving. Bell’s hand-eye coordination is fantastic. He can surely put the bat to the ball and at least put it in play. I don’t think the 18.3% strikeout rate in July is something to worry about, but the fact that power hasn’t accompanied any of these stats is the worrisome part.

To help with the lack of power, Bell made some adjustments to his swing to hopefully rectify the problems. From the left side, he has adapted a very prominent leg kick that accompanies a tall, open stance. When I first saw the stance, it vaguely reminded of Ken Griffey, Jr. As I talked with Tim Williams, he explained that the comparison to Griffey, Jr.’s stance goes way back to Bell’s high school days, when a lot of people compared Bell’s swing to Griffey Jr., due to Bell’s movement before the swing, followed by a smooth, fluid swing from a tall, lanky hitter. Here is a comparison, looking at Griffey, and Bell in Spring Training 2012.

Here is Bell’s swing from Spring Training this year. The pre-pitch motion is quiet, and the swing doesn’t really incorporate his lower half as much.

Bell is now changing his swing to something closer to his high school days with the added movement.

“This is something that I did in high school,” Bell said. “I kind of started off with it in pro ball, and I feel like it’s time for me to get back there.”

“I’m just trying to get more rhythmic with the pitcher, and that [stance] feels comfortable right now,” said Bell. “I’m just trying to dance up there with the pitcher, and it’s going good so far.”

Specifically when it comes to hitting, Bell wants to be able to barrel up the ball better.

“I just feel like I can get to a better position when I hit balls,” Bell said talking about the new-old stance. “I’m less slappy up there. For the most part, I’m just trying to barrel up the baseball and be that guy for my teammates.”

From the right side, I noticed the open stance; however, Bell wasn’t standing quite as tall, and the leg kick was not nearly as prominent. What I have inferred from multiple conversations from Bell, hitting coach Kevin Riggs, and farm director Larry Broadway, without them coming right out to say it, is that they are looking for more power from the left side in games. Watching him in batting practice, you can see the easy power from the left side, but that doesn’t get carried into games. From the right, Bell needs to continue to focus on a higher average and gap hitting. The power is weaker from that side, but he can still hit for a high enough average and get on base enough to make switch hitting worthwhile.

Altoona hitting coach Kevin Riggs gave his input on Bell’s new setup.

“I like where he is at,” Riggs said. “Not that I didn’t like it before, but I think his body is working better. It allows his hands to work better. The body is not involved where it was before. His shoulders got involved with his hand load so I’m excited with where he is headed.”

Where did the idea of making this change come from?

“Just with conversations,” Riggs said. “This came up about how he hit in high school and we kind of talked about it. I asked him to show me, and as soon as I saw it, it sparked a light in my mind and envisioned where he needs to go. I’m very excited, and I think this is going to elevate him and take him to the next level.”

The changes weren’t just a brainchild of Bell and Riggs. This change made it’s way throughout the whole minor league front office before it was implemented – all the way to Larry Broadway, the Director of Minor League Operations. Broadway gave his input on the swing as well, saying that Bell has never been a guy set on one way of doing things at the plate.

“He’s never been a solid ‘This is the way that I do it’ kind of guy,” Broadway said. “He’s more of a ‘This is how I feel’ guy. He moves around a little bit. He did try to put in a leg kick that he used to have from the left side to try to get him more connected and to start trying to drive the ball more, which is starting to happen.”

Broadway went ahead to explain to me that they are fine with however Bell decides to ultimately swing the bat, mechanically. They just want him to feel comfortable and see the ball well.

Everything that they are doing is because they want to see Bell drive the ball harder and hit for more power.

“I just thought that there was more in there,” Riggs said, “Just using his hands and his body more properly so he can really get everything he needed into the ball. There was nothing that was really glaring about anything, I just thought it was a better move for efficiency in his swing.”

It is too early to tell if the changes will work for Bell, but the early results in July have not been the greatest. The declining OPS may be a result of the changes, or it could just be a mid-summer slump. The promotion to Triple-A Indianapolis may be really good for Bell, giving him the proper competition to gauge what he needs to do with his swing that will make it the best it possibly can to get results.

To wrap things up, Josh Bell still has a lot of work to do. I wouldn’t expect him to go to Triple-A and hit .300 right away. If he hit .260 with 4 or 5 home runs in the month at Triple-A, I would say that is a success for Bell. The focus on tapping into his power is everything right now. In the field, Bell just needs to keep getting playing time at first base.

Tim Williams contributed to this report.

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23 COMMENTS

  1. He won’t become major league overnight at Indy. But even an untrained eye [me] can see the enormous talent he has. For average and power he has it all and defense will not be a problem. I can help but think of a lineup with him, Cutch, Marte, Polanco, Kang, and JHay.

  2. Is it me, or does the system have poor hitting instructors? I feel like for all the successes on the pitching side we have very little to show for on the hitting side. Personally, I think Branson is the worst of the worst, but that’s just my opinion.

    • Yes the offense from Bradenton through Altoona to Indy has been terrible ….are you even serious ?

      • Not only did you manage to decipher my comment into that nonsense, but you attempted to berate me. Leo, here is something you will never hear on this site, “this place won’t be the same without you.”.

    • I think an argument can easily be made that the system to date hasn’t produced good hitters, but I also think it’s a mistake to assume such things are static.

      Good organizations are constantly evolving, and I think there’s good evidence that the switch to more of a focus on bats starting in ’12/’13 is synching up with improved instruction at the lower levels. West Virginia through Altoona are stocked with more disciplined, better overall hitters than at any point in the Huntington Era; and I don’t think it’s even close. The system lacks power, unquestionably, but there at least seems to be a more thought-out plan on amateur talent acquisition and development.

      • The “constantly evolving” aspect does seem to be good within this organization. I’ve been surprised with the seeming ability for the FO to be willing to change what it does year to year in areas it lacked.

        Exceptions to every rule, and for this FO that exception seems to be how it uses its AAA depth. Very consistent in not using young players if a ML injury occurs and going with older, largely useless options.

        • Pedro is a great example of what can happen if you promote someone from AAA too soon. It’s a lesson NH won’t soon forget.

  3. Has there been any report as to what the Buccos are stuck paying Morse for the rest of his contract? LLOYD has not seen this anywhere.

  4. Where is all the MLB reports? Thought I read Tim Williams stating that once this site went to subscription that he would have more reports and game coverage from the parent club? We just had an excellent W today, with lots of extra activity during the game, yet nothing on here….Love the minor league coverage, but feel like I was mislead a bit. Just me, but I feel the MLB coverage should be on here at least an hour after the game….

    • its called Pirate prospects – plenty of places to get game coverage for the MLB team – don’t need Tim using resources to duplicate what is easily available elsewhere. MLB.com. ESPN.com, Yahoo Sports all have pretty good – in depth game coverage

      • That’s not the point, Bruce. Williams was very clear saying once this site went subscription he would have more coverage of the parent club. I literally see no difference at all. Not looking to cause any trouble, just feel like I was duped. Oh well, I still appreciate the coverage in regards to farm

        • You wrote your not trying to cause trouble, then complain you were Duped…for 2.99/ month. He’s so deep in coverage, and does provide a ton of coverage on the MLB team IMO. Game recaps are so repetitive to ESPN, MLB, etc. I think it would be a waste for that to be a driver for why I subscribe.

          • Again, has nothing to do with my point. My point is TW, was emphatic stating that there will be much more mlb coverage once the site goes to subscription…Fact is the mlb coverage is no different now, then prior to this be a paid site. I could care less about the $2.99, his work is excellent with the farm. Just seems that he didn’t stick with his word in regards to the mlb coverage. Nothing about AJ Burnett saying “he may have thrown his last pitch”, just a bit disappointed.

            • “Fact is the mlb coverage is no different now, then prior to this be a paid site”

              We have at least one writer at every home game, and there have been a few times in the last week where we’ve had two writers covering the MLB games. We’ve been adding game reports, which is something we didn’t have last year, and we definitely didn’t cover each game.

              We had full coverage of the Pirates at the trade deadline, complete with quotes from Neal Huntington after each trade.

              We just don’t do road games…yet. It costs a lot to send someone on the road for coverage, and we don’t just cover one team. The bulk of the travel budget right now is used for traveling for extra minor league coverage, which is the biggest thing I promised would happen when we switched over. And that has increased in a huge way, leading to extremely detailed articles like this one.

              I also said that we would eventually expand MLB coverage, and we have, as noted above. But we’re not to the point where that’s expanded for a full time beat reporter.

              • Again, I appreciate the response….I guess my frustration stems from zero coverage on Burnett saying “he may have thrown his last pitch” I feel that should have been an article as it is major news within the org., the news broke hours ago, yet nothing on here….I get you don’t have the resources as of yet to manning guys covering road games. My response would be, can’t you have a writer dedicated to watching the road games on TV, followed with an article? Seems to be logical to me.

      • I appreciate the response, Tim. Not trying to bust your balls, just looking for some clarity. I don’t rem you stating only home game coverage when you stated more mlb coverage.

  5. Great report, Sean.

    The clip of Griffey certainly is instructive, but I don’t think it’s the stance as much as the hands. Griffey sets up with his hands relatively high, up around his back shoulder(0:03). He tracks a pitch down around thigh level, and his first move is to drop his hands(0:04) before launching the barrel on an upward trajectory towards the baseball. This is how you create loft.

    If Griffey doesn’t make that first move with his hands, the bat launches at a downward angle. I’m sure you’ve all heard a thousand little league and high coach coaches yelling at their kids to “swing down on the ball!”. You can still hit the ball in the air like this, but you have a very small portion of the baseball to target in order for the angles to work; a bit low and the ball is fouled back, a bit high and you get a ground ball or line drive. This is where the majority of Josh Bell’s contact was coming. Great for average and gap power, but he simply will not turn more of that contact into over-the-fence power unless he increases the number of fly balls he hits, and he won’t do that until he changes his swing plane.

    If “getting into his legs” inadvertently gets him there, then great. But strength in his swing was never the problem; trajectory of contact was.

  6. I’m sure changing stance and swing so dramatically also affects timing, which could at least in part explain the July slump. But anything to get his lower-half involved more and help him drive the ball with more authority should be a good adjustment, ultimately.

    • I have done enough hitting instruction over the years to know that you and NMR have a better than average knowledge of how it all works at this level. I think this kid can hit, but he came to AA being able to hit. What I am impressed with is the work Kevin Riggs has done with him to get him thinking about what it takes to elevate his game, and also the work to elevate Frazier and Moroff to a higher level also. In fact, the whole team is hitting well.

      Riggs was a hitting instructor and then moved up to eventually become the Manager of the Tulsa AA team in the Rockies org in 2013 and 2014. The Pirates made a good move with Riggs, and I wonder if it is time to think about him as the hitting instructor with the Pirates. I know Branson has been with the Bucs for years, but I think a different approach with hitters may be in order.

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