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…
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.
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.
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.