Why We Could Start to See Power From Josh Bell in 2016

BRADENTON, Fl. – When Josh Bell was selected by the Pirates in the second round of the 2011 draft, the scouting reports on his hitting were pretty lofty. He was seen as a guy who had the ability to hit for average and hit for power from both sides of the plate, with the potential to dream about a future .300 hitter with 30 homers a year.

So far in his pro career, Bell hasn’t seen the power. He started slow in West Virginia, derailed by a knee injury in 2012, and putting up decent numbers in 2013. The average came in 2014 when he was with Bradenton, and remained last year in Altoona. You could always see the power in batting practice, but Bell was never able to take it into a game.

More alarming was the fact that while his swing from the left side looked good with easy power, the swing from the right side looked awkward and off-balanced a lot of the time. Bell likes to keep an open stance, and the Pirates wanted him getting on his backside sooner. This created a two-part swing that was often very top-heavy, since Bell didn’t do much to incorporate his lower half into his swing, relying on his outstanding hands a bit too much.

All throughout last season, Bell worked on adding a leg kick to his swing, incorporating the lower half in order to try and tap into his power. It was something he had in high school, and in his early days in the organization. The Pirates brought a variation of that back, and adjusted it throughout the year, leading to some big changes at the end of the season.

“I just had a little bit more comfortability, and a little bit more confidence with that lower velo in high school,” Bell said. “This year it just got to a point where I trusted my hands enough to work on some lower body stuff, and it worked out at the end of the year, and I hope I can repeat that at the start of the season.”

At the end of the season, Bell was promoted to Indianapolis. There, he worked with hitting coach Butch Wynegar on tweaking the leg kick, making it smaller. Ryan Palencer broke this change down last August, and Bell started seeing results almost immediately, hitting for a .347/.441/.504 line in 145 plate appearances at the new level.

“My workdays down in Triple-A were pretty amazing with Butch. He was preparing me for the game. I felt like it really slowed the game down for me. It allowed me to really execute my plan on a daily basis,” Bell said of the late-season adjustments. “Working this off-season, I know I can get there again, and I know as I get stronger, and as I trust my leg kick a little bit more, I’m going to be able to do a little bit more damage here and there. As long as I can keep my average up, I’m going to be a happy camper.”

Pirates’ Minor League Hitting Coordinator Larry Sutton said that the adjustment at the end of the season was part of a season-long plan to add the leg kick to Bell’s game.

“We wanted to get him in a consistent, strong hitting position that is going to enhance all the tools that he does bring to the table,” Sutton said. “Introducing him to the leg kick helps his separation. It helps get him in that consistently strong hitting position. He started with it with kind of a bigger leg kick, and that was fine, because we just wanted to introduce what the separation felt like for him. And he took to that pretty quick. And once you’ve got a bunch of at-bats underneath him, then the plan was to start simplifying that, so that we can quiet the movements down.”

The results looked good on the stat sheet, although he still struggled from the right side. That said, the swing from both sides looks a lot smoother, with the swing from the right side showing big improvements.

Here is a look at Bell’s current swing from the left-side:

Bell left side 2016

That’s a smooth, easy swing with effortless power. His swing from the left side always had that effortless power, but looking at this swing from before the 2015 season, you can see he’s really gone a long way to incorporating his lower half, which also makes him more stable:

Bell left side 2015

It’s the same thing with the swing from before the 2014 season, where it’s almost all upper half doing the work, making it harder to actually generate that power, despite the smooth swing. Notice that Bell also keeps his back elbow much higher in 2014 and 2015 (something opposing scouts were pointing out to us as an issue as early as 2013), but drops it a bit in the 2016 clip:

Bell left side 2014

One of the issues with the all-upper half swing was that Bell had such good hands that he could make contact with anything, but this often led to some awkward and off-balanced swings like the one below (and this was more frequent from the right side than the left, especially with pitches on the outer half of the plate):

Bell left side 2014 bad swing

Now we go to the right side, where things are looking really good at present day:

Bell right side 2016

That’s almost identical to the swing from the left side at this point, and in watching Bell so far this year, the power is coming a lot easier from the right side. Here is a video from a different angle, pre-2015:

Bell right side 2015

That was one of his better swings of that session. It’s still top-heavy. You can see how he starts with his stance wide open, then quickly brings his foot forward to get his weight on his backside. From there, the lower half hardly moves, and his weight is falling away from the ball. That’s much different from the current swing, where he still starts open, but everything is fluid in his transition to his backside, and with the leg kick. It’s all one motion, and it’s smooth. You can also notice that, just like from the left side, the elbow has dropped a bit.

Sutton mentioned a few theories on why the right side has taken longer to show results, even though both sides have improved.

“It could be a combination of a lot of things,” Sutton said. “Number one, first and foremost, he’s going to get more left-handed at-bats than right-handed. We introduced a small adjustment, which was the leg kick to him. Hitting is timing and rhythm. So taking that into a game where you’re seeing 93-95 MPH, if you’re not getting at-bats on that every single day, the comfort level of the rhythm and the timing of it might take a little bit longer. From the right side, it’s taking a little bit longer for the development to get used to it, to be comfortable with it. And then just to go out there and be consistent with it. He did a very good job of that last year.”

Sutton said that they’ve noticed the swing is starting to get more fluid and smoother from the right side. He also pointed out the similarity now between the two swings, noting that while there are subtle differences, they’re both somewhat identical.

“One of the things that he does well is, if you look at his setup and his approach, it almost mirrors each other from both sides,” Bell said. “You can see the subtle differences, but when you ask which hitters if they can mirror both sides that are kind of close, if not almost close — Chipper Jones was a great switch hitter from the left side and the right side. There were subtle differences. From the left side he had a little bit of an uphill swing. Right handed it was more downward. Bernie Williams was another one. They almost mirrored each other where they were good.”

Bell has adjusted his approach this off-season, focusing on just one side per day in practice, rather than going back and forth between the right side and the left side.

“As of late, at least for this off-season, I’ve been doing just one side, focusing on that everyday,” Bell said. “So that’s what I went back to. I felt really good. As long as I can get my keys down by Spring Training, and I’m able to repeat both sides at will, I feel like I’ll be at a pretty good spot once the games start. That’s what I’m going to take into Spring Training, is make sure I can get loose as quickly as possible from both sides of that leg kick, and get my timing down and whatnot.”

So can Bell add power to the right side?

“He’s got power from the left side, but not from the right side,” Sutton said of his current results. “He’s the same hitter from both sides of the plate. There’s a power tool in there. It’s just a matter of him continuing to mature, where he’s consistent with being the same type of hitter and getting those reps, and getting those at-bats from the right side as well as the left side.”

The Pirates also believe that power comes as a player matures, and they’re not ruling out more power with Bell in the future.

“Any type of hitter, as they continue to develop and mature, power numbers are always going to come up higher later in their maturity,” Sutton said. “It can mean five or ten home runs for one guy. It can be 25-30 home runs for another guy, depending on their skill talents. As hitters learn and mature how to hit, and learn pitches, pitch recognition, once they get to the Double-A level, the Triple-A level, and they get some at-bats underneath them, then that’s when the production starts to go back up.”

Bell has the advantage in that he already knows how to hit. Opposing scouts praise his hands and his ability to make contact, with one AL scout telling me last year that he thought Bell was the best pure hitter in all of Minor League Baseball. The average has been pretty steady, but the power progression has been interesting. He showed some power in the lower levels, lost it in Altoona and the Arizona Fall League, and then found it again in Indianapolis. Sutton noted that this can be traced to his hitting progression, and being able to hit more than just fastballs in the lower level.

“In our offensive program, everything is so individually scripted, where we don’t just blanket and cookie cut everybody,” Sutton said. “There’s a progression that prepares him for Pittsburgh. The power numbers, they’re going to come. We’re going to see more doubles. We’re going to see more home runs. Because he already has a strong feel for learning how to hit. And he’s really matured as a hitter. He’s matured real quick from Double-A to Triple-A, where for example, maybe back in West Virginia he had a little more power, but it was pulling fastballs. He’s learned how to hit now. He’s learned how to hit changeups, and off-speed pitches, and hitter’s counts, with power to all fields both from the left side and the right side.”

The adjustment to his leg kick last year was a season-long plan. The Pirates may make further adjustments, but if they do, it will only be to get Bell more comfortable with the leg kick, rather than getting him to a point where they want him to be.

“I think one of the things that we do well is helping the hitter to find his identity. Find his hitting personality, because everybody is different,” Sutton said. “To cookie cut hitters I think is one of the worst things that any organization can do. Helping him find what right looks like, that’s the cool thing about the journey. Starting with a higher leg kick, and gradually maturing that into what is right for him, only he’s going to find out what that is. But we’re right along side him along the way. I think left-handed, he’s if not there, he’s pretty close. From the right side it’s just going to take a couple more at-bats, some more seasoning so to speak, where he finds out ‘This is where I need to be consistent with.'”

Bell will begin the 2016 season in Indianapolis, and Clint Hurdle confirmed that the other day, saying that they’d try to get him some reps at first base in Major League Camp before he went down to the minors. He’s going to need to answer some questions about his game before he can make the jump to the majors. Right now, it seems that most of those questions lie on the defensive side of the game, involving his transition to first base (and I’ll have more details on this side of his game later in the week). The offense looks much improved, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some big numbers from him this year in Triple-A — even from the right side — as he carries over the adjustments he made at the end of last season.

  • For a split second Bell’s left handed stance and load reminds me of Mo Vaughn, with the front leg and foot open and pointed forward. Bell has a slight crouch although not nearly as pronounced as Mo’s. None of this really means anything and that’s where comparison ends, but I think of Bell’s lack of loft in his swing…Vaughn had no issue with that having one of the most pronounced uppercut swings in the history of the game. He had an extremely violent but effective swing too. I think Bell as he gets established will learn to let it rip a little rather than always focusing on contact. I feel like Bobby Bonilla learned this as he went and you would think Bell would too. I will probably get a lot of disagreement but more uppercut can be a state of mind…a mentality of aggression rather than just being happy making decent hard contact.

  • NMR…I change my underwear once a day at least and twice on Sundays.

    And quit pi$$ing Tim off. 🙂

  • So the O’s sign Fowler, which will probably give the Cubs the 14th selection in the draft because the Gallardo deal is hung-up or dead. How lucky can the Cubs get?

    • Joe, I believe you’re incorrect. O’s forfeit their first round pick. Cubs get comp pick in the first round, but forfeit it for the signing of Heyward.

      They don’t pick until the end of the second round.

      So….they don’t ‘get lucky’ at all.

  • The name that pops into my head when I read about Bell’s hitting tendencies is Dave Parker. For a guy as ungodly strong as he was, Parker never his as many homers as you’d expect simply because his natural slashing stroke had very little loft. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have power. In his prime, he was crushing line drives to every corner of the park for extra-base hits.

    I’m not saying Bell hits like Parker or will have that kind of a career. I’m just saying I wouldn’t necessarily screw around with a good thing. If he hits the ball hard consistently, he’s big and strong enough to hit 27-30 homers by accident with a decent average when he fills out completely. I could definitely live with that.

  • I really like the physical tools. Read and saw a few people remarking on his changed physique from his A ball days.

    Definitely buy what NMR is selling on the loft, but I think a ML swing takes time to develop consistently when said player arrives.

    He just looks like he will be a good offensive player from what little I know.

    • What makes him so incredible, IMO, is that there’s nothing about his swing you’d dare teach a Little Leaguer.

      Whereas Austin Meadows has the prettiest stroke you’ll find in the minors, Bell is just an absolute physical animal with insane hand-eye coordination that simply cannot be taught.

      I’ve read plenty of scouts knock his athleticism, but any guy who can control his body the way he does and consistently make swing changes is the definition of baseball athletic to me. Not fast, not quick, but athletic.

      • Speed doesn’t really factor into a home run trot. I really don’t care much how many SB a 1Bman has. If he can reach 2B on a shot to a gap that’s fast enough for me.

    • Loft has to do with tilt on the swing rather than a more level path and then incorporating your core and bottom half torque to generate power.

  • Great write-up, especially all the gifs with the explanation of what to look for.

  • Hope springs eternal. I’m keeping the optimism that Bell will tap into that power. Even if he doesn’t, I have hopes that he’ll be an above average regular. I liked that Adrian Gonzalez comp.

  • Hope he does not end up like Jose Batista. I read a short article that J.B. [while in Toronto] claimed the Pirates wanted him to hit to all fields and it was a failure and he was traded to Toronto and was allowed to pull the ball. I know how that story ended.

    • Far more went into Bautista’s changes than purely just telling him “pull the ball more.”

      Hell, Bautista himself said he really likely wouldnt have made the changes he did had he not fizzled in PGH and had most of the league pass over him. Great to see a guy turn his career around though.

      • Regardless, the changes were prescribed and made in Toronto.

        • For sure. Merely stating the fact that Bautista has never said PGH was the reason why he failed. Good on him and Toronto for finding each other at the right time in his career.

          He’s a really fascinating case in that even a few key TOR people didnt assume the end result when they made that trade. Ricciardi was even quoted as saying he doesnt have 40 home run type stuff. Bautista embraced some key changes in his swing.

          • The fact is Bautista was highly critical of how the Pirates handled him. He was a great athlete on a bad team whose manager said he could play eight positions. He was benched and then given away to make room for one of Neil’s early mistakes. The potential for greatness was always there. The Bucs made a mistake, obviously, in how he was handled and whatever swing they tried to force on him.

            • Philly cut him and Toronto was t-h-i-s close to releasing him.

            • Bautista was critical of the Pirates issues with over emphasizing results. We all know that was dead on and a big reason why DL was a moron. He wasnt, however, critical in all areas nor has he ever said PGH was the reason he took as long as he did to fix his swing.

              It took Bautista about 5 teams and many years to finally be at a point where a team overhauling his swing worked. It was, in a great way, a perfect match of timing and coaching. He added the keg kick and began starting his swing earlier, and that took him a year to translate into an explosion.

              I dont claim PGH handled him well, they didnt handle many guys well in that era, but the narrative the Bautista hated PGH and blames them for him not breaking out earlier isnt true. The Bucs made mistakes, and so did Bautista.

  • The key for Josh Bell turning raw power into game power is Batted Ball distribution.

    Jason Heyward has never realized his raw power potential is because he hits so few balls in the air, and the exact same thing can be said of Bell. Doesn’t matter how hard you hit the thing if it’s on the ground.

    I *want* to believe this latest round of changes for Bell will do the trick, but the bat still launches at a high angle and there is almost no evidence that the leg kick actually changed the distribution of his contact. 28% fly balls before, 29% after.

    Pains me to say it, but I’d have far, faaaar more confidence if Bell had instructors like the ones who helped Stephen Piscotty. Between 2014 and 2015, Piscotty went from hitting 24% fly balls and a .118 ISO to 35% fly balls and a .203 ISO at the AAA level.

    • Good stuff

    • Damn NMR, that is sobering stuff. Pretty amazing transformation with Piscotty.

      • Piscotty’s power *did* come with a 6% increase in strikeouts, but for high contact power hitters that’s a tradeoff you’ll take any day.

    • What? the guy who took credit for making Josh Hamilton an MVP candidate in 2010 is not good enough to make Bell an All Star first baseman?

    • The Pirates do employ as a major league hitting coach the man Brandon Moss credits with making Moss a MLB hitter, going from a 35.7% fly ball rate in first stint in the league to 48.6% from 2012 on.

      • You’re better than an argument this flimsy.

        • Is it really that different than the Piscotty anecdote?

          • Yes, because the Piscotty anecdote was proceeded by actual data on the player in question, Josh Bell.

            Piscotty was broken of the Stanford Swing not by adding a leg kick, but by adding loft.

            • I agree the idea that you need to hit the ball in the air to a successful power hitter, I don’t think you can disagree with that. But an n = 1, is a n = 1.

              • Fair enough, you’re right.

                • I can’t argue about the concern around Bell, if nothing else he is amendable to change, I remember reading a quote from Travis Snider that he was attached to swing when he first came up, and failure to adapt lead to him being sent down (not that is a comforting comparison.)

                  Maybe with more reps we see a change in batted ball distribution, because a gap double hitting 1B, who pitchers don’t fear enough to walk, would be a underwhelming fate.

                  • Extremely well said, couldn’t agree more.

                    I’m certainly no swing expert, just love learning about them from others. Have you heard of anyone take this approach, focus on lower half and not swing path for elevating contact?

                    I keep thinking there’s something here that isn’t straight forward, because the org had no hesitation lowering Meadows’ and McGuire’s hands and getting them into a position to elevate easier. Bell has changed just about everything in his swing over the years, but the hand path from top of load through contact looks to my untrained eye to be only slightly different.

                    Doesn’t mean he can’t still be a fine hitter, but he lacks that ability to adjust to the plane of the pitch that power hitters like Goldschmidt do so well.

                    • I understand the swing stuff when I’m reading, not great at applying it myself. Need slow motion stuff from the side. The one thing I remember with hands, is the throw right bat left (or switch hit) guys have to be looked at different than same side hitters, because for Bell and McGuire the top hand his the weaker hand.

                      Not a very helpful comment.

                    • Right there with you. Thanks for that top hand note, new to me.

                    • While it’s not really a coaching thing, McCutchen’s slump last year was almost entirely driven by his lower-half. Lower-half is a massive deal, and it’s a foundation of virtually all hitting instruction at every level. While, yes, you do need to hit the ball in the air to get home runs, the lower half is where almost all batted ball authority comes from. It makes the fly balls he does hit more likely to leave the yard, which gains could be applied to any additional fly balls he might hit from other adjustments as well. Bell’s a big, strong kid, they just want to take full advantage of that.

                      Even so, Bell’s hands are starting lower this year than they did last year. At load, they were on top of his shoulder last year, and now they’re down by the armpit. Meadows and McGuire were setting theirs just above their wastes, but they also had lower loads before the adjustment than Bell’s. While Bell does have a ground ball tendency, he’s not hitting so few fly balls that a giant adjustment should be necessary to add more loft. If dropping his hands two inches at load even drops his bat by a couple millimeters at contact, it would be a pretty big change in batted ball profile.

                      The question now, as I see it, is whether or not he brings this swing into game situations.

          • The key difference is we know who Moss credits.

            In Piscotty’s case, he actually had a .185 ISO in 2013. He also had a 25% fly ball rate, which was close to 2014’s totals, despite more power. So it looks like there was something wrong in 2014, rather than some massive coaching work in 2015. And there might have been some coaching to get him to rebound from 2014, but it’s not like he suddenly hit for power for the first time.

        • If his argument is flimsy, your criticism is as thin as paper.

    • Josh Bell’s fly ball percentage before arriving at Indy: 27.95%
      vs RH (as a lefty): 27.75%
      vs LH (as a righty): 28.42%

      What it seems like you’re getting at is that fly balls equal power. That probably comes from the fact that most MLB hitters are around 10% HR/FB. But that’s not always the case in the minors.

      Bell hit zero home runs from the right side, despite a slightly higher fly ball percentage than his work from the left side. He hit five homers from the left side, for a 7.9% HR/FB rate.

      Josh Bell’s fly ball percentage after arriving at Indy: 28.70%
      vs RH (as a lefty): 23.38%
      vs LH (as a righty): 41.94%

      Small sample sizes here (18 fly balls as a lefty, and 13 as a righty), but Bell once again hit zero homers from the right side, despite the massive increase in fly balls. He hit two from the left side for an 11.1% HR/FB ratio. So the frequency of HR/FB went up from the left side. And as I noted in the article, he hadn’t shown improvements from the right side yet.

      Then there’s the other aspect of power — the extra base hits. Bell had a 15.53% line drive rate before going up to Indianapolis. 14.98% from the left side and 16.84% from the right side.

      After moving up, he had an 18.52% LD rate. That broke down as 20.78% from the left side, and 12.90% from the right side. Once again, the left side improved, and the right side didn’t adjust as quickly to the changes.

      I’m also using August 1st as the start date for the after here, and there’s a flaw with this. Bell made the key adjustment in Triple-A. Using August 1st assumes he had the conversation with Wynegar on day one, made the adjustment, and got comfortable with it before his first game.

      Just using the 15th as a nice round number, his overall fly ball rate goes up to 31.82% and the line drive rate goes up to 22.73%. From the left side it’s 28%/24% and from the right side it’s 31.25%/18.75%. One point about the right side, even though he showed improvements, we’re talking about five fly balls and three line drives. A lot of small sample sizes here, but this one might be too small. But the left side continued showing improvements, putting up some strong numbers as he implemented the changes.

      Overall, you’re trying to draw a correlation between fly ball percentage and power, but it doesn’t exist when players are still developing. Bell’s ISO went from .120 in Altoona (and .021 in his brief time the year before, plus .095 in the AFL) to .157 after just a month of his key adjustment.

      • Haha, OK Tim.

        • Figured there would be nothing to say.

          • “Overall, you’re trying to draw a correlation between fly ball percentage and power, but it doesn’t exist when players are still developing.”

            This is just silliness. What does that even mean? Have a single link to back that up?

          • Fact is there is an incredibly strong correlation between fly ball rate and ISO. This is basic stuff.

            • You pointed out Bell’s fly ball percentage was about the same, but his ISO went way up in Indy.

              Piscotty had a 25% FB% in 2013 with a .185 ISO. 24% in 2014 and the ISO went way down to .118. 35% and .203 in 2015. Not much of a correlation there.

              Any theories here?

              • Sample size! Goodness…

                • From the person who started all of this by comparing four months of Josh Bell to one month of Josh Bell…

                  Have a good night. I’m going back to writing my last two articles of the evening.

                  • Enjoy!

                    Just understand that there are no shortage of scouts and evaluators who’ve said the same thing about Bell’s swing, and you simply cannot argue the correlation between ISO and fly ball rate at the Major League level.

                    I could care less if it happens with a leg kick or otherwise, but it has to happen for sustainable success.

                    • To be clear, I wasn’t talking about the MLB level. I was talking about players in the minors who are still developing their game. So many factors at work, from development, to maturing frames, to extreme park and league factors. You can see one guy hitting weak fly balls one year, and the next he’s suddenly hitting for power because at least one of those factors above changed.

                  • By the way, fantastic article.

                    I read for work like this, not Dan Fox-like statistical analysis or Dan Farnsworth-like frame-by-frame swing breakdowns. Please don’t confuse my difference of opinion with my admiration of your work here.

                    • Thanks! I didn’t take it that way.

                    • “Yay the semi-annual Josh-Bell-Swing-Change article!”

                      you started this

                      i can’t imagine that you have any friends in real life

                    • At least I’m not a sensitive p*ssy.

                      Josh Bell *does* constantly change his swing, and Pirates Prospects is the only outlet who has been there at every turn documenting his progression.

                      How in the hell is this not a compliment?

                    • Right, *you’re* not a sensitive p*ssy. Lol. You have absolutely no self awareness.

                    • your comments are completely sarcastic not complimentative
                      you’re a big know-it-all that comes across as arrogant and a message board bully

                      you are the type of person that normal people avoid in real life

    • Are you just using a different comment name here than the one you use on Viva el Birdos ?

    • His hands are visibly lower at the start of his swing this year. That should create more loft to his swing and up that fly ball rate, and with his strength and the increased connectedness of his swing, he should also be able to hit for above average HR/FB%. I think there’s good reason to expect an uptick in power this year between these two things and the much improved swing from the right side (which, even if it doesn’t lead to HR power should add doubles).

      • I’m certainly not a swing expert, and there *is* a minor difference from one video to the next, but to my eye this is still a LD/GB swing path, especially when compared to the clips in the link I posted below.

        I think it’ll also be interesting to see how that power plays in PNC. Bell has a somewhat unique tendency to drive the ball to the opposite power alley, which just so happens to be 410′ or so in the ballpark he’ll play half his games. Big man triples!

  • As usual, great analysis & article Tim. Really enjoy seeing the year by year differences in the gifs. Stuff like that is only available on Pirates Prospects & due to your hard work

  • Yay the semi-annual Josh-Bell-Swing-Change article!

    Can’t wait for the mid-season update to see what he changes next. 😉

  • Hopefully, he was on the Barry Bonds off-season steroid… I mean workout program.

  • Those swings are like the difference between night and day. I don’t remember him having that much tilt in his left hand swing, and his right hand swing looks so much better than I remember it from his time in Altoona. As much as I saw of him, those current videos are very, very encouraging, though he always showed the remarkable hand/eye co-ordination. Excellent , excellent !

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