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