INDIANAPOLIS – Last week, Josh Bell got some extra work in at first base before the Indianapolis Indians game on Friday. The Pirates’ Minor League Infield Coordinator Gary Green was in town, and went out to work with Bell about an hour before early batting practice began. They were joined by Indianapolis Manager Dean Treanor.
“It was a real good session,” Treanor said on Friday. “Anytime you have Greenie in here, you’ve got to take advantage of him being in here. We’ve talked about Bell, and we did a couple of things today that he took to right away. He likes them. It’s just him trying to get better everyday. This is a guy that works his ass off about getting better. Anytime you go ‘hey, we’re going to go out a bit early’ he’s all about it. He has grown. I think he has more of a feel for playing first base, situational and so on. The more he’s out there, the better he’s going to be.”
One thing I noticed watching Bell last week on defense was how much has changed in a year. Around this time last year, Bell looked like a beer league softball player, which isn’t the nicest thing to say about a guy, but the best way I can put it to describe his footwork around the bag. He would stand on the corner of the bag crouched down, and wouldn’t always stretch out to receive throws. That improved by the end of the year, and has shown a lot of improvements from last year to this year. But that’s still a focus, and something Green and Treanor were working on.
“He’s starting to get a feel for when to do it now,” Green said on stretching out. “If you get out there too soon, before the ball is thrown, and all of a sudden the guy throws it where you don’t think it’s going to be, you can’t move. Once the foot is out there, it’s there, and now you limit your range.”
Bell acknowledged the improvements, noting that he’s a lot more comfortable this year than last year with his footwork.
“That’s one thing I feel really, really comfortable with, is footwork around the bag,” Bell said. “Kevin Young laid that foundation for me, and that’s probably the most important thing of being a first baseman is knowing how to receive balls, knowing how to utilize my body and my length to help the defenders out there. If I can stay low, stay back as long as I can, and dig balls out that need picking, then my teammates are going to be happy.”
Around the start of the season, I talked with John Jaso about the move to first base, and Jaso said that he was getting to the point where he was comfortable around the bag and with the fundamentals of the position, and just needed the in-game experience to teach him what to do in different scenarios. I asked Bell if he was in the same spot now
“It’s definitely different, coming off the bag when you know a ball is about to be hit at you, [versus] seeing a big donkey lefty and a ball scorched down the line,” Bell said. “It’s the in-game reps that allow you to continue to shake those cobwebs off, and continue to refine and polish your game. There’s only so much work that you can get done in a work day, but the game is the real test, and the best place for you to look for fine tuning and allowing yourself to grow from the feedback from the results.”
Green also mentioned that the games are the biggest thing for Bell right now, getting him experience and allowing him to improve his game in ways that he can’t do during practice.
“I think he’s come a long way in the fundamentals,” Green said. “There’s always going to be things that he can’t cover that are going to happen in a game. That’s why the games are important, to play as many games as he can over there. For the most part, when you talk to him, he’s got a good feel for where he has to be in team fundamentals, bunt plays, cutoffs, relays, and rundowns. He’s getting a much better feel for that.”
As seen in the video above, they also worked on the pivot and throw to second on a double play ball. That paid off immediately, as Bell was faced with that play later in the evening, and turned a successful 3-6-3 double play, making a strong and accurate throw to second, and then taking control of the bag at first with the second baseman and pitcher moving in on either side of him.
There is still some work to do defensively, and I’m not sure that Bell is ever going to be a Gold Glove first baseman. But he’s now to a point where he could play in the majors, although not with the best results. This isn’t actually needed due to how well Jaso has been performing this year. This will allow Bell to improve even more in Triple-A while he waits to eventually take over as the starter in Pittsburgh.
“He’s really made some nice strides over the year,” Green said. “It’s been fun watching him. And he works at it. He cares. He wants to be good. So he puts the time he needs to put in there. He’s an easy guy to work with. He’s an easy student.”
More Swing Adjustments
It wouldn’t be a Josh Bell article if I didn’t dive into his latest swing adjustments. Bell is always making slight changes to his swing, keeping the same basic concept of a wide open approach and the leg kick he added last year, but making other adjustments to get more comfortable with the overall approach. Last week I saw him use two different swings on two different days from the left side. At the start of the week, he was in a deeper crouch, with a wide open stance, and a toe tap. Later in the week, he was back to standing upright, still having the smaller leg kick. The latter was the swing that started leading to so much success once he reached Triple-A.
“It’s all about timing,” Bell said, while noting that the changes were to get his timing back after slumping prior to the series. “It’s all about feel in the box. It’s about having that confidence to hit 95. If I can put myself in a place where I can barrel up baseballs, I’m going to try to stay there as best as I can.”
I talked about Bell’s adjustments and the two different swings with Treanor, and while I was asking the question, the Indianapolis manager came up with what might be the best nickname for Bell.
“You mean like Tinker Bell?” Treanor joked.
That’s probably not something that Bell wants to stick, but the constant adjustments are real. Last month, Neal Huntington told me that the Pirates wanted Bell to get to a more consistent swing. Bell, himself, said that he tends to fine tune a bit too much.
“I’ve always been one to kind of fine tune, and always try to reach a little bit something more,” Bell said. “In recent years, I’ve been trying to ramp that down a little bit, and that’s when I find something that works and I stick with it.”
Along with the work he received at first base, Bell received a lot of work from the right side of the plate last week, working with Indianapolis Hitting Coach Butch Wynegar and Pirates Minor League Hitting Coordinator Larry Sutton. The work came after a few successful days from the right side, in which Bell saw a lot of left-handed pitchers and put up success.
“I’m seeing a lot more lefty starters, more lefties in the pen,” Bell said. “Getting up to this level, you start to see managers create that matchup for me. If I’ve got a couple of hits on the left side, they’ll switch me around and see if I can do it right-handed.”
That is true, as Bell has seen 65 plate appearances against lefties already this year, after seeing 157 all of last year. He’s seen 37% of his plate appearances against lefties this year, versus 27% last year. And the results have followed, with an .892 OPS against lefties, compared to a .632 OPS last year. This includes a home run and a double that he hit Friday night, following the work with Wynegar and Sutton.
In the past, Bell hasn’t had the best swing from the right side. He would start off in an open stance, then close up and shift to his backside in a big movement, while relying on his hands too much. This led to an awkward looking swing, and some bad results. He looks a lot better this year, with his right-handed swing matching his left-handed swing. In fact, there were times last week where his right-handed swing looked better than his left-handed swing, with the latter looking off (thus leading to the adjustments). The encouraging thing here is that the right-handed swing is not only producing results, but also starting to produce some power numbers.
“I think I mentioned to you in the past, I really like my bat path righty,” Bell told me last week. “I feel like I stay in the zone a tad bit longer than I do left-handed. As long as I can keep myself there and keep a long swing through the zone and continue to barrel up the baseball, I’ll be in a good spot.”
Between the defensive improvements, and the results starting to come from both sides on offense, it’s looking like Josh Bell is starting to reach his potential. He’s looking like a guy who can handle first base, while having the hitting skills from both sides to be an everyday player, and a future impact hitter. I don’t think he’s ready right now, but there is no need for Bell to be up right now, due to the success John Jaso is having. It will be interesting to see whether they bring Bell up later in the year as a bat off the bench, and a guy who can take a start or two each week. Until then, he’ll get more time to work on improving his defense, fine tuning his swing, and getting ready for the point where he is the first baseman of the future.