INDIANAPOLIS – The numbers for Josh Bell have been impressive this year. The accolades are following as well.
For the month of April, Bell boasted a .312 average and a .931 OPS. This earned him the Pirates Prospects Player of the Month honors. Hitting for the cycle and having six extra base hits in a week also earned him International League Batter of the Week honors last month.
However, Indianapolis hitting coach Butch Wynegar said something recently that is scary for Triple-A pitching: Bell is still not even to the level where he has fully gotten hot at the plate.
“I told [Bell] in the cage the other day, that he is still hovering around .300 and he still hasn’t gotten completely hot yet,” Wynegar said. “I meant that and it is what excites me. When he gets hot, it is going to be fun to watch.”
Some of what Wynegar means is that Bell has not completely gotten into his groove at the plate and shown consistent power yet. There is a lot of adjustments and moving parts when it comes to Bell and Wynegar thinks that a key will be getting him into one consistent place.
“[Bell] got in a little spell early in the year,” Wynegar said. “He is a guy who is so good, that he doesn’t always stick to what works well. If he doesn’t think that it is working, he will change and do something else. We are trying to teach him that it is tough enough to hit with one swing, but he is good enough that he can change things mid-game, and still use his hands and everything to get a hit. That is just not the approach that we want to see him use in the big leagues.”
Bell is pleased with his success so far and attributes a lot of it to just trying to compete and drive the ball when he gets his pitch. He is also fully aware that he alters his swing at times, even from at-bat to at-bat. He said that he has been working hard with Wynegar in the cage to develop a swing that has him comfortable and in the best hitting position possible.
“It is always an evolving process with me,” Bell said. “Right now, I feel comfortable with just a drift and a stride. I am trying to get planted in the front side, so my back side can work through the ball. If I can do that, I feel like I am more dangerous as a hitter than hanging up, kind of drifting, and trying to see the ball first. If I can solidify that and work on it, I see good things for me in the future.”
When minor league hitting coordinator Larry Sutton was in Indianapolis last home stand, Wynegar discussed some items about Bell’s swing with him and some alterations were made. He also promised Sutton when he left that they would get Bell into a consistent, comfortable position.
“I have a good feel for Josh and what works for him,” Wynegar said. “I want to get him in one spot and I will pound it until he stays there. To his credit, he has done that. With two strikes, if he wants to cut down, that’s fine. If he doesn’t feel good and wants to spread out with his feet, that’s fine. That is just being a good hitter and making adjustments on how you feel.”
Wynegar said that issue is never with Bell listening and paying attention. Rather, he said that it is about a desire to succeed.
The base and the hand structure is where it was at the end of last season, Wynegar said. He also said that they are looking to stay aggressive and hammer the fastball when it comes. However, the change has come with the large leg kick that Bell picked up toward the end of last season.
“He has actually gone to more of a tap step right-handed,” Wynegar said. “That is just something he started doing one day and he said it feels good and his timing feels a lot better. He doesn’t have to have the same swing right-handed and left-handed. I have seen switch-hitters who have two different swings. He has been really good with it and his timing is better.”
He has also tremendously cut down on the leg kick from the left side, but has not completely disbanded it.
“[As a] lefty, he has cut down his leg kick a little bit,” Wynegar said. “It is not near as high as what you saw last year, which I am glad. I think that a little leg kick works for him left-handed, but he just has to control it. Once it gets so high, it is just so far to bring it back down and his timing is disrupted. Once he kicks, I just want him maintaining that backside.”
They have even gone as far to be working on drills to simply get his knee up and put it right back down as a dry run just to get the feel. This is because Wynegar doesn’t want him to get too wide with the kick to throw off that balance. From that point on, he just wants Bell to use his rotation and hands. He also said that the spike in power is inevitable with the skill set that Bell possesses once his body is in a consistent place.
Bell has started showcasing some of that power this season. The switch-hitting Bell has an .840 OPS in his first 103 at-bats (120 plate appearances) through Monday. A lot of the visible damage has been done on the left side of the plate, where Bell has seven extra-base hits, including three home runs.
Though Bell has much more power from the left side of the plate, he admitted that his swing always feels much more natural from the right side. He is also showing early improvement on that side as well with a .788 OPS, but much of that is due to the .421 OBP from that side.
“I feel for the most part, I have always been a more comfortable hitter from the right side,” Bell said. “There is less of a thinking process, and maybe I see lefties just a tad bit better. I feel like the swing path is always going to be the cleanest from the right side. I am always confident that I have it in my back pocket. When I see a lefty out there, I know that I am going to have a chance to compete.”
He knows that he has more power potential from the left side, and he will see most of his at-bats from that. This is why Bell said he is able to put more work on refining that side of the plate in the cage and in batting practice.
As for defense, his potential snag from advancing to the next level, Bell has seen progression and feels much more comfortable over at first base then he did a year ago. At times, Bell has gotten a little to aggressive going to his right away from the bag for ground balls, and he has committed a handful of errors, both fielding and throwing, but the higher comfort level is clear as well.
“I feel good and I feel like I just need to get more reps,” Bell said. “I think that is every player at every position. I just continue to try to grow every day. The throwing feels a lot more comfortable. It is just the pre-pitch of going through what could happen and where I should be is almost second nature to me now. It allows me to let out a little bit of a sigh of relief, rather than being in panic mode when I am on defense. As long as I can continue to grow and continue to be in the right place at the right time, and be prepared for balls to be hit toward me, then I will be in a good spot.”
Wynegar’s point about Bell’s offensive potential being untapped makes sense. Bell has only eight multi-hit games in 27 contests, and nine games where he was held hitless. There have been a lot of solidly struck singles as well. Bell still has some room to get better at the plate, which is the terrifying aspect for opposing pitchers and what has the Pirates organization salivating. And with John Jaso’s success in the majors, there is time to develop the defense and the consistent swing to get him to that point.