BRADENTON, Fla. – If you saw my videos of Josh Bell hitting and fielding the other day, you might have thought he looks a bit slimmer this year. You wouldn’t be wrong. Bell is currently around the 230 mark, which is a big change from a year ago when he came into Spring Training just shy of 250 pounds. His plan this year is to try and stay in the 220-230 range during the season.
There are a few factors that led to this change, and the weight range. Bell had conversations with coaches about his weight, especially after gaining a lot prior to the 2016 season. That weight gain was intentional, as Bell was focused on adding power by adding strength.
“We want guys to gain strength naturally, and to add to their frame in the right way,” Neal Huntington said. “In Josh’s case, he felt like he probably put on too much. Working off his words, that he wanted to lean out a little bit. The ability to hit the ball really hard and really far still exists. For him to be a little bit more athletic, whether it’s in the outfield or first base, is certainly not a bad thing for him. In the batter’s box, we want him to focus on being a really good hitter that is going to hit home runs. We want to continue to work with him defensively at first base, to work with him becoming as good as he can be there.”
Bell noticed during the 2016 season that when he leaned down, he was actually finding it easier to hit for power, and that led to a change in his approach.
“I came into last Spring Training maybe at 248, so I bulked up and thought that strength and overall muscle mass would equate to power,” Bell said. “It just didn’t. When I got down to 235 during the season, like early June and going into July was when I felt the best, body-wise, and that’s when I had the best power production. If I can keep it around there, that’s probably what’s going to be best for me.”
Bell also had a discussion with Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto about his weight. After Bell told Votto he was thinking about losing weight, Votto mentioned that he got up to 245 pounds, but is down to 220 now and feels great, while also noting how it’s easier to hit for power at the lower weight. Bell has also been doing yoga to increase flexibility, which seems to be a growing trend, as fellow top prospect Austin Meadows is doing the same.
“With the yoga that I’ve been doing, I feel like it’s just overall body control,” Bell said. “I have a better feel for the overall weight that I’m moving around. When it comes to defense and getting to balls, I feel like I’m one step ahead of where I was last year. When it comes to hitting, too, I’ve mostly been doing machine work in the cage. Come Spring Training when I see some live arms, we’ll see if it correlates.”
I think there’s more to Bell’s offense than we’ve seen so far. His swing looks to be in the best place it has been from both sides during his professional career, showing good improvements over the last few years. In previous years, Bell would make small adjustments to tweak the swing. After seeing a good year at the plate last year, he’s gotten a bit more comfortable with the swing, and isn’t making as many adjustments.
“I feel like I’m where I need to be going into Spring Training,” Bell said of his swing. “In years past, I’ve always searched for more in the offseason. This offseason, I had such a good year last year, I can work to take strides forward, and not necessarily look for a drastic change. Just working with the swing I had last year, trying to get a little more narrow. I got, in my opinion and the coaches’ opinions, a little too wide to be able to extend and get my barrel out in front for fastballs inside.”
The offense should continue to improve as Bell adjusts to the majors. The big question is whether the defense will improve, how much it will improve, and whether it can improve enough to not be a liability. The slimmer frame should help him in this regard, although we won’t know the extent of it until we see him in games.
“I feel really good,” Bell said. “I’m excited to throw and work on my footwork with the throw. I feel like, for the most part, the fielding wasn’t my problem last year. It was getting the ball out, and getting that four seam grip, and firing the ball as quickly as possible. So I’ve been working on my footwork, and fielding the ball at a position that I can get my momentum going towards second base, and getting a good backspun ball over to second base, and getting back to first base.”
Bell said he plans on showing up to Spring Training early to work on his throwing and defense. I wouldn’t project him for massive improvements, or for anything notable right now. Part of that is because he still has a long way to go defensively, and projecting him to provide positive value at the position right away seems unrealistic. The other part of this is that the move from the outfield to first base is very difficult, and it will take Bell a long time to make those strides, if he ever does it at all.
“The work is never going to be an issue with Josh,” Huntington said on the defense. “He is going to work. It is hard to move from very far away from the baseball to very close to the baseball, and to do it at the highest level. He’s working on doing that. It’s one thing to move across the diamond, or even out from behind home plate. … It is a tougher move than most people probably give it credit for, to come from only playing the outfield to the infield. We are seeing him gain more comfort. We’re seeing him gain ability to react to the speed of the game, and an ability to be in the right spot at the right time, and to make the right plays, and to make the right decisions. We look forward to him continuing to grow.”
Bell equates it to hitting, where the more you practice it, the easier it gets.
“Very similar to hitting, you start doing it more and more. You start trusting your motions. You start trusting your mechanics. And you start making minor tweaks,” Bell said. “The overall body control, the overall physiological part of the game at first base, I’m starting to understand more. Just talking to Joey Cora and getting some work in with [Kevin Young] and Joey and [Euclides Rojas] in Miami has allowed me to take a step back and see myself [on video] outside of my body.”
Bell said he feels he’s taking strides in the right direction, and is excited about the year coming up. Time will tell how much he can improve with his defense. I think it’s a pretty safe bet that he’ll improve offensively, since we haven’t come close to seeing the best of his game. I think the defense will be a bigger question mark. But slimming down and becoming more flexible certainly doesn’t hurt his chances of improving.