PITTSBURGH — It’s easy to look at Josh Bell and think he’s a prototypical power hitter. He has a big, 230-pound frame. He’s a switch hitter with a classic power profile from the left side. He plays first base — a premium offensive position.
In his short major-league career, when he gets ahold of the Ball, he’s done some eye-popping things, flipping 400-foot home runs out of PNC Park with ease. He clearly looks the part. But sometimes, looks can be deceiving.
So far, the all-power caricature of Bell was just that. His moonshots, while stunning, were few and far between, with just three in 152 plate appearances last year. His ISO was .133 — hardly he mark of a premier power bat.
His minor-league numbers don’t reveal prodigious power, either. Before 2016, his biggest home run year was 2013 in Single-A, when he hit 13. That’s a nice line, but not something to hang one’s hat on.
But he started a power surge at Triple-A in 2016, hitting 14 with Indianapolis before he was recalled to Pittsburgh for good. That didn’t carry over to the big-league level last year, but it’s come around in a big way this season.
Bell hit a 398-foot home run to help the Pirates to a 6-1 win over the Washington Nationals at PNC Park Wednesday. It was his eighth of the season and incredibly, the shortest of the eight. His ISO has risen to .254. That’s not Aaron Judge or Freddie Freeman territory, but it’s the best on the Pirates and just shy of the 30th in the league. That’s legit power.
“It’s usually the last thing to come,” said manager Clint Hurdle. “That’s just the way it works, but nobody wants to see it work that way. Everybody wants something now. You let Josh Bell play. You let him get his at-bats. You let him get his reps at first. He’s going to figure it out.”
One thing that Bell has figured out is that he doesn’t have to try to kill the ball to hit the kind of impressive home runs he’s hit.
“I feel like right now, I’m simplifying things,” he said. “Before, I was trying to force the issue. Right now, I’m seeing a lot of pitches. I’m getting better timing for them and attacking at the right times, too. It really doesn’t take much to get the ball out of the ballpark for me. I don’t have to swing as hard as I can. It’s just putting a decent swing on it. So, if I can just stay through the baseball, I’ll make plays.”
Bell also feels like he’s doing a better job of winning the cat-and-mouse game between him and opposing starting pitchers. Against the Nationals Wednesday, he came up with two men on and two outs in the first inning and struck out looking on a two-seam fastball by Jacob Turner with an unusual amount of spin on it.
“I was definitely upset because I knew that was one of his out pitches, that fastball in that starts at your kneecap and breaks back virtually in the middle,” Bell said. “It’s a great pitch.”
Bell saw it again in his second at-bat, but grounded it to the second baseman. The third time, though, he was all over it.
“It was a two-seamer in,” Bell said. “I got it the first two at-bats. I made that adjustment. I knew he was coming to it. I just got the bat head out and stayed through it.”
There’s more than making the adjustment to the pitch, as well. As a young hitter, it would have been easy to let that first at-bat stick with him, and that’s something that Bell has done.
“You’re consumed by failure sometimes because you get out so much,” he said. “They way we’ve been playing lately, if you have a good swing, it’s still a line out somewhere. It’s just about staying positive in those moments, trying to quiet your mind down and really focus on the ball. If you can do that, you can make good plays.”
COLE ALSO GOES DEEP
Gerrit Cole went seven innings, giving up one run on three hits — both season lows for the high-powered Nationals.
He was also efficient, taking 98 pitches to get through seven, something that’s become something of a trend for him. Cole has pitched seven innings in three of his last four starts and has pitched at least six an all except his 2017 debut on Opening Day.
A year ago, he had just three outings of seven innings or longer. In 2015, he averaged 6.5 innings per start and went seven or longer four straight times at one point. Cole pitching well and Cole pitching deep into games seem to go hand-in-hand.
“He’s growing into being a veteran,” Hurdle said. “He’s growing into being a better pitcher.”
To do it against the Nationals, who possess one of the best offenses in the majors this season, is even more impressive.
“They’re a really good hitting ball club,” Cole said. “They’re going to be aggressive. We were inducing weak contact.”
That’s how he kept them off the bases despite just three strikeouts, and Hurdle said it fit the game plan to a T.
“He followed his game plan extremely well. The game plan set up before the game was to work efficiently, throw first-pitch strikes and create weak contact. Textbook. Followed it from start to finish.”
Francisco Cervelli hit a sacrifice fly and drew two walks. The Pirates drew six walks and were hit by a pitch once. … Felipe Rivero returned form a sore neck to pitch a perfect eighth inning. … Danny Ortiz was used as a defensive replacement in the eighth inning.