The Josh Bell experiment at first base hasn’t been a smooth ride. It hasn’t always been full of hope. But the 2017 season gave a glimpse of what Bell could do at the plate, and gave hope that he wouldn’t be relegated to a total disaster in the field.
Bell is always going to be an offense first guy. That was true even when he was an outfielder, and was a reason why the Pirates moved him to first base. They wanted to speed his bat up to the majors, and find a spot for him where he wasn’t blocked by Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco.
I don’t think the bat has fully shown up yet in the big leagues, but Bell took a big step forward this year. He hit for an .800 OPS while showing off his power to the tune of 26 home runs and a .211 ISO.
I say there could be more because of the lower average. Bell hit for a .255 average, which was a result of a .278 BABIP. He had a .294 BABIP last year in the majors, and was typically around the .330 range in the minors. He did show a decrease in his line drive rate this year, dropping from 21.4% to 17.7%. He mostly replaced the line drives with extra fly balls and hit ground balls 51% of the time. However, ground balls typically lead to a higher BABIP, and the 50% grounders in 2016 led to a .294 mark.
Bell was pulling the ball a lot more this year, going from a 22.3% rate in 2016 to a 41.5% rate in 2017. He did that mostly by sacrificing opposite field hits, going from 42.9% to 28.9%.
You’d think this trend would make him prone to shifts, and that’s what I checked for. Bell had a .321 average when a shift was on, according to FanGraphs data, which kills my initial thought that his numbers might be down due to defenses reacting to his new tendency to pull the ball.
I also wondered if this was an issue of him switch hitting, with a platoon split showing up. He didn’t have any major platoon splits, killing that theory.
It’s something I can’t back up, outside of the numbers, but I think Bell just had a down year and a bit of bad luck in the BABIP department. I’d expect that going back up in 2018 to around the .300 mark, which would lead to much better results if Bell continues hitting for the same power we saw in 2017.
The most encouraging thing this season was Bell’s defense. When he was making the transition to first base, I felt his upside would be a guy who would be slightly below average, not providing any positive value with the defense, but not taking much value away from his bat. He reached that level this year, putting up a -2.9 UZR/150, which was a big improvement over his -32.8 number last year.
He also showed big improvements in other defensive metrics, like Defensive Runs Saved and Plus Minus. Bell was above average in those two stats, while below average in UZR. Regardless of what side of average he was on, both results are better than his 2016 standings, which were bottom of the league.
I don’t think we’ve seen the best from Bell, and that applies to both sides of the ball. Offensively, I expect him to hit for a better average. I also don’t think we’ve seen him max out in the power department. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see him easily top 30 home runs next year, which might not be a bold prediction following a 26 home run season in his age 24 season.
The biggest help here would be continued improvements on his defense. Bell showed improvements in his range, but still had problems with errors. He is showing improvements across the board, and the question becomes whether he can continue to improve.
I think he can, and this prediction is based on covering him closely for years. Bell is one of the hardest workers you will meet. He’s always working to get better and improve every part of his game, even when his game is going well. He never settles.
Bell also is open to coaching. Whether that includes an extreme overhaul to his swing in an attempt to bring out his power, or the switch to first base and all of the coaching that goes along with it, he has been on board every step of the way.
No player is guaranteed to improve in any aspect of this game. However, if I’m placing a bet on someone to improve, I’m always going with a guy who is open to coaching, has a good attitude about development, and is always working to improve his game.
If the Pirates can get some positive defensive value out of Bell, combined with a slight improvement in his offense, then they’re looking at a 3 WAR first baseman. That would be a big boost for them in 2018, giving them a 2 WAR improvement at the first base position. And considering Bell will be in his age 25 season, that doesn’t seem far-fetched.
As for the long-term future, Bell is under control for five more years. He’s a Scott Boras client, so don’t expect an extension beyond the 2022 season. However, that gives the Pirates plenty of time to develop his replacement.
For now, let’s just enjoy the fact that the Pirates finally have an everyday first baseman that they can count on for the short-term and long-term. We can discuss improvements from the starter at that position, rather than discussing cheap free agents and platoons. And due to his defensive improvements, we probably don’t have to discuss having a backup first baseman who can take over in the late innings. Breaking these trends might be the best thing that came out of the 2017 season.