2017 Recaps: Josh Bell’s Power Surge and Defensive Improvements Were a Bright Spot

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.

The Future

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.

  • I’ve admitted this numerous times. I don’t have a scout’s eyes but I’ve been a fan since Roberto’s rookie year. I really like this kid’s future. I was having nightmare’s about another Dick Stuart at 1st base but he obviously worked very, very hard at his defensive skills around the bag. Nor am I discouraged about a .255 average his first full season in the majors. I’m sure another spring training with Kevin Young will help him improve defensively even more. Where can we steal another big bat for the lineup? Virtually no one thinks Kang is coming back.

  • So, it is possible that 1b is the only safe projection for who is slotted to play in the field next year. A few trades or a work visa and the rest of the infield and outfield could all move around. RF may stay the same I guess.

    Looking at Bell’s agent how long do you think the pirates keep him around 3, 4, or all 5 years? If he is able to max out his potential and put up over 3 war like mentioned over the next two years do the pirates try to then max out a return in a possible trade?

  • piraterican21
    October 18, 2017 1:27 pm

    I believe the defense is almost there, one facet that he needs to improve is his throwing, I hold my breath when he has to throw to any base, more so home plate.

    • On the other hand, he makes those throwing decisions remarkably quickly and with conviction, and I’d argue that’s both equally important to making the plays and the harder part to develop.

      • We were noooooot watching the same guy. Bell is in Garrett Jones territory, man.

        • Garrett Jones’s rookie season was an anomaly. I do not expect Josh Bell to mirror his career path, although it is not impossible. However, Bell has a much longer track record of hitting well than Jones did.

          • We’re speaking strictly of defense, specifically throwing.

            The Pirates famously had Jones eventually not even try cutting the man down at second, instead settling for the putout at 1B. To my eye, it’s a pretty big stretch to say Bell’s any more competent than Jones in that regard.

  • I like Bell and think he will hit for average and power but he must stop adjusting and readjusting his swing. He should get comfortable from both sides and just attack the ball.

  • First and foremost, yes, thank goodness there’s finally a viable everyday first baseman around for the foreseeable future, and one that by all accounts is a hard worker and pleasure to watch.

    The tricky part is viewing Bell’s season through the lens of the current offensive environment in baseball, which is bonkers. On the surface, 26 dingerz and a .211 ISO looks like an unmitigated success, and it certainly is still above average. However, an incredible 75 players hit 25 or more homers this year and league-average ISO climbed to .175; just three years ago, league-average ISO was at .138. That’s stunning, and unfortunately diminishes the relative impact of Bell’s power surge.

    I do like the direction he took his offensive game this year, and my only “disappointment” stems from holding him in high regard in the first place.

    Fact is, Josh Bell struggled to make quality contact in 2017. His natural contact abilities had always shown through continual swing changes, and for that reason I was fully confident in his ability to transition to a power profile. However, the results of his noticeable loft addition and pull approach were a below-average line drive rate, above average pop-up rate, and *zero* increase in outfield fly balls. Coupled with middling exit velocity (164 of 387; min 100 BBE) and no speed to speak of, his drop in BABIP was wholly earned. That’s reflected in an expected wOBA that was actually *worse* than his actual.

    The next step for Bell would seem to be in approach, attacking the *right* pitches to enhance his new swing. More takes on pitches that produced grounders rolled over and pop ups the other way will pull that BABIP back up and give him the batted ball profile of a true power hitter.

    Nobody should doubt his ability to do so.

    • The first base position is so loaded, Bell’s offensive numbers were very average (14th in HRs, 19th in OBP, and 16th in slugging). I guess it’s good to be average in his age 24 season, and we can hope he can become a top 10 first baseman in the next couple of years. Now we need to fill a few more positions where there is certainty who Clint will pencil in the lineup each night.

      • I didn’t want to get *too* negative with my review, but you’re absolutely correct. The Pirates have actually lost ground offensively, relative to the rest of the league, at the position.

        Even among young/rookie hitters, Bell is towards the back of the pack right now.

    • Only 1.75 years of experience at 1B in AA and AAA, and only 32 games of MLB experience at 1B coming into 2017. To do as well as he did offensively and defensively was nothing short of excellent. If not for an excellent offensive comeback year from ‘Cutch, he would have been the team leader in many offensive categories.

      His fielding percentage of .992 rated 19th of 24 MLB 1B, but his Range Factor would have placed him 11th of 24. That’s a positive.

      All of this in his Rookie year speaks volumes of his future potential. If the Pirates can identify 2 or 3 other hitters who can get 50+ EBH, this team could be very competitive. 47 games of scoring 2 runs or less in 2016; 59 games of scoring 2 runs or less in 2017. We have a Rotation that can win if they get the run support from the hitters.

      • I admittedly have a hard time getting *that* excited when similarly experienced or less guys like Olson, Hoskins, Martinez, and Mancini – let alone Bellinger – came up and blew him away, but yes, it was a positive year.

    • And when Bell does that, I could see him turning into something very Votto-like. Maybe not quite as good as Votto, but stylistically similar and very effective.

  • From what he showed in performance and character, I expect him to be the face of the franchise over the next few years … to succeed Cutch as the team leader. We just need management to put the right pieces (enough pieces) around him.