BRADENTON, Fla. – One of the areas the 2017 Pittsburgh Pirates struggled the most with was power on offense.
In that regard, one of the few bright spots of the 2017 campaign was the break out of first baseman Josh Bell.
Bell, now 25, was technically a rookie in his first full season in the majors last year, when he hit 26 home runs to finish second on the team.
Bell was always projected to be a hitter with some pop, but it didn’t always show until he reached the majors. The most home runs he’d hit in a season before 2017 was 17 across two levels in 2016. Before that, he had 13 in his first full professional season.
The fact that Bell developed his power so close to his arrival in the majors makes his future power somewhat difficult to project.
Do 26 home runs represent an outlier? Is that about his true talent level? Perhaps, is that just a start for him to build upon?
It’s a pretty fair question. ZiPS (20) and Steamer (22) are fairly cautious. That makes a lot of sense. The idea that Bell can be a big-time power hitter comes from his physique and strength, not any raw numbers. That’s not the way things usually work. Typically, players only achieve a percentage of their minor-league numbers once they’ve reached the majors. To look at Bell as a potential 30 home run threat would have him exceeding his best numbers in the minors by nearly double.
To use an example most Pirates fans are familiar with, Pedro Alvarez hit 27 home runs in his first professional season. There were some highs (36 in 2013) and some lows (10 in 2011), but for the most part, his numbers revolved around that initial figure.
I wrote last week about how the Pirates are going to need players to outperform their individual projections in order to be competitive as a team.
Bell can certainly improve in other areas, particularly defense, but it seems most likely that if he’s going to provide a big spike in value, it’s going to come from an increase in home run production.
New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge is an example of a player greatly exceeding his previous totals in the majors, but as a rookie in 2017, he’s very much in a similar situation to Bell, where his future production levels are still fairly unknown.
To find a more cogent example, I went back farther in time. Carlos Correa appears to be one. Correa hit 32 homers in 2015 after never getting more than nine in any one season before that. Since then, he’s hit 20 and 24.
Joc Pederson is another. He hit 33 home runs in 2014 after maxing out at 22 previously. Since then, he put up seasons of 26, 25, and 11.
Those are fairly similar paths to the one the projections lay out for Bell. If that’s the most likely outcome, how does Bell avoid it?
It starts with the understanding that the talent level he has established won’t get him there by itself. He’s going to have to continue to improve, perhaps even to maintain the pace he’s established, and certainly to build upon it.
“Josh is one of the young potential leaders of this group and had a great rookie season, and instead of taking a deep breath and saying, ‘I’ve got this thing figured out,’ he wants to go to the next level,” general manager Neal Huntington said. “He wants to get that much better that defensively at first base. He wants to become that much more of a dangerous hitter in the batter’s box. If we work to get him back to being the hitter that he’s capable of being, the power he has, he has a chance to be a really good player for a long time.”
Bell said his offseason focus has been on defense, hitting from the right side of the plate and just overall fine-tuning his game. He said he hasn’t changed his mindset at all from the player that was trying to make the big league club and establish a role over the last two years.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle seems to be in the camp that believes Bell has the capability to continue to add to what he’s done.
“Two years ago, I’m having some conversations with some people about he’s got no power,” Hurdle said. “When’s his power coming?”
Bell certainly answered that question last year, but it remains to be seen what the future holds. One thing is for sure, the Pirates are counting on him to produce this season in a way they haven’t in the past.
He was second on the team to Andrew McCutchen in home runs last year and talked to Tim Williams about forming a 1-2 punch in the middle of the Pirates’ order with McCutchen back in January. Instead, he’ll be flying solo. But just because the Pirates have shown faith in him, doesn’t mean that Bell is ready to buy into his own hype.
“When you start thinking those things, sometimes complacency can set in,” Bell said.
He’s identified the correct enemy in complacency. If Bell can continue to step forward, he can have an outsized effect on the Pirates’ 2018 fortunes.