PITTSBURGH — With acknowledgements to Gregory Polanco’s recent slump and Adam Frazier’s general struggles in replacing the injured Josh Harrison, the heaviest millstone hanging from the Pirates’ lineup this season has been Josh Bell.
For one of the cornerstones of the Pirates’ post-2015 prospect wave, a .238/.297/.337 batting line through 26 games is a discouraging start.
And while Bell’s strikeout rate is a couple ticks higher than his previous average at this level — at 22 percent instead of 18 — his current 4-for-29 stretch hasn’t been about swinging and missing. He has just six strikeouts over that eight-game span, but he’s simply not hitting the ball hard enough.
According to Statcast data, entering Friday’s 6-5 comeback win over the Cardinals at PNC Park, Bell ranked 132nd out of 181 MLB hitters (minimum 50 batted balls) with an 87.3 average exit velocity. Bell has admitted after recent games to be searching for a positive feel at the plate, but the feedback simply hasn’t been promising.
“I don’t think I found any answers,” he memorably lamented after a two-hit game against the Rockies last week. “I’m going to keep grinding and keep trying find outfield grass and do what it takes to scratch RBIs across.”
Interestingly enough, Bell has done fairly well at getting runners home, despite his poor overall rate stats. Per Baseball-Reference.com, his 15 RBIs in 107 plate appearances is four more than the average MLB hitter would have in that many trips. (Although, Bell has had seven more runners on base for his at-bats than the average hitter.)
Bell said he was having success with a “quick fire” approach in the first couple weeks, but pitchers adjusted and so he’s had to counter in his own way by trying to be more patient.
“I tried to ramp that down a little bit,” Bell said. “I had some success early with trying to get my ‘A’ swing off early, but with guys kinda dancing around the zone like they have been the last couple of weeks, it might be good for me to kinda press the brakes and see a couple of pitches with (Corey) Dickerson as hot as he is. Let him get his timing.”
Bell smiled while saying that last part, but Dickerson (.322/.351/.511) has certainly held his end of the bargain in the No. 5 spot of the Pirates’ typical batting order, as has a revitalized Francisco Cervelli (.306/.400/.552). Those two went a combined 5 for 8 Friday night, including back-to-back hits to start a three-run ninth.
“I think our lineup is really deep,” said Jordy Mercer, whose double capped the Pirates’ pushback against St. Louis closer Greg Holland. “We can start a rally from anywhere. We can do a bunch of different things. I think that’s what makes us dangerous. I think there’s a lot of things that can happen.”
The offense has generated a nice little rebound after about 10 days of wandering and wondering. Even with Thursday’s 1-0 result on Dickerson’s walkoff dinger, the Pirates have scored 25 runs over the past four games, the last three of those being wins.
But if this Pirates lineup is to access its potential more consistently, it’ll require its appointed cleanup man to behave more like the kind of hitter typically placed in that spot.
To Bell’s point about not chasing pitcher’s pitches early in at-bats, Clint Hurdle quipped that young hitters have to understand that “it’s better to be 0 and 1 (in the count) than 0 for 1.”
Bell seemed to indicate last week that his eagerness to attack pitches led to a mechanical glitch from the left side especially.
“I feel like (as a) lefty I was getting kinda forward, trying to go get the ball a little bit,” he said. “I’m just trying to back (my weight) up as best I can and allow the pitcher to come to me.”
In examining his fallow eight-game stretch, Bell has just eight plate trips (six strikeouts, two walks) out of 31 in which he hasn’t put the ball in play. That might indicate he hasn’t worked enough deep counts, a theory not lost on the self-aware Bell.
“I gotta take my walks if they’re gonna dance around,” Bell said.
How long can the Pirates give Bell in an important spot in the order to figure things out? How much does it matter? The overall strength of a lineup has proven to be more important than the order of it, but Bell said something interesting about his approach as the cleanup man.
“It’s really important, especially from a four-hole guy, to make your outs in the air,” Bell said. “If I go 0 for 4 with four flyouts, it’s a good day compared to four groundouts. Especially with me, (I’m) not a speed guy. I’ll take an 0 for 3 with a sac fly. It’s definitely a thought in my head.”
Bell might be trying to add some lift to his batted-ball profile, but the results haven’t panned out that way. His 51 percent ground-ball rate is exactly on par with his career number, while his fly-ball rate is up slightly, from 31 percent last season to 33 percent.
Hurdle mentioned that he thinks sometimes Bell gets discouraged by negative results. For an athlete with the elite hand-eye coordination that Bell possesses, it has to be frustrating to not be barreling up the ball enough in a run-producing spot in the order.
“I feel like expectations are good to set for yourself,” Bell said. “You’re not always going to hit the ball the way you want to. It’s kinda tough, but if you can turn the page it makes it a lot easier.”
With Bell in a tie for last among Pirates lineup regulars in OPS+ and second-from-last in Weighted Runs Created, there’s been plenty to be upset about.
The saving grace for Bell is that the rest of his teammates are picking up the slack. Frazier went 0 for 3 at the top Friday, but Polanco went deep to start the comeback and Starling Marte recovered from a ninth-inning strikeout to single home the winning run in the 11th.
All’s well that end’s well, but there’s been a missing link in the middle over the past three weeks.