Through 37 games and 155 plate appearances, Pirates first baseman and cleanup hitter Josh Bell hasn’t been able to break out of an early season slump.
Bell is hitting .250, which is just five points shy of his full-season total from 2017. That in of itself isn’t cause for alarm. His on-base percentage hasn’t slipped at all — it’s actually one point higher, meaning that he’s drawing walks at an ever-so-slightly increased rate.
The issue has been that the power surge that Bell experienced a year ago has seemingly abandoned him. His slugging percentage is down to .703 after sitting at .800 last year and his isolate power is sitting at .118, down from .211. In fact, Bell’s power numbers through this season are also lower than in 2016, in a similar sample size.
But why? Well, there’s no smoking gun.
He’s hit almost as many fly balls (30.6 percent this year compared to 31.2 percent last year) and he’s actually hit more line drives (18.5 percent in 2018, 17.7 percent in 2017). His hard-hit percentage (31.2 vs. 32.6) is basically unchanged.
So Bell is hitting the ball hard just as often and hitting the ball into the air just as often, but he’s coming away with fewer home runs and fewer extra base hits.
The one statistical bit that stands out is his home run-to-fly ball ratio. Just 6.1 percent of Bell’s fly balls have left the park this year, compared to 19.1 percent last year. Now, we generally think of HR/FB rate as an important stat for normalizing outcomes in pitching. It’s not something that’s usually seen as that important for hitters.
But league average this season is 12.4 percent, nearly double Bell’s figure. It’s hard to look at the Pirates’ hulking first baseman and think that he has less than half the power of a league average player. Is it possible that Bell’s just been unlucky, and that some external factors like park dimensions and weather have helped keep more of his fly balls inside stadiums this year?
Statcast has a stat they call Barreled Balls, which isolates the combination of launch angle and exit velocity that produces home runs and extra-base hits. On the whole, Bell’s average exit velocity is down just a tick, from 88.3 MPH to 87.9 MPH, but his average launch angle has risen from 8.6 degrees to 10.2 degrees.
On Statcast’s radial chart, it calls hits that fall into the sweet spot of high exit velocity and high, but not too high launch angle “barreled.” Bell has barreled six balls this year, good for 5.5 percent, which is a fairly significant decrease from the 6.7 percent he posted as a rookie last year.
But if you’ll look at Bell’s radial chart above, you’ll see that of Bell’s “barreled balls” just three of six have gone for hits. In 2017, Bell barreled 29 balls and all but one of them went for a base hit. So on his best, most well-struck balls, his BABIP has gone from .966 to .500.
It certainly seems like there’s at least some luck factor at play there. That’s probably one of the reasons that Pirates manager Clint Hurdle has refused to move Bell from the No. 4 spot in the lineup despite his overall .703 OPS.
There’s another factor, too. Bell is a notorious tinkerer at the plate. From one at-bat to another, he can have a leg kick, no leg kick, a toe-tap, his hands are up, down, moving, still, et cetera and et cetera.
Hurdle, and presumably hitting coach Jeff Branson, have been trying to get Bell to be a bit more stubborn at the plate, and see some of his changes through to a longer sample size before running off and changing something else.
“We’ve continued to have those conversations about being steadfast, being diligent,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “Let’s work on one thing. Let’s stay with it many times. Not just in sport, but in life, we have no idea how close we are to popping through something and then we change.”
So while the Pirates would like Bell to be stubborn with his approach and not overreact to small sample sizes, they’re going to take the same approach with his position in the batting order.
That’s why when I gave my take on the team’s lineup inefficiency on Wednesday, I mostly glossed over Bell’s role as the No. 4 hitter. The Pirates see the problem there. They’ve decided that the best way to get Bell to be a better hitter is to show him the very stubbornness they’d like him to embrace.
“At this level, I do think there’s something to be said for giving something some time,” Hurdle said. “The challenge up here is to have some patience, because you may feel the heat. … There’s some growing pains along the way that I think I need to show some patience with. If you’re going to talk to a player about patience and then you don’t have it …”
So Bell will get time to work through this slump he’s in, and there could definitely be some value in Hurdle’s message of patience, because it seems that so far, Bell’s biggest flaw has been an inability to find grass with his hard-hit balls.