BRADENTON, Fla. – When the Pirates were searching for a hitting coach, I was only half-joking when I suggested their interview would start with a question of “How would you tap into Josh Bell’s offensive upside?”
I don’t know if that was an actual interview question or topic. I do know that out of everyone on the current roster, the Pirates could get the most offensive improvement from Bell.
Bell hit for a .261/.357/.411 line last year. It wasn’t what you’d want from a first baseman with negative defensive value. He had more power in 2017, hitting 26 homers and posting a .211 ISO, versus 12 and .150 in 2018. But neither season has really scratched the surface of Bell’s potential.
He’s a guy who scouts raved about when he was coming up through the minors. He has some of the best hand/eye coordination, and that should lead to good contact skills with a high average, not his current .260 mark. He has easy power, and that should lead to better production than his career .177 ISO.
If you’re thinking that Bell should be a big priority for the new hitting coaches, you’ll be happy to know that the work started with him right after hitting coach Rick Eckstein was hired. He also worked with assistant hitting coach Jacob Cruz in the offseason.
“[Eckstein] came and saw me in Newport,” Bell said of his offseason work. “I got some good work in. Then I saw Cruz at the Caravan during January. Open line of communication during the offseason, and then continue to go throughout camp.”
Yesterday I wrote about how the Pirates have a new commitment to analytics and modern hitting technology. (I recommend reading that article first.) This is leading to them emphasizing many things, including the optimal contact point, the flow of energy through the body during the swing, and other things that couldn’t be calculated a few years ago.
All of that work is currently going on with Bell. But before he got started, Bell needed to remove one trend that has almost defined his career.
One Batting Stance
If you’ve followed this site long enough, you’d know that Josh Bell has a long history of changing his batting stance. I’ve seen individual games where he starts the game and finishes the game with a different stance. The reason for the adjustments are to adjust his timing when he feels off. But going forward, he’s going to be focused on one stance.
“To his credit, it shows what an incredible athlete he is, to be able to have all of those changes in the swing, and then compete at the big league level,” Cruz said. “Most people are trying to hone in on one swing in particular. The fact that he goes up there and did it for the last couple of years with multiple swings speaks volumes about how athletic he is.”
Bell’s athleticism and his hand/eye skills allow him to make so many changes while still remaining in the big leagues. But Eckstein has been teaching him that success from hitting doesn’t come from constant adjustments at the plate, but from a consistent approach that he can get comfortable with, and good hitting techniques after he’s comfortable with that stance.
“Our focus has been more on a singular position,” Eckstein said. “What’s the most optimal position to be in and why?
“I think when you have a player who has incredible hand/eye coordination like he does, his ability to put the ball in play — not everybody has that ability and he does — so he puts a lot of balls in play that he just can’t do a whole lot of damage to. Basically solidifying a good base that he’s going to fire the consistent swing I think is going to really help him hone in on the strike zone, where he’s going to do the most damage.”
From the left side, Bell has squared off his body a bit, allowing him to be more repeatable. In previous years, he worked on having his swing from the right side look identical to the swing from the left side. Going forward, he’s going to have a different stance from each side.
“I’m going back to the no-stride,” Bell said of his right-handed stance. “I feel like I had the most success there throughout the minor leagues, and then my first year. Every year, for the most part, I’ve tried to come in with the same swing from both sides, and this is the first season that I haven’t done that, which is kind of comforting. I know what works righty. I know what works lefty. And now I’m just hammering those things out. We’re a week into games and I feel really good.”
While Bell can take the initiative to adjust his stance on his own, he’s also a very teachable player, and open to new suggestions. So it’s not a surprise that he’s already bought in on sticking to one approach. And for a guy who had a habit of changing his stance mid-game, it shouldn’t be a surprise that he’s already getting comfortable with his new singular approach.
“For the most part, if I’m crushing mistakes, if I’m fouling off good pitches, I have to be in a more repeatable spot,” Bell said. “I feel like the last couple of games [in Spring Training], things have slowed down for me. This is the best start in regards to ball flight and pitch selection that I’ve had in camp since 2014 probably. I’m just going to ride this out and see where it leads me.”
With the singular batting stance from both sides, Bell is able to work on some of the adjustments I mentioned yesterday, and that is going to be a key in one specific area.
Negative Launch Angle
You might wonder why Josh Bell hasn’t put up strong numbers if he has such great hands and raw power. It’s not that the skills have been over-rated. It’s that he’s driving the ball into the ground too often.
I wrote yesterday about how the Pirates are trying to find the optimal contact point for every player using devices such as Rapsodo and slow motion cameras. Every hitter has a downward part of his swing and an upward part of his swing. The ideal thing is to have the hitter’s contact point being on the upward part of his swing. That hasn’t been happening enough with Bell.
“The fact is that JB has incredible upside,” Cruz said. “We’re excited to see what this kid can actually do once he reaches his max potential. So you see a kid who is 250 pounds, if we can maximize his attack angle and how he gets to the ball, working up through it, we should see a lot more balls in the air.
“He hits the ball incredibly hard, and we know that. It’s a little bit more negative, as far as negative launch angle, when he does hit the ball right now. So getting the ball in the air is just going to play big dividends for him and our organization.”
The problem here is that the adjustment isn’t a quick fix for Bell. It’s not a physical adjustment, but more of a mentality that he needs, since he typically has a negative launch angle when he’s actively trying to make contact in front of the plate. To solve this, his focus is on driving the ball to left-center field, which is an approach that gets him on the optimal swing plane to make contact out in front.
“If I’m trying to make contact out in front, for me personally, my body type, my swing path lefty, it’s steep and it’s on the downward plane,” Bell said. “If I’m trying to drive the ball to left-center, I have to get on plane early. So I start my downward early, and then I get it up on the upswing. Especially if I’m driving the ball, like actually getting backspin on a ball to left-center.
“If I can do that on the same swing, take a fastball in and still drive it over the second baseman’s head, keep that mentality. If it’s any slower I can drive it, put it in the seats or off the wall. But if it’s hard, if I’m long through the zone, I’m going to be able to get those flares over the shortstop as well, kind of work average as well.”
Bell said that his approach would allow the ball to travel a little bit and sync up late. He’s also trying to use his legs to stabilize his swing, staying on his heels to allow him to land on time.
“If I can do that, then the ball flight is going to be there,” Bell said.
Jacob Cruz posted a short video to Twitter a few weeks ago, praising Bell’s work. You can see a lot of the above focus in that video.
— Jacob Cruz (@JacobCruz09) February 24, 2019
Bell has been working in the batting cages with Eckstein and/or Cruz every day. He’s also been studying video and getting feedback on his swing. Just this past week, he and Cruz had a key moment on the back fields that brought everything together.
“I feel like today we had a good conversation,” Bell said. “He was throwing lefty and it had a little fade back into me. I took a fastball probably black and sprayed it back up through the L screen on an upward plane. He said that’s the first time I’ve seen you do that. I said that’s what I’ve been working on all offseason. It’s week one in camp, so I’m in a good place.”
[Note: This happened when Bell was batting lefty. He’s still going to bat right-handed against lefties, but it just worked out that he was working lefty that day with a lefty thrower.]
The changes seem to be going well so far, as Bell is starting to get comfortable not only with his stance, but with the new approach at the plate.
“I feel like I haven’t swung at a ball out of the zone in two or three games, which is awesome for me,” Bell said. “If I can continue to ride that out, and continue to [have] confidence in my eyes, I can start earlier and have more time to make contact out in front to do damage out in front, and still trust my two strike approach, and if you throw a ball, I’m not swinging at it.”
Eckstein has also been pleased with the work from Bell so far.
“He’s done great. He’s talked about how much more comfortable he’s feeling in the box, and how he’s seeing the ball as we’ve progressed through spring, continuing to build on those layers. Obviously he’s a tremendous talent. The power is real. Now it’s his work and acting towards the concepts to which we’re trying to tackle.”
The Pirates need offense, and no one on the roster could give them a bigger offensive boost than Bell. He’s got so much untapped potential in his swing and with his power. If Eckstein and Cruz can get anywhere close to that potential, the Pirates will have a very nice bat for the heart of the batting order.