Josh Bell is Showing a Lot of Encouraging Signs at the Plate Early This Year

One of the big bright spots on the team early this season has been the offensive emergence from Josh Bell. At the time of this writing, Bell has a .309/.381/.600 line with three homers in 63 plate appearances.

Those 63 plate appearances represent a low number, far below what you’d want to see to call any numbers the product of a legit sample size. so while this is the version of Josh Bell that we’ve all been waiting to see at the plate, it’s too early to say whether these numbers, or anything close to them, will be lasting.

That said, when we take a closer look at the numbers, including some of the factors behind the results, some positive trends emerge. Those trends could indicate that Bell’s production is legit, with some good reasons for the increased numbers. I’ve been digging through the numbers the last few days, and here are the most interesting trends I’ve found.

The Launch Angle

During Spring Training, I wrote about how the Pirates were trying to improve Bell’s launch angle. This would be accomplished by optimizing the contact point to catch the ball on the upside of Bell’s swing, and avoiding so much of the negative launch angle that he saw last year. So far, the approach seems to be working.

Bell’s launch angle this year is 10.8, which is the highest of his career. This is leading to a big reduction in ground balls, going from around 50% to around 43%, and an increase in line drives from 21% to 33%.

I don’t know if I need to go into many details on why this is good. If you’re hitting the ball with a positive launch angle, you’re getting the ball off the ground. The BABIP on line drives in baseball is .672 this year, which is about the normal range. The BABIP on grounders is .234, again close to the normal range. The BABIP on fly balls is the lowest, but the production of fly balls is better than grounders when you factor in home runs and the ability to get extra bases.

Simply put, Bell is putting the ball in the air more, and that is translating to more hits.

Harder Hits

Not only has Bell seen a better launch angle to put the ball in the air, but he’s also making harder contact. A few positive trends in this regard:

**His barrel percentage, which is the amount of times he’s barreled up a ball compared to how many times he’s made contact, is 14.3%. By comparison, he was at 7% last year, and that was his previous career high. He ranks 32nd in barrels per plate appearance, one ahead of Aaron Judge, and one behind Joc Pederson.

**His average exit velocity is 94.8 MPH, which ranks 14th in the majors. This is also a big increase, going up from 90% last year, and the 88% range the previous two years.

**As you could expect, his hard hit rate is up, measuring the batted balls at 95 MPH or higher. He’s at 54.5%, which is tied for 25th in baseball. That’s to be expected when your average exit velocity is up, and you’re making stronger contact more frequently.

Pulling the Ball

Bell’s batted ball profile is also working better for his game this year. He’s pulling the ball 40.5% of the time, which is up from 32.6% last year. His opposite field percentage has gone down from 28% to 23% in the same time.

This is significant, as Bell was much more productive pulling the ball last year. He had an .857 OPS and a .222 ISO on pulled pitches, versus .699 and .140 opposite field. He’s been productive to all fields this year, with an OPS of 1.000 or more, and an ISO of .300 or more.

Better Patience

Bell had some of the best hands and solid plate patience skills coming up. He could make contact with anything, and sometimes could take bad pitches for hits. That hasn’t worked as well in the majors so far.

His plate patience numbers so far this year are stronger across the board.

**74.8% zone swings this year vs 67.6% career. 86.5% zone contact vs 85.2%. He’s swinging at more pitches in the zone, and making more contact in the process.

**20.7% swings outside the zone this year vs 26.2% career. 66.7% outside contact vs 68.1%. He’s swinging at fewer balls, but still making about the same amount of contact when swinging outside the zone.

**His swinging strike rate is 8.1%, which is down from 9.0% career and 9.7% last year. So while swings are up, he’s not missing as much.

The Combination

Bell is hitting the ball in the air more often, leading to more line drives and fewer ground balls, which helps to justify his current production on average.

He’s hitting the ball harder, which helps to explain the increase in the power numbers. The increase is also helped by fewer grounders and more balls in the air.

He’s hitting more to the pull side this year, which has been stronger for him in the past, but has been strong to all fields this year.

He’s shown better plate patience, with his swings up inside the zone and his contact on those swings also up. His swings outside the zone are down, but his contact has remained the same. And his swinging strike rate is down. This all helps to justify the better OBP, and is probably leading to him seeing better pitches.

It’s still early, but these are a lot of positive signs from Josh Bell, all indicating changes to his approach, and suggesting that the results might be lasting, giving us the version of Josh Bell that has been anticipated since he entered the system.

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