This offseason has been historically slow, but that hasn’t prevented the sads from invading just about every Pittsburgh Pirates fan. Watching two of their most popular players in Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole get traded away is quite a justifiable reason be upset.
General manager Neal Huntington and the rest of the Pittsburgh front office have said they want to contend in 2018, but it sure seems like they’re trying to reload for the next wave of young talent in the organization.
One of those players is already at the big league level and put together a decent first full season at the plate in 2017. That’d be former top prospect and current first baseman, Josh Bell.
His overall numbers don’t necessarily jump off the page, like the 0.8 fWAR (thanks to negative ratings in both offense and defense) or 108 wRC+ in 620 plate appearances (159 games played). However, for a player that had just 145 big league plate appearances under his belt entering last year, it’s not a bad place to start.
And judging from some of his peripherals, there’s plenty of potential to improve upon the .255/.334/.466 triple slash, 26 home runs, and 90 RBI that he produced.
A Strong Foundation
The one skill that followed Bell wherever he went as a minor leaguer was his plate discipline. Although his first taste of the MLB was very short in 2016, he posted a walk rate (13.8%) that was higher than his strikeout rate (12.5%).
These numbers normalized a bit in 2017, but virtually any hitting coach would take a player with Bell’s ability that was fresh off posting a 10.6% walk rate and 18.9% strikeout rate in their age-24 season. That kind of patience and feel for the strike zone isn’t super common among inexperienced big leaguers in his age range.
Obviously, this is made possible because he’s not chasing balls out of the strike zone. His 66.0% swing rate on strikes was right at the league average last year (66.7%), but his 26.2% chase rate was notably above average (29.9%). This is a big reason why his career 32.7% hard-hit rate has also been slightly above the league average since making his MLB debut.
No hitter is without flaws, but their approach and discipline in the batter’s box can help overcome some of those imperfections along the way. Without this solid foundation, it would’ve been very difficult for Bell to enjoy a 26-homer, 90-RBI campaign when looking at some of his other peripherals, which will get to in a bit.
Some Levels of Consistency
For a player in Bell’s position, he was rather consistent when looking at his numbers from different angles. Let’s first peek at his month-by-month production in certain key areas.
There are a couple of tough months mixed in, but his power output mostly stayed the same while he at least put together three really good months in a row between those two slumps.
As a switch-hitter, it’s also important to see how much different his production was from each side of the plate.
Bell’s performance as a right-handed batter slightly lags behind his performance from the left side of the plate in most of the above categories, but he was far from being a black hole in Pittsburgh’s lineup in either situation.
Lastly, let’s look at how his performance varied when we compare his splits at PNC Park — a noted pitcher’s park — to what he did on the road.
Once again, most of his production favors one side of this split, but when we consider that the Pirates posted just a 90 wRC+, .309 wOBA, and .139 ISO as a team at home, he was quite the asset to manager Clint Hurdle’s lineup.
Opportunity to Increase Power
In an age where home runs have become more common than ever before, the question for many revolves around how they can increase their respective power output. A 26-homer campaign is impressive, but it’s not nearly as impressive as it used to be since there were 117 different players who hit 20-plus homers in 2017.
What distinguishes Bell from the rest of this group, though, is his batted-ball profile.
Only six players reached this plateau last year while posting a ground-ball rate north of 50.0%. Bell’s 51.1% ground-ball rate was the fourth-lowest mark of this group, but his 31.2% fly-ball rate edged everyone else out.
This is not exactly anything new for the 25-year-old — between 2013 and 2016, he never posted a ground-ball rate below 45.7% at any minor-league stop. However, there doesn’t need to be a huge shift in approach to make a big difference.
He’s already done a good job of making the most of the balls he gets in the air, evidenced by a career 180 wRC+ (213 in ’17), .617 ISO (.677 in ’17), and 43.5% hard-hit rate (43.4% in ’17) on this particular batted-ball event. But if the first baseman can lower his ground-ball rate by even a couple percentage points while continuing to maximize his efforts on fly balls, he could very easily surpass 30 homers in 2018.
It’s been a tough winter for Pirates fans, but there are some players to get excited about for this year and into the foreseeable future. Based off his first full year in the big leagues, Josh Bell should be toward the top of that list.
About Matt Musico
Matt Musico currently manages Chin Music Baseball and contributes to The Sports Daily. His past work has been featured at FanDuel Insider, numberFire, Yahoo! Sports and Bleacher Report. He’s a lover of all baseball, especially the Mets.