Josh Bell seems lost at the plate right now. Before his pinch-hit single today, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ first baseman was hitting .237/.305/.331 with one lone home run in 131 plate appearances. His wRC+ was at 79 and wOBA .284 before today. April has been a month to forget.
In 2017, Bell was an above average hitter. He hit .255/.344/.466 with 26 home runs, 26 doubles, and six triples in 620 PA. Both his wRC+ and wOBA were much higher at 108 and .338 respectively.
How did Bell go from adequate production at first base to becoming a well below average hitter? Let’s compare.
Last season, Bell made hard contact at a rate of 32.6 percent. This season, that rate has dropped to 28.7 percent. With his hard hit rate down about four percent, his medium and soft contact rates have increased about two percent each. His overall contact this season has gotten worse, but only slightly. It should not indicate such a drop off in production.
Early on in his career, Bell has been a ground ball machine. Last season, he put the ball on the ground 51.1 percent of the time. This year, that rate has increased to 53.8 percent. Once again, this difference is slight. His fly ball rate has dropped from 31.2 percent to 29 percent.
Bell is barely making worse contact than he did last year. Perhaps he’s striking out a lot more? If the quality of contact he’s making is basically the same as last year, more strikeouts and less walks has to be the reason for regression, right?
Wrong. Bell has a K rate of 19.1 percent this year. Last year it was 18.9 percent. His BB rate is 9.2 percent this year as opposed to 10.6 percent last year.
Not much has changed with Bell from 2017 to 2018. His quality of contact is nearly the same. He’s striking out and walking about the same. Even his pull and oppo rates are similar. Overall, Bell has been worse. But has he been 54 points of wOBA worse?
Right now, Josh Bell is not as bad as his numbers indicate. He may also not be as good as his numbers indicated last year.
The biggest difference for Bell between last year and this year has been his home run to fly ball ratio. Last year it was 19.1 percent. This year it is an incredibly low 3.7 percent. Of his 27 fly balls hit this season, one has left the yard. League average HR/FB in 2018 is 12.2 percent. Bell’s rate will normalize. Ultimately, more of his fly balls will leave the park based on the law averages. Looking at his BAPIP, Bell has actually been a bit luckier this year (.290) than he was last (.278).
The fact of the matter is that Bell hits way too many ground balls. Of first basemen with at least 100 plate appearances this season, only Ian Desmond and Miguel Cabrera have hit more grounders. Desmond has been the worst hitting first baseman in baseball this year. Cabrera has made hard contact nearly 20 percent more than Bell has.
Bell is currently regarded as the Pittsburgh Pirates’ first baseman of the future. He’s 25 years old. He finished third in Rookie of the Year voting last season.
The fact is, Bell hasn’t really been all that great. His 26 home runs last year may have been an anomaly based on a high HR/FB.
What you have with Bell right now is an average hitting first baseman with a below average glove. He looks like a 20 home run guy who hits too way many ground balls. His overall success will play at the hands of the BABIP gods. Right now, he reminds me of a poor man’s Eric Hosmer.
Adjustments are needed. Bell has been tinkering with his batting stance over the past week or so. Lowering his hands and bringing them high again. He’s been searching. That’s good. Right now, things aren’t working. Last season was sort of a smokescreen of luck. Based on pedigree, Bell has the talent to make the proper adjustments. There is still plenty of time to figure things outs and he deserves the chance to do so.