For years the Pittsburgh Pirates needed a power bat at first base. With what he has done so far in 2017, it certainly appears that Josh Bell is the answer at first for the foreseeable future.
In Major League Baseball, a player can maintain his rookie eligibility as long as he does not exceed 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched at the major league level. Pittsburgh Pirates 1B Josh Bell came ever so close to losing his rookie status in 2016, ending the season with 128 at-bats. While the Rookie of the Year Award will almost assuredly go to Cody Bellinger after his assault on National League pitching, Bell has put together a tremendous rookie season as well.
Would it be fair to say that Bell has exceeded the expectations so far in his career? The answer to that is a resounding yes. What is his ceiling? The next few years will tell that story, but all indications are that the Pirates have found not only their first baseman, but a powerful bat for the middle of the lineup.
Exceptional performance by any standard
If Bell is going to be compared to the expectations for his rookie year, Fangraphs is a great place to start. On each player’s page, along with their statistics are projections for the current year from ZiPS and Steamer. In just about every category, Bell has exceeded what both projections saw him doing in 2017.
ZiPS and Steamer saw Bell getting just 235 and 206 at-bats, respectively. Bell currently sits at 385, so he has become a much more integral part of the offense than expected. Both saw him hitting seven home runs and he has clubbed 18 so far this year, so ending the campaign with 25-30 is certainly within reach. He has already accumulated 1.0 WAR and both ZiPS and Steamer calculated that he would be a 0.5 WAR this year. So in general Bell has been a valuable asset to the team.
Bell has had such great success this year for a number of reasons that can be explained by his batted ball data. Currently 22.5 percent of his fly balls are leaving the yard. It is reasonable to think that this number will gradually come down as the league adjusts to him. But the type of contact he is producing on balls in play is really telling. 34.7 percent of his balls in play fall into the hard hit category, a slight improvement on the 33.0 percent he had in his brief stint in 2016. Not only that, his medium contact rate is 48.0 percent, so he is usually making at least good contact on the balls he puts in play.
Defensive issues remain
If there was one knock about Bell when he was promoted to the Pittsburgh Pirates, it was that his defense at first left something to be desired and last year there were some bumps in the road. By no means is Bell a finished product at first base, but he has shown improvements this year. This year he has logged 725.1 innings at first and has a fielding percentage of .991, better than the .983 he put up last year in just 150.1 innings.
The advanced fielding metrics really show that Bell has improved. Is DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) is at 4 this year, compared to the -3 he had last year. So at the very least Bell is saving more runs at first in 2017. His UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) was -2.2 last year and has improved to -0.3 this year. So while he still has room to improve, he is showing signs of getting better at first base.
So what is Bell’s ceiling going into next year and beyond? This season has been extremely encouraging and as he gets comfortable with the league and the pitchers, it certainly does not see reasonable that he could hit 40 home runs some day. He is striking out more and walking less than he usually did in the minors, so it seems reasonable to assume that those numbers will move closer to his career averages. But even if he continues to strike out around 19 percent and walk 10 percent, it will not matter as much if he keeps hitting for so much power. The team has needed a genuine lefty thumper in the lineup, and Bell has the bonus of being able to hit from both sides of the plate.
Image credit – Daniel Decker Photography