For years I’ve been using Josh Bell as a litmus test for the development abilities of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Prior to the 2019 season, when then-General Manager Neal Huntington was looking for a new hitting coach, I wrote about how improving Bell’s production needed to be the top priority for that coach.
Credit to Rick Eckstein, he came in and Bell saw improvements to every step of his offensive game in 2019. He put up career highs in average (.277), OBP (.367) and slugging (.569), along with isolated power (.292) and home runs (37). Bell has always been weak defensively at first base, and would be better suited as the designated hitter if the NL goes there full time moving forward. However, even with the poor defense, he had a 2.5 fWAR in 2019.
The 2020 season didn’t see the same results.
Bell had his worst career numbers across the board this past season, hitting for a .226/.305/.364 line with a .138 ISO. The defense was still poor, and he ended up being below replacement level in the shortened season. The biggest change in his batted ball data was a spike in ground balls, going from 44% to 55.7%. Bell’s 44% in 2019 was a career low, trending down for two years from 51.1% in 2017.
It’s difficult to manage reactions to the 2020 season, with all of the variables that made it anything but ordinary. I don’t think the 2021 projection for Bell is as simple as looking at 2019 and 2020 and deciding which one is more likely. Of the two, I think Bell is more likely to be the strong hitting, league-average starter WAR producing player, versus the 2020 alternative of being a candidate to be replaced by Colin Moran.
I think the more likely choice for Bell is a decision between his 2019 and 2018 numbers.
There wasn’t much of a difference in those years between Bell’s average and OBP. The latter was ten points higher in 2019 versus 2018, possibly because the former was 16 points higher. But the difference in power was massive, with Bell tripling his home run production, while almost doubling his isolated power rate.
Both versions of Bell are a guy you’d want to upgrade over in the long-term, although the 2019 version is obviously a version you can live with in the short-term.
I mentioned Moran earlier, and it’s worth noting that he had a better season than Bell in 2020. Moran hit for a .247/.325/.472 line this year, with a 30-home run a year pace coming from his boost in power, and much better defense at first base.
Moran adds a third tier to the mix. If 2018 Bell is worth about 1 WAR over a season, and 2019 Bell is worth 2.5 WAR, then 2020 Moran would be in the middle at around 1.5 WAR. There’s an argument to be made that the Pirates should go with Moran next year as the defensive choice, with Bell serving full time as the designated hitter and focusing on his bat, if that’s still an option for the NL.
The best hope for the Pirates is banking in some way on Bell’s 2019 offense returning, while having Moran as a backup. If Bell returns as the 2018 version, you can upgrade to Moran for slightly more production. If Bell’s 2019 season returns, you could have a shot at flipping him at the deadline. That would leave Moran as the first baseman until he’s a free agent following the 2023 season, with Jose Osuna as the top backup until the prospects start to arrive.
The 2021 season will be the ten year anniversary of the Pirates breaking the old draft system to sign Bell for $5 million as a second round pick. They originally did that because of the potential his bat held, and because of the impact he could make with future teams. Bell is going to be in his age 28 season next year. His story is largely written in the majors, but it’s not yet complete.
I can see a path where Bell still becomes an impact bat, and I don’t think it would take much more than elevating the ball off the ground more often.
I can see a path where Bell disappoints, and at best you’re getting a guy who is slightly above replacement level.
I can see a path where Bell returns to his 2019 numbers and becomes a league average or slightly above-average starting first baseman.
I don’t project the Pirates to win in 2021, and Bell is a free agent following the 2022 season, unlikely to re-sign with the Pirates due to being a Scott Boras client. I think the best hope the Pirates have is that Bell either returns to his 2019 numbers, or exceeds them, and gives the Pirates a trade chip at the 2021 deadline.