JOSH BELL, FIRST BASEMAN
|Born: August 8, 1992
Height: 6′ 4″
Drafted: 2nd Round, 61st Overall, 2011
How Acquired: Draft
High School: Jesuit College Prep
Agent: Scott Boras
WTM’s PLAYER PROFILE
|The Pirates’ selection of Bell in the second round of the 2011 draft surprised a lot of people. Baseball America rated him the 15th best prospect and 5th best hitter in the draft, but he sent a letter to all teams urging them not to draft him because he intended to honor his commitment to the University of Texas. Bell comes from a family that is both well off and well educated, and his mother was known to want him to go to college. There was considerable speculation that he wouldn’t sign at any price, but the Pirates succeeded in signing him for a $5M bonus, nearly double the previous record for a post-first-round pick. His hitting ability and power potential were highly regarded. Bell profiled strictly as a corner outfielder. He doesn’t run well and has a roughly average arm.
Bell started off slowly, as he struggled with pitch recognition and often swung late. He started coming around after a few games, though, and hit .300 in his last ten games. Unfortunately, he hurt his knee sliding into second and required surgery. His recovery didn’t go well, as he continued to have irritation, leading to fluid buildup. The Pirates had expected him to return during the summer, but he wasn’t ready then or for fall instructionals, either. Instead, he was looking at the possibility of further surgery.
Bell attended strenuous workouts in the off-season and seemed fully healthy in spring training. He returned to West Virginia and had a good, but not a breakout, season. He struggled a little early in the season, drawing comments from scouts that his bat speed was poor. He struck out a great deal the first two months, then started making much better contact. In fact, his strikeout and walk tendencies went through some dramatic changes during the season:
It looks as if Bell was searching for a hitting style he found comfortable, but the bottom line is that his K rate decreased dramatically after the first two months and his patience at the plate was fine. The HR power isn’t there yet, but he did finish tied for third in the South Atlantic League in doubles. Whether some of those doubles will turn into HRs remains to be seen. Bell is a big, very strong guy now and he wasn’t exceptionally young for the SAL (he turned 21 in August). Still, he should be a couple years or more away from his power peak. He hit better from the right side, posting a 302/353/493 line, against 272/353/442 from the left side. I’m not sure, though, that the difference was enough to be noteworthy. Bell tweaked his injured knee early in the year and missed a few games and the Pirates periodically rested him throughout the season. They denied, though, that there’s any ongoing problem with the knee.
Bell had a semi-breakout season in 2014. He played at Bradenton until earning a promotion to Altoona in mid-July. A knee contusion ended his season on August 12. Although he didn’t have enough plate appearances to qualify, he still led the Florida State League in batting. This was thanks to the rule that, if adding enough at-bats to a player’s total to allow him to qualify would still leave him as the leader, then he’s declared the winner. Even though his power stats don’t appear overwhelming, he also had the highest slugging average of any player with 270+ plate appearances. Some caution is needed with these stats, though, because the FSL is an extreme pitchers league, but McKechnie Field in Bradenton is the best hitters park in the league and Bell hit much better at home. Bell made consistent contact, striking out only once every eight ABs. He didn’t pull the ball much, though, and failed to reach double digits in HRs, so the question remains just how much power he’ll have. He handled AA pitching well after a 5-32 start, but obviously wasn’t hitting for any power at all when his season ended. Overall, Bell hit LHPs a little better, with an .852 OPS against them and .800 against RHPs. He showed a little more speed than expected, but he may slow down fairly quickly as he gets older. He didn’t have great range in right.
The Pirates sent Bell to the Arizona Fall League after the 2014 season to play first base. He struggled both offensively and defensively, but they’ve obviously resolved to keep him at the position. He opened 2015 at Altoona and hit well there, with very good walk and K rates, but concerns persisted on three fronts. One was the lack of power. Bell went from June 12, 2014, until May 2, 2015, without hitting a HR, and that includes the AFL. A second was his hitting from the right side. On the season, he hit 334/419/501 from the left side and 275/323/310 from the right. It’s possible some of this was a small sample size issue, as Bell hit a little better from the right side in both 2013 and 2014. The third was his defense at first, which is coming along slowly. Among other things, he had 16 errors in the equivalent of about three-quarters of a season. The Pirates promoted Bell to AAA at the beginning of August and he started addressing, at least, the concerns about his power. He incorporated more of a leg kick in his swing and began driving the ball more in AAA. In fact, he hit better overall, even improving his already-strong plate discipline.
After the Pirates signed John Jaso to play first, it was clear Bell would open 2016 back in AAA. For one thing, as his defense at first remained very shaky. Bell had a very strong first half at Indianapolis and, at the end of June, was hitting 327/410/541. Jaso by that time was slumping badly, which naturally led to a great deal of fan impatience for the team to call up Bell. With the Super Two deadline past, the ostensible reason for Bell remaining in the minors was his unquestionably poor defense at first. The Pirates finally brought him up just before the All-Star break strictly to serve as a bench bat. On the first pitch he saw in the majors, Bell singled as a pinch hitter off Jake Arrieta. On the second pitch he saw, he hit a pinch-hit grand slam. The Pirates nevertheless sent him back to AAA, where he slumped to his final AAA stats. He returned to the majors to stay on August 20 and played more or less regularly after that. Due to injuries to Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte, Bell ended up making nearly half his starts in right, with Jaso playing first. Bell just held his own at the plate for the remainder of the season, but showed good strike zone judgment, walking more than he struck out. He had just a .515 OPS against LHPs, but that was in only 23 plate appearances. His defense at first was, as advertised, very shaky. The Pirates held Bell out of the season’s final game, which preserved his eligibility for the Rookie of the Year award. Baseball America ranked him as the tenth best prospect in a loaded International League.
Bell spent the season as the Pirates’ first baseman and eventually settled in as the cleanup hitter, leading the team in RBIs with 90. He had minor knee surgery about a month before spring training opened and it appeared to affect him, as he had a very bad spring, but he hit well early until a slump in May. He recovered to post a monthly OPS between .858 and .954 from June through August, before slumping to .639 in September. He may have gotten a bit HR-happy; he struck out 26 times in September after fanning just ten times in August in only a few more plate appearances. Bell didn’t have a huge platoon split, batting 259/342/470 left-handed and 242/305/453 right-handed. Clint Hurdle nevertheless platooned Bell during some stretches with Jose Osuna. Especially inexplicable was the fact that Hurdle platooned Bell semi-regularly over the season’s final two months, even though Osuna slumped in the second half. Over the season’s first two months, Hurdle routinely removed Bell for a defensive replacement, generally John Jaso. He often did so very early in the game, frequently in the seventh inning. That hurt the Pirates on several occasions when their bullpen coughed up leads and they could have used Bell’s bat. Eventually, Hurdle stopped replacing Bell, as he showed improvement defensively. In fact, the Fielding Bible’s metrics show him to have been above-average, mainly due to his fielding on ground balls, and he did show good agility in making diving stops on hard grounders. According to UZR, he was slightly below average.
Bell had a disappointing season. He was up and down all year, with his power in particular coming and going every other month. In May, July and September, he slugged between .470 and .484 each month. In April, June and August he slugged between .321 and .385. According to batted ball data, he just didn’t hit the ball hard very much. Some of the ups and downs may have been injury-related. Bell went on the disabled list with an oblique strain on July 28. He returned on August 8 but didn’t appear healthy. He’d been hot until that point, with an .884 OPS, but put up only a .752 figure in August. Overall, Bell did show improved plate discipline. He had a mild platoon split, with a .781 OPS batting left-handed and .734 batting right-handed. PNC Park doesn’t seem to have helped him, as he had a .705 OPS at home and .826 on the road, which was close to his previous figures. Defensively, Bell did not improve. In fact, by some measures he was close to the bottom among first basemen. His overall value was probably reflected accurately by his Wins Above Replacement as measure by FanGraphs, which was a measly 0.9.
Bell managed to have a season that was both a major breakout and a disappointment. For the season’s first two months, he was one of the top hitters in baseball. He followed with mediocre months in June and July, rebounded with a strong August, and was having just a decent September when he went out for the year with a groin injury mid-month. He did not require surgery. Bell’s monthly OPS:
Bell spent much of the year leading MLB in RBIs, and finished with 116. Early in the year, Bell was hitting the ball remarkably hard and very far, with many of his HRs logging great distances. His average exit velocity remained one of the highest in baseball throughout the year — he was ranked 13th in MLB on the season — but after the first two months he started popping up a lot. His infield fly percentage went from 1.7% in the first two months to 9.4% in the last four. He also may have resumed tinkering with his swing, which has always been a problem for him. He had a large platoon split, with an OPS of 1.002 batting left-handed and .761 right-handed. His defense was poor.
Bell’s truncated season was a disaster. He struggled severely in July and August, posting an OPS of .503 and .637, respectively. In September he bounced back a little, but still hit only 244/351/402. For no obvious reason, Bell started swinging and missing much more often than before, on pitches both in and out of the zone, with his overall strikeout rate increasing sharply. He hit the ball hard much less often and hit it on the ground much more often. Defensively, if anything he got worse. With Colin Moran playing a lot at first, Bell made about 40% of his starts as DH.
Bell’s great start in 2019 is looking even more like an anomaly. The Pirates now have even more questions about whether he can be part of a winning team in Pittsburgh. He also has little trade value. They probably don’t have much choice except to see whether he can get straightened out in 2021.
|Signing Bonus: $5,000,000
MiLB Debut: 2012
MLB Debut: 7/8/2016
MiLB FA Eligible: N/A
MLB FA Eligible: 2022
Rule 5 Eligible: N/A
Added to 40-Man: 11/20/2015
Options Remaining: 2 (USED: 2016)
MLB Service Time: 4.052
|June 7, 2011: Drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 2nd round, 61st overall pick; signed on August 15.
November 20, 2015: Contract purchased by the Pittsburgh Pirates.