As a hitter, Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Josh Bell had a quietly excellent debut last year. In 152 plate appearances, he showed patience (13.8 percent walk rate), an ability to make solid, consistent contact (12.5% strikeout rate), and enough power (.406 SLG) to make you believe that shifting him away from the crowded Pirates outfield to first base could be a justifiable move in the long term.
Before Bell came up for good in late August — by which time the Pirates were no longer really in contention — that first base job was held down by a combination of John Jaso, Sean Rodriguez, and David Freese. All had solid seasons, but all are on the wrong side of 30 and none should be looked at as a long-term solution at first base for Pittsburgh.
So at this point, there is little doubt that the future of first base for the Pirates is Josh Bell. He’s plan A, B, and C for the franchise for at least the next few years. With that said, he still has a long way to go towards fulfilling his potential.
You may have already noticed that the first three words of this piece were a caveat: “As a hitter.” That was intentional, of course. For as much as Bell showed with the bat in his first significant big league playing time, he still ended the season with a negative WAR value (by the FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference models).
The obvious explanation for that fact is, despite Bell’s hitting ability, he was — and is — absolutely brutal with the glove. This wasn’t any surprise to those that had paid attention to his career in the minors. Bell is probably capable of playing the outfield in the majors, but whether it’s a lack of comfort or something else, he’s just an absolute butcher in the infield. Nevertheless, for as long as the Pirates have Andrew McCutchen, there isn’t really a spot for Bell in Pittsburgh’s outfield — though it will be interesting to see if they give him any kind of shot out there in light of Starling Marte’s suspension.
Unfortunately, in the early stages of the 2017 season, Bell has not only continued to be actively harmful to the Pirates’ defensive numbers, he’s also going through some major struggles at the plate.
At this point, I’m not sure what we can even get out of talking about Bell’s defense. He’s bad, and while he can probably make incremental improvements, he’s never likely to be anything better than average. Plus, as a first baseman, there is only so much value to be gleaned from your glove anyway. At some point, you’ve got to hit, regardless of whether you play the position like Darin Erstad or whether you “play” the position like Adam Dunn.
Thus far, Bell has failed to do that. It’s a small sample to be sure, but the problem for him has had more to do with his approach than any bad luck on balls in play. Regardless, it’s led to a .194/.275/.250 slash line through the season’s first two weeks.
Most concerning has been Bell’s willingness to expand the strike zone. He’s still striking out much less frequently than your average first baseman, and he’s walked a fair amount as well, but he’s chasing balls outside of the zone often enough that he’s been unable to make any sort of regular hard contact.
Josh Bell Plate Discipline Decline
The irony here is that Bell’s ability to make contact easily actually does more harm than good when swinging as freely as he is right now. You don’t need me to tell you that making quality contact is harder when you connect on a pitch outside of the strike zone as opposed to one in it. Nevertheless, that’s been causing some major problems for Bell thus far.
Unsurprisingly, that approach has led to very little power. Bell has just two extra-base hits on the season, and chasing all of those bad pitches has mostly led to either weak rollover groundouts or pop-ups. Josh Bell is struggling at the moment, is what I am trying to tell you with all these different descriptions of him being bad.
Of course, it’s still very early in the season, and it would be unwise to lean too heavily on these (or really any) numbers. If this were happening in June instead of the first couple of weeks of the year, it’s doubtful anyone would be all that concerned.
Nevertheless, Bell is a key part of the Pirates present and future. With Marte now gone for half the season (and the entirety of the post-season if Pittsburgh is fortunate enough to get there) the Pirates have some slack on offense, and are going to need Bell to turn things around quickly.
He certainly has the talent to do it. You don’t get paid $5 million out of high school without some obvious tools. But succeeding at the majors is all about making adjustments. Pitchers have already made an adjustment to Bell; can he now adjust to them?
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Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.