It’s said that story lines in baseball start become real around Memorial Day. We’re three days out from the holiday, and Josh Bell owns a 192 wRC+. If that saying is true, that means that Bell will be threatening Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger for MVP honors at the end of the year. After his 3-for-5 performance on Thursday, Bell is now hitting .339/.408/.718 with 16 homers.
The .370 BABIP and the 31.3 HR/FB percentage both suggest that he’ll slow down eventually, but Ben Clemens of FanGraphs wrote a great piece exploring the major improvements Bell has made. Bell is a different, better hitter now. His new, consistent batting stance is certainly the biggest contributor to his breakout, but his approach has improved as well.
Bell currently owns a career-high strikeout rate and a career-low strikeout rate. As Clemens pointed out, he’s swinging a little bit more both inside and outside of the zone, but he has been far more aggressive earlier in the count and in the bottom two-thirds of the zone.
Bell has also changed his two-strike approach. Bell has always been better than average at avoiding strikeouts and even in 2019 when his strikeout rate at an all-time high. Before this year, he doubled down on making contact, but now he doesn’t care if he strikes out. He’d rather try to hit the ball hard and risk missing entirely than do everything he can to make contact and risk hitting it softly somewhere.
The side effect is that he’s striking out half the time when the count gets to two strikes. In 2018, he struck out 34.9 percent. That seems bad, but he also has a .202 ISO after the count gets to two strikes. It turns out that selling out for power might be good if you can hit the ball into the Allegheny.
Of course, Bell would rather the count not get to two strikes, so he has been more aggressive earlier in the counts. He’s seeing 3.6 pitches per plate appearance. That’s down from 4.0 in 2018. Bell is less interested in taking for the sake of taking. If he sees a pitch he likes, he’s going after it. Prior to this year, Bell has gone after the first pitch around a quarter of the time, but now he goes for the ambush every third pitch.
Pitchers have always shied away from throwing Bell anything at the top of the zone. As a hitter with a propensity to pound the ball into the ground, he’s liked to look for pitches up. He’s had an exploitable hole at the bottom of the zone. Throw him something at the knees and he’ll hit a grounder.
He’s learned to elevate the low pitch and that has allowed him to be more aggressive on pitches at the knees. Baseball Savant’s attack zones allow us to look at what Bell has done to pitches in the lower third of the heart of the plate.
Against pitches in zones 7, 8, and 9, Bell’s swing rate has jumped 8.9 percentage points. I think Bell has always had a good idea of what pitches he should swing at. He’s laid off these low, hittable pitches in the past because he couldn’t do as much damage against them. Now, that he’s getting them into the air, he can look for these pitches.
Bell’s evolution has made him a bit of a puzzle for opposing pitchers. You can’t pitch him up because that’s where he wants it, and you can’t pitch him down because he’s learned to counter it. I suppose the next thing is to keep expanding the zone, hoping his aggression will get the better of him, but that might just make him walk more. On the other hand, walking Bell might not be the worst outcome considering what he can do to a baseball.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter at @KennyKellyWords.