Despite being only 2 1/2 games behind the division-leading Cubs, the Pirates are having a bit of a rough year. Although revenues are way, WAY, up (reportedly $109 million in 2003, compared to $254 million in 2018) the team continues to be mired in mediocrity.
The team has struggled to develop young players to reach their potential, and even when they have, the players often seem to thrive elsewhere (Gerrit Cole, Austin Meadows, and Charlie Morton all were all stars this week, and none of them wore Pirates’ black-and-gold). This season however, the Pirates are overseeing a breakout season from their slugging first baseman, Josh Bell.
Selected in the second round of the 2011 draft, the switch-hitting Bell regularly appeared on Pittsburgh’s top prospect list, and figured to be a player to watch as he ascended through the minors. His offensive upside was clear to most teams coming out of high school, though it was a considerable battle to get him to forego a University of Texas scholarship, especially considering his mother is a professor.
The Pirates landed Bell, and in 2016, slotted him into the everyday lineup. The power / average upside showed itself throughout his four-and-a-half years in the minor leagues, as Bell regularly posted double-digit doubles and triples, combined with double-digit home run numbers.
So far this season, Bell has jumped to the forefront as one of the best hitters in the game, as he’s posted a .302 average and 27 home runs through 88 games and 388 plate appearances. His isolated slugging has increased from a meager .150 last season to an astonishing .346 this year.
Bell has not changed his overall approach, as he is walking at approximately the rate he has throughout his Major League career (up a tick from 10.8 percent compared to a career number of 11.8 percent). Additionally, his strikeout rate is only slightly changed as well, 20.4 percent compared to a career average of 18.3 percent). The hit-tool however is shining through, as his batting average is up over 30 points from what the Buccos saw previously (and it’s not due to an over-inflated BBAIP, which at .315, is in line for a hitter with such a hard-hit rate).
The biggest positive change for Bell is how hard he is hitting the ball in 2019. Bell sits in the top-ten in average exit velocity behind names like Aaron Judge, Christian Yelich, Shohei Ohtani and ahead of Kyle Schwarber, Matt Chapman, and Rafael Devers. His 133 batted balls of 95 miles per hour or greater is third-best in the league, behind Rafael Devers’ 143 and Jose Abreu’s 134.
While he has always been classified as a fairly aggressive hitter, Bell is swinging at more pitches this season than he has previously. He offers up at nearly 54 percent of offspeed pitches (compared to 41.62 percent last year), nearly 52 percent of the breaking balls (compared to 41.05 last year) and 46 percent of fastballs (compared to 43.68 percent last year. The aggressiveness has led to resounding success, and a breakout at the plate.
Bell is particularly feisty on first-pitches, where he’s crushed pitchers when they have offered something for him to hit. Five of his 27 homers have come off first pitches, as have eight of his league-leading 30 doubles (and there’s one triple in there, for good measure).
Opposing pitchers who start Bell with the hard stuff are not faring well. In 0-0 counts, Bell has a .313 batting average against fourseamers and a .417 batting average when he gets a two-seam fastball.
Bell is a natural right-handed player, and a right-handed first baseman, however, hitting from the left-hand side he is demonstrating more power. As a left-handed batter this season, he is posting a .314/.392/.674 slash line, and has hit 20 home runs. Considering that represents 221 of 384 tracked first-pitches, the aggressiveness is paying off for Bell.
The burden is on opposing pitchers to adjust to Bell, because this breakout seems real, and if pitchers continue doing what they’ve done so far this season, these numbers will continue.
Although it’s highly unlikely Bell will lead the Pirates to the postseason, at least there’s one reason to go out and watch this team. Sad to say, but if nothing else, he may be on your team in the next few years since he’s under Pittsburgh control through 2023 and could be dangled as a trade chip in the coming seasons.