Even though he turned in an incredible rookie debut, Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Josh Bell can be even better in 2017
Josh Bell’s story is fairly well known. He sent letters to all MLB teams indicating that he was going to follow through with his commitment and attend the University of Texas at Austin after his senior year of high school. But then the Pittsburgh Pirates offered him $5 million in the second round of the 2011 draft and he decided that college could be put on hold.
Drafted as an outfielder, Bell has transitioned to first base due to the plethora of talent already in the outfield for the Pirates and was heading into 2017 as the team’s projected first baseman.
Bell turned in a fine 152 plate appearances in his debut season in 2016. His patience was otherworldly at times, and he ended his first go-round in the major leagues with more walks than strikeouts – a truly impressive feat.
Not only did he draw more walks than strikeouts, Bell also saw nearly as many balls as he did combined strikes (whiffs, called strikes and fouls):
That too is impressive, but does not preclude some warts in Bell’s game at the plate, and defensively.
Switch HItter, But Stronger From the Left (For Now)
One reason that Bell is so valuable to the Pittsburgh Pirates is because he is a switch hitter and profiles as someone who could hit for power as he develops more at the big league level. In his limited exposure last season, he accumulated 128 ABs as a left handed bat against RHP and slashed .273/.368/.406 with three home runs and 19 RBIs. On the other side of the plate in just 19 ABs versus southpaws, he went .211/.304/.211. It’s odd to see a player have a slugging percentage lower than his on base percentage, but Bell was able to accomplish this bizarre feat last season.
It is not like Bell was completely lost against left-handed pitching. When we look at the breakdown of pitches thrown to Bell by left-handers, we can see a clear path towards improvement.
Left-handed hitters did not try to fool Bell very much, with straight heat and a sinking fastball making up the bulk of his offerings by percentage.
Here is how Bell did against sinkers and four-seamers from both left and right handed pitchers:
Viewing everything in terms of percentages, Bell actually did a pretty good job of putting these pitches in play against left-handers while still showing decent patience. He did not swing and miss at these pitches from southpaws much, either.
If we couple these findings with his paltry .238 BABIP – batting average on balls in play – against lefties in 2016, a case could be made that Bell will simply need more PAs against Major League left-handers to get adjusted.
After all, he did slash .267/.366/.427 against them last year in Triple-A Indianpolis.
There is every reason to think that Bell will naturally improve versus left-handers, but uf this pattern continues, the Pittsburgh Pirates may decide to give someone like David Freese at-bats against lefty pitching instead of Bell. Of course, if Bell starts to smack the ball from both sides of the plate, he could easily easily surpass 450-500 at-bats for the season.
Last season Bell saw the majority of his at-bats come when he was hitting second in the lineup. He slashed .247/.366/.366 there (in 93 at-bats). He hit better when he was dropped down into the fifth and sixth slots of the lineup, but the number of at-bats in both of those positions limit how much can be gleaned from the statistics. At any rate, Bell will give Clint Hurdle a versatile switch hitter that he can inject pretty much anywhere in the lineup.
Offensively, What Can He Do Better?
On the face of it, Bell’s stats from last year were very good for someone in his first year. But a deeper dive does show there are areas that he can improve on this season. Specifically, his batting average in certain counts when he has two strikes on him. Last season, Bell hit .200 in his 20 at-bats after the count was 0-2. In 34 at-bats after it was 1-2, he hit just .147. After the count was even at 2-2, he hit .258 in 31 at-bats. When the pitcher was ahead in the count, Bell slashed just .179/.179/.231. Two strikes and pitcher-ahead counts are never desirable for any batter, but Bell will have to show a bit more of a “battle back” mentality.
All of these statistics occurred in very small sample sizes so they should not be weighed too heavily. He’s a very talented hitter and these statistics will probably even out as he gains more experience. But watching how he performs in these counts in the early stages of the season will be worthwhile.
Can the Pittsburgh Pirates Live With His Defense?
If there is one aspect to Bell’s game that is considered to be suspect, it’s his fielding at first base. Last season in a very small sample size of just 150.1 innings, he was charged with three errors and ended the season with a .983 fielding percentage. His DRS of -3 and UZR of -2.2 aren’t pretty, however.
At the end of the day, the more experience that Bell gains at first base is going to help him get better, so there may still be some bumps in the road. But he is a talented athlete and should be able to play at least average defense at first base once he gains more experience. If the bat plays as many think it will, the Pittsburgh Pirates will absolutely live with his defense at first.
What Do The Projections Say?
Over at Fangraphs, they have projections for each player as run by ZiPS and Steamer. Both of the projections have him accumulating 1.1 WAR, which is certainly reasonable given that he is just entering his first full season at this level. With ISOs projected to be .144 (Steamer) and .156 (ZiPS), he projected to be a little bit better than average at hitting for extra bases.
Last season (albeit in just 152 PAs), Bell walked 21 times compared to just 19 strikeouts. This worked out to a 13.8 walk percentage and a 12.5 strikeout percentage. ZiPS and Steamer are remarkably close in their projections for next season, and both have his numbers going in the wrong direction.
ZiPS sees his walk percentage going down to 10.5 and Steamer has his mark at 10.0. His strikeout percentage is projected to rise as well, with projections of 14.7 (ZiPS) and 14.9 (Steamer). But the game is played on the field and not in a computer! So Bell could very well exceed these projections.
A Solid Foundation
Bell is poised to have a very good season for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Hitting 10+ home runs in 2016 is likely, with the mid to high teens being a real possibility. He’ll also hit his fair share of doubles so he should have a fairly robust slugging percentage by season’s end.
The patience he showed at the plate last year could be a huge weapon against opposing pitchers and will help the Pirates improve on the number of pitches they see per game. Last season Bell saw an average of 4.06 pitches per plate appearance. As a team, the Pirates saw an average of 3.97 while the league average was 3.87.
Bell’s name came up all over the internet when fans speculated on what it would take to pry Jose Quintana from the Chicago White Sox. Bell (or another top MLB ready player) would have surely headlined any such deal, which probably played into why a deal was not struck when talks were heating up. His switch hitting potential is just too great to give up on, and it’s been a very long time since the Pittsburgh Pirates had a homegrown impact bat at first base.
Bell could turn into just that, and quickly.