I’ve been frustrated by Josh Bell over the years. With his brahma-bull build (listed as 6″-2″/235), one would think that homers would just fly off his bat and over the fence. But prior to this season, his single-season high in homers is just 13, back in 2013 at Low A West Virginia. Isolated slugging percentage (slugging minus batting average) is a crude method to evaluate power, but the general rule of thumb is that a major leaguer should be at least .130 to .140. The standard is even higher for 1B, as Bell has become in recent years, as the position is considered to be mostly offense first, defense second.
Bell’s Isolated Slugging Percentages by year in the minors:
- 2012 — .129
- 2013 — .174
- 2014 — .134
- 2015 — .129
Coming into this season, I had reservations about whether Bell was ever going to be able to tap into his power potential. The Pirates, apparently, did too, or else how would you explain signing John Jaso to a 2 year deal? Clearly they didn’t think Bell was going to be ready in 2016 and had some doubts about 2017, hence the bridge contract for Jaso.
Josh Bell, as a person, is a very intelligent human being. His parents are both professors and have stressed the value of education to him. I’ve wondered at some times if Bell is too smart to play baseball — is he too analytical while he’s standing in the batter’s box instead of just “grip it and rip it”? This year, though, his hitting coach at Indianapolis has stressed the importance of identifying a small hitting zone and capitalizing on mistakes within that zone.
The results have borne out to what is becoming Josh Bell’s finest season as a professional. In 2016 (as of July 1st), his triple slash line is .324/.409/.537, with 12 homers so far. That .213 isolated slugging percentage is by far the highest of his career and portends great success at the major league level. To put it in some context, his AAA isolated slugging number of .213 is in line with ML players like Freedie Freeman, Paul Goldschmidt, and Joey Votto. That number would give him the 12th highest in the Majors. Naturally, AAA numbers don’t translate to the Majors; but even if he were to be in the .180 range, you’re still looking at an Eric Hosmer-type of power, around the 18th highest.
The great part about Bell is that not only is he a switch hitter, but he’s doing quite well from both sides of the plate this season, thus minimizing the need for a platoon partner. Bell’s splits:
- v. LHP (as a RH batter, 95 at-bats) — .316/.416/.526 — 3 HR
- v. RHP (as a LH batter, 199 at-bats) — .332/.407/.548 — 9 HR
Obviously, he’ll be facing more right-handed pitching over the course of a season, so it’s good to see that the majority of his power is from that side.
The other knock on Bell has been his sub-par defense at first base, which is really saying something since the bar for defensive value is set pretty low at that position. The issues have mostly stemmed from his poor footwork around the bag, getting to the bag, and getting set up properly to receive throws from the infielders. His range is spotty at best. This all sounds very Pedro Alvarez-esque to me and we know how maddening that experiment was.
In watching some of his games on MiLB.tv, his issues seem like ones that can be ironed out through repetition. Also, unlike Alvarez, Bell does not strike me as mentally weak and prone to getting lost in his own head. His diligence and dedication to his craft should allow him to at least become passable at 1B.
So when can you expect to see Josh Bell taking cuts at PNC Park? Well, that could be a little bit of a conundrum for Pirate fans. If the Pirates go on a run and turn their season around in July, the Pirates will probably keep John Jaso and make a run at the playoffs. If the Pirates continue to tread water at or below .500 or have a prolonged losing streak, they’ll look to offload Jaso at the trade deadline and probably bring up Bell at that point.
So do you want the Pirates to do well or do you want to see Josh Bell before September callups?