Josh Bell has long perplexed me. I remember when he signed for $5M in the 2011 draft as a 2nd round pick, it was shocking.
I did a guest spot on Stan Savran’s radio show at the time and remember how disappointed he was when I told Stan that he wasn’t a ‘5 tool player’, but rather a ‘3-1/2 tool’ player because of his limited defensive abilities. People expected so much for that bonus amount that it felt like he would end up disappointing people no matter what.
Josh Bell missed a whole year because of his knee injury that eventually required him to do platelet-rich infusions in order to get it to heal quicker. Through his minor league career, whether it was due to the knee injury and lingering after effects or inability to tap into his power, his home run totals were always lacking for me. This was especially true once it became apparent that 1B was going to be his position on the field. The most he hit in a single minor league season was 14 last year with an overall isolated slugging percentage was just .173, below-average for a 1B.
But what Bell lacked in power in the minors, he compensated for with strong batting averages and excellent on-base percentages stemming from his high walk rates. Both of these things translated fairly well during his major league debut last year when he put up a triple slash line of .273/.368/.406 — only 3 homers, but a very good walk rate, and a slim isolated slugging percentage of .133. It seemed to me as if he would be a J.T. Snow-esque type of 1B — high average, low power.
All of that has changed this year, as Josh Bell has transformed himself into the exact opposite — low average, high power 1B. His 19 HR’s are 5th among all rookies in MLB, which is impressive considering the top two (Judge of NYY and Bellinger of LAD) are going to win their respective Rookie of the Year awards handily.
However, lost in all of the excitement of another Josh Bell home run deep into the night, followed by a Twitter reaction filled with timely bell emoticons and clever puns, is the fact that Josh Bell is just a shade above an average offensive player. In fact, at this point in his career he’s just an upgraded version of Pedro Alvarez.
Just bringing up the name ‘Pedro Alvarez’ probably causes some of you indigestion, but I’d like to remind everyone that this town had a love affair, albeit brief, with Alvarez at one time, too. Lost in all the teeth gnashing about his strikeouts and sudden aversion to throwing the baseball to 1B (followed by a year of butchering the position while at 1B) is the fact that Pedro Alvarez was once in possession of a strong and accurate arm at 3B. There were many an occasion when he would uncork a laser from the hot corner over to 1st. If his mental acuity were stronger, he could have been a perfectly acceptable 3B in the mold of Aramis Ramirez, but it wasn’t meant to be. Occasionally, I wondered if his cannon of an arm could have translated out to RF where his mobility may have been hidden a bit.
In terms of offense, Pedro Alvarez was low average, high power, too. His high strikeout rate was partially offset by his ability to get on-base via drawing walks. This is what Josh Bell has replicated this year for the most part. Let’s look at a comparison of the two players in their first full seasons. I’ve put their ages at the time in parentheses.
|Player||Year||Average||On-Base %||Slugging %||BB%||K%||wRC+||WAR|
|Pedro Alvarez (25)||2012||0.244||0.317||0.467||9.70%||30.70%||112||2.2|
|Josh Bell (24)||2017||0.253||0.327||0.474||9.90%||19.10%||109||0.7|
Josh Bell clearly has better strike zone judgement than Pedro Alvarez, but the rest of their rate stats are pretty well in line with each other. That year in 2012, Pedro hit 30 homers. To date, Bell has hit 19, so he’s roughly on pace to approach that number, too. But if you look at the rest of his offensive package, Bell is only producing 9% more offense than a league-average player, regardless of position. This was similar to Alvarez’s boom or bust offensive portfolio.
Pedro Alvarez was playing a passable 3B back in 2012 (certainly not great, mind you), so that helped buoy his defensive component of WAR. He was also a much better baserunner, especially on going from 1st to 3rd, than many give him credit for. Baserunning is certainly not a strength for Josh Bell.
With Pedro Alvarez, there was no real growth as he progressed through his Pirates’ career. His triple slash line was more or less his line during his entire tenure. His defensive ratings would swing his worth in WAR from 3.0 down to 0.0, but his wRC+ would have a much narrower range of 103 to 113. The cement had dried on his development. The question is whether or not the same is true of Josh Bell.
Josh Bell is an extremely smart individual. He also does not appear to have the mental quirks/hangups that Pedro possessed, so there is a capacity for growth and change in him that Alvarez just could never produce. It’s entirely possible that Bell finds another gear that will allow him to improve his batting average while not sacrificing either his power or ability to draw a walk. But until he does, Josh Bell appears to be the next version of Pedro Alvarez with just better strikeout numbers.