By: Chris Larson
Everyday there are pirates voyaging off, onto another mission out in the deep sea, all around the world. Whether they're searching for gold or the spot of the next pirate fight, no one knows for sure, but it's almost similar to the scenes of the series, Pirates of the Caribbean, as the pirates look to take back control of the world.
Well, maybe not to that extreme or the extreme of going out voyaging in the deep seas on a daily basis, but there is one pirate crew that has found it's next best captain and that's the Pittsburgh Pirates with Josh Bell. Josh Bell has always been viewed as an integral part of the Pirates crew list for a while now, but this year he has stepped it up to another level and tapped into something that virtually no one saw coming.
Looking over the past few seasons, they have all been somewhat of a disappointment for the first baseman. Dating back to the end of the All-Star break during the 2016 regular season to the conclusion of the 2018 regular season, Josh Bell hit: .259/.346/.433 over 1,352 plate appearances with 304 hits, 65 doubles, 10 triples, 40 home runs, 167 RBI, 240 strikeouts, a (17.8%) strikeout percentage, and an Isolated Power value of (.174). In addition, Bell had a (12.1%) walk percentage and an overall BABIP of (.291) during that span as well.
Throughout that span of 2 and 1/2 years, there were many moments where Josh Bell would enter a slump and would look as though things were going virtually no where. For instance, let's take a look at his 2017 regular season results. That is the season when Bell ended the year with a (18.9%) strikeout percentage and an overall Isolated Power value of (.211) bringing about concerns regarding his ability to put together his power with his hit tools. Regarding last season, things didn't look much rosier.
Last April, for example, Josh Bell ended the month with 25 strikeouts and a (.217) batting average over the span of 116 plate appearances. Furthermore, from June 1st until August 31st last year, Bell had an overall Isolated Power value of (.136) and a (16.7%) strikeout percentage. Again, not the results that the Pittsburgh Pirates were looking for and a reason why so many were concerned for the 25-year old regarding his future and if everything would ever click together.
However, fast forward to this season and things are looking much more promising for the 26 year-old. So far this season over the span of 167 plate appearances, Bell is batting: .329/.401/.692 with a (.363) ISO value and a (.364) BABIP. In addition, Bell has a Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) of (.441) and a (181) Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) over that window of time. Granted, it's a small sample size, but it's a glimpse into what could be a significant break out season for Josh Bell and something that the Pittsburgh Pirates would certainly welcome during the righties fourth season in the majors.
So what exactly has brought about the significant turn around for Josh Bell? Well, the explanation begins with the idea of a player in the midst of their peak and someone that focused on adding muscle tone, during this past offseason, to their body. According to various reports that came out during Spring Training, Josh Bell added significant muscle mass and worked on his stance at the plate as well. When you combine both of those things together, you will typically find that both are essential ingredients for success at the plate, especially for someone like Josh Bell, who has a tremendous amount of power when healthy.
Furthermore, his ability to see the ball and whack it at a good velocity has also come around. For illustration of that refer to this graph, courtesy of FanGraphs, which shows Josh Bells hard hit percentage this season compared to the average of other MLB players around the league.
As you can see from the chart, Josh Bell had an average hard hit percentage of around (33%) last season, but has since skyrocketed that value to around (50%) so far this season. Other factors like the ballpark that he's hitting in, as well as the overall makeup of the baseball have an effect, but the baseball being used this year is similar to the one used last year, as indicated by the continue rise in the amount of home runs being hit. When talking about hard hit percentage it's also important to discuss soft and medium contact percentage as well, which is showcased in the graph below.
Again, as you can see from the graph, the amount of soft contact is down significantly from last year as is the amount of medium contact. As indicated by the chart, the soft contact percentage was (20%) last season, but so far is down around (10%) this year. In comparison, Josh Bell's medium contact percentage was somewhere around (46%) last year, but is hovering closer to (40%) this season. That brings about the question: what type of pitches is Josh Bell seeing and has that had any effect in the overall offensive numbers for him?
For more on that, take a look at this graph, also courtesy of FanGraphs, which showcases the five primary pitches that Josh Bell sees the most often.
As you can see by the chart, Josh Bell is seeing less fastballs, more changeups (14% last season compared to about 20% this year), and has seen a slight decline in sliders, sinkers, and curveballs. However, the differences for those last three pitches aren't virtually as noticeable as the differences in fastball and changeups.
As such, Josh Bell has been able to combine his increase in muscle mass and a change in his stance at home plate with his ability to finally tap into his full power potential and has been able to recognize pitches at a better rate. The final part of the discussion regarding the changes for Josh Bell surround around his Z-Swing% which is illustrated in the graph below.
From the chart, it can be easily concluded that Josh Bell has a lot more plate discipline swinging inside the zone compared to the rest of the league. Look at the vast difference in the percentages! The rest of baseball has a Z-Swing% of (67%), while Josh Bell is nearly ten percentage points higher right around (77%). Considering that his Z-Swing% last season was close to league average, that is contributing to his overall significant boost in results as well. There's a reason why every hitting coach preaches being patient at the plate, while staying disciplined to watch for pitches to hit in the zone, and Josh Bell might just be the spokesmen for that campaign!
Regardless of the phenomenal start that Josh Bell has had and the significant turnaround in his overall offensive numbers, he is bound to hit a slump at some point, as every hitter does over the span of a 162-game season. Therefore, let's take a look at how the FanGraph Streamer tool projects he will do at the plate over the remainder of the season.
Basically, the FanGraph Streamer tool is expecting Josh Bell to hit right around league average when all is said and done. However, these are just projections and never play out to be exactly right, but you have to like the wOBA value and the overall slugging percentage. Beyond that, the ISO value, strikeout percentage, and home run/RBI totals are expected to fall in line with how he has concluded each of the past few seasons. Hopefully for Josh Bell and the Pittsburgh Pirates sake, he is able to outdo these projections big time and continue to be one of the more feared hitters in all of baseball. It just likely won't continue to be this smooth for all 162 games.
With that being said, this breakout season was one that many did not expect to come, but it is definitely a welcome sight for the Pittsburgh Pirates and for everyone else around the game, who have been waiting for Josh Bell to tap into his full power potential, for a few years now. With a new workout regime this past offseason, a change in his stance at home plate, and his ability to recognize pitches in the zone better than ever, they have all contributed to the success that he's experienced so far this season.
The Pirates might not necessarily end up being a contender when all is said and done, but as they show every year, that cast of crewmates are relentless and won't stop until the end. As such, Josh Bell is a big part of the crew and might have become the Pirates next best captain to guide the ship moving forward.