MLB’s Biggest Breakout Slugger Josh Bell Is Averaging 427-Foot Bombs

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MLB’s Biggest Breakout Slugger Josh Bell Is Averaging 427-Foot Bombs
Pittsburgh Pirates' Josh Bell drops his bat after hitting a home run against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the eighth inning of a baseball game Tuesday, May 14, 2019, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Matt York/Associated Press

If Josh Bell isn’t already your new favorite slugger, perhaps he ought to be.

Everyone likes their home runs on the long side, after all, and nobody has been hitting ’em longer than the Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman in 2019. Bell has ding-donged his 12 homers at an average of 427 feet, which comfortably leads all hitters who’ve hit at least 10.

This isn’t a case of a sample size being skewed by a few outrageous results. Only two of Bell’s dingers failed to travel over 400 feet. Seven have gone at least 420 feet, and two have shot way over that into the 470-foot range.

Just last week, Bell cranked a 472-foot blast into the Allegheny River in a tilt against the Texas Rangers at PNC Park:

Most recently, the 26-year-old switch-hitter tallied 906 total feet of home runs at Chase Field against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Tuesday. And he’s good for more than just hitting the ball over the fence, as his dozen clouts come with a .333 batting average and .404 on-base percentage.

“We’ve never seen him roll like this,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said, per MLB.com’s Adam Berry. “I don’t know if I’ve seen anybody roll like this in a Pittsburgh uniform for a while.”

What is certain is that Bell’s blasts have been the lifeblood of the Pirates lineup. Although the team is hanging in a tough National League Central race with a 21-19 record, its offense has been an anchor to the tune of a .681 OPS and 3.7 runs per game. Without Bell, it would be worse. 

The rest of us can only ooh and aah, and perhaps ask, “Wait, Josh Bell is doing this?”

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 21: Josh Bell #55 of the Pittsburgh Pirates rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run in the first inning during the game against the Milwaukee Brewers at PNC Park on September 21, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo b

Justin Berl/Getty Images

To be fair, what Bell is now is pretty much what he was always supposed to be. He was considered to have plus hit and power tools when the Pirates took him in the second round in 2011, and those projections largely stuck with him as he made his way through the minor leagues.

Yet Bell didn’t have an easy time actually showing his power as he was making his way to The Show. He hit only 44 home runs across five minor league seasons, with a peak of 14 for Triple-A Indianapolis in 2016.

Bell finally seemed to turn a corner in his first full major league season in 2017. He played in 159 games and racked up 26 long balls to go with an .800 OPS. From there, it was all too reasonable to expect that he would improve to 30 or more homers in 2018.

Instead, he regressed to hit only 12 while producing an equally disappointing .768 OPS. He was no Chris Davis, but he did fall on the lesser side of the offensive spectrum among first basemen.

The Pirates went into the winter still believing in Bell. However, they didn’t mind expressing their desire for him to be better.

“Josh has the ability to be a good hitter. He has the ability to be a power hitter. We’re going to continue to continue to push him to be a good hitter with power,” general manager Neal Huntington said last December, according to Berry.

Bell’s work didn’t need to start in the weight room. He’s listed at 6’4″, 240 pounds, and in 2018, his fly balls and line drives traveled at an average of 94.2 mph. That was the same as Andrew McCutchen, and 0.1 miles per hour below Francisco Lindor, Edwin Encarnacion and Rhys Hoskins.

Rather, Bell’s power issues stemmed more from his passivity and how he tended to hit the ball. His swing rate against pitches in the strike zone was barely above average. His 48.5 ground-ball percentage was one of the highest among first basemen.

Bell therefore needed a different approach, perhaps one brought on with the help of a mechanical shift.

Which brings us to the difference between his mechanics from the left side—i.e., his primary side—of the plate in September 2018:

Images courtesy of MLB Advanced Media, via BaseballSavant.MLB.com.

To those of his first six weeks of 2019:

Images courtesy of MLB Advanced Media, via BaseballSavant.MLB.com.

Bell’s stance has gone from extremely open to decidedly closed, and he’s more upright throughout. In theory, less drastic pre-pitch movement would allow for better focus on the pitches coming his way. The upright stance, meanwhile, would hypothetically allow for a more of an uppercut swing.

In actuality, pretty much. Hence how Bell’s aforementioned issues with passivity and ground balls are no more:

Bell is now a slugger who’s in attack mode and not wasting his swings. Even beyond the extra air-balls, he’s also benefiting from an improvement in his fly-ball/line-drive exit velocity to a career-best 97.9 mph.

“For the most part, I’m living on the barrel and staying off the ground,” Bell said in April, per Rob Biertempfel of The Athletic. “That’s where hard contact is. It seems like in every [at-bat], I’ve had an opportunity to put the barrel on the ball and do damage. I feel like I’m in a good place.”

No argument here. Bell is indeed in a good place. And as long as he stays in it, he should earn the first All-Star selection of his career in July.

Also, a spot in the Home Run Derby. In fact, that part is quickly becoming non-negotiable.

                         

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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