Josh Bell’s Defense Does Not Get Enough Credit

Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports /

Contrary to what many people feared, Josh Bell’s defense has not been a liability this season

Entering the 2017 season, many people expected big things out of Josh Bell. The Pittsburgh Pirates’ rookie first baseman had been one of the top hitting prospects in baseball for the past handful of seasons, and he made an impressive debut in 2016 posting an 113 wRC+ 21:19 walk-to-strikeout ratio in 152 plate appearances.

For these reasons, people were very excited about his offensive potential for 2017. Thus far, he has not disappointed in that category. Maybe more importantly, though, has been the strides he has made as a defender at first base.

First, Bell’s offense. In 98 plate appearances, this season Josh Bell owns an 110 wRC+, .176 ISO, 12.2 percent walk rate, and his 4 home runs are second on the team. Mix in the fact that Bell started the season 4-for-24 with 4 walks, and his offensive output to this point is even more impressive.

Josh Bell’s offensive numbers should only continue to improve as the season progresses and this is a very good thing for the Pittsburgh Pirates and their fans. Bell has all the tools needed to be an elite Major League hitter, and those tools are starting to be put on full display.

Now, back to his defense. Regardless of the position, Bell’s defense was a mess in 2016. He had -5 defensive runs saved (DRS) in right field with a -60.4 UZR/150, while at first base his DRS was -3 and his UZR/150 was -32.8. His defensive woes are a big reason why his WAR in 2016 was -0.2 despite his offensive success.

In 2017 Josh Bell has played exclusively first base and this will be the case moving forward. He played 150 1/3 innings at first base in 2016 and has already logged 182 2/3 innings at first base in 2017. And in 2017, he has been a completely different defender.

This season at first base Josh Bell has a DRS of +2, his UZR/150 is 5.7, and he owns a .994 fielding percentage. All of which are massive improvements over 2016. In fact, Josh Bell has rated out as an above average defensive first baseman this season.

Additionally, the eye test alone can tell you that Josh Bell’s defense is improving. He is getting much better at stretching for throws at first base while remaining on the bag, and he has also made tremendous strides in his positioning on the field.

Bell has also improved at backing up the plays that he is supposed to back up as a first baseman. Furthermore, he has also gotten much better at decided what throws from the outfield to cut off and which ones to let go.

With the strides Bell has made at first base it is time to stop with the late game defensive replacements at first base. No knock on John Jaso‘s glove at first base which is also strong (+1 DRS, 16.2 UZR/150), but now that Bell’s defense has progressed so much there is no need to make this switch late in close games. This is especially true when you factor in the offensive difference between the two players.

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Josh Bell’s defense has been much better than anyone could have ever anticipated this season. In fact, he is rating out as an above average defensive first baseman. This combined with his above average offensive prowess will make Bell one of the Pirates’ best players for a very long time.