The Pirates Need To Stop Platooning Josh Bell

TORONTO, ON - AUGUST 12: Josh Bell
TORONTO, ON - AUGUST 12: Josh Bell /

The Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Josh Bell has platooned recently against left-handed pitching, and this is with him improving his performance against them.  Platooning him is not only bad for Bell’s development, but bad for the Pirates.

The Pirates as a team rank 25th in runs scored per game this season, scoring a mere 4.29 runs per game.  They are scoring more against left-handed starting pitchers, scoring 4.40 runs in the 32 games started by a southpaw.  Though the team has hit better against lefties, the offense hasn’t been good in general, and that lines with the platooning of Bell in recent weeks.

Bell still ranks fourth on the team in plate appearances against left handers, but most of that has come early on in the season, as lately he has sat in favor of Jose Osuna.  But it’s only a trend that has started recently.  This is a breakdown of the last 10 games the Pirates have faced against left-handed starters:

7/17/17MilwaukeeBrent Suter5
7/23/17ColoradoKyle Freeland5
7/25/17San FranciscoMadison Bumgarner5
7/28/17San DiegoTravis Wood5
7/30/17San DiegoClayton RichardDidn’t Start
8/4/17San DiegoTravis Wood6
8/6/17San DiegoClayton RichardDidn’t Start
8/8/17DetroitMatthew BoydDidn’t Start
8/13/17TorontoJ.A. HappDidn’t Start
8/21/17Los AngelesAlex WoodDidn’t Start

For a long time, Josh Bell was playing against left-handed pitchers, but the last four, and five of the last six, Bell has sat on the bench.  Flipping Bell and Freese in the order depending on the pitcher is one thing, but completely shielding Bell is another.  It would make sense to perhaps bench him against left-handed pitchers, if: 1). the Pirates were in contention  and 2). Josh Bell was struggling against left handers.

To point number one, the Pirates sit 60-66, eight games out of first place and eight and a half games out of the wild card.  Baseball Prospectus has their playoff odds at 0.7 percent.  They’re far from contention, and their peak in playoff odds over the last month was 15.4 percent on July 21.  Since that date, the Pirates playoff odds have constantly decreased, with it increasing to 4.9 percent on August 11, before it has tailed off again.  They haven’t been in contention for a long time, yet they still consist on platooning Bell.

It’s not like Bell has struggled against left-handed pitchers either.  Using the data from baseball savant and reconstructing the plate appearances of Bell, you can see he has actually improved with each at bat dating back to last season:

Bell has increased his average slugging, after really bottoming out on career at bat number 72, which occurred in the fourth inning on June 11, 2017.  With Bell’s progress the Pirates have decided to really stagnate it recently.  His improvement has come with the recent platooning him.

Bell is only hitting .240/.315/.458 in his 108 plate appearances this year against left handed pitchers, but that’s good enough for a 102 wRC+, making Bell essentially a league average hitter against southpaw’s.  The team is actively benching a league average hitter who is supposed to be the team’s core first baseman.  Furthermore, Bell’s estimated wOBA (xwOBA) against lefties – which accounts in exit velocity, launch angle, and walks – is .339, not much different from the .345 against right-handed pitchers.  In fact, the only players with higher xwOBA’s against left handed pitchers are Andrew McCutchen and David Freese.

Jose Osuna is hitting .282/.330/.506 with a 116 wRC+ against left-handed pitchers in 91 plate appearances, playing him isn’t the end of the world, though his xwOBA is .310 and much less than Bell’s.  With Gregory Polanco out, playing Jose Osuna in right and Bell at first would be understandable, but that’s not what they’ve done.

Next: Cumpton and Keller Last Night

Josh Bell has been improving against left-handed pitchers, and given his xwOBA he should be performing much better.  Despite this, Clint Hurdle and the Pirates continually to platoon him.  Stagnating a former second round pick’s growth as a player when your team is far from contention is not the best use of the remaining 36 games.

*Numbers from baseball savant and fangraphs