Pittsburgh Pirates 2017 Position Breakdown: First Base

SAN DIEGO, CA - JULY 30: Josh Bell
SAN DIEGO, CA - JULY 30: Josh Bell /

Here at Rum Bunter we are going to break down each Pittsburgh Pirates’ position from 2017 starting today with first base.

Entering the 2017 it appeared that first base would be a position of strength – at least offensively – for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Throughout the course of the 2017 season there were five players who saw game action at first base for the Pittsburgh Pirates. While Josh Bell got the majority of the reps at first base, John Jaso, Jose Osuna, Philip Gosselin, and Sean Rodriguez all saw time at first base as well.

The best of these players was by far Bell. The switch-hitting rookie hit a Pirate rookie record 26 home runs, which also broke Chipper Jones‘ National League record for home runs by a switch-hitting rookie.

Bell owned a 10.6 percent walk rate, 18.9 percent strikeout rate, a .334 on-base percentage, .338 wOBA, and a 108 wRC+ in 2017. As one would expect with a rookie, Bell’s season did not go without some hiccups. He slumped the first three weeks of the season (.299 wOBA, 82 wRC+), as well as in September (.280 wOBA, 69 *nice* wRC+)

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Josh Bell also grew leaps and bounds defensively in 2017. After posting a -3 defensive runs saved (DRS) and having some people question if he could even play first base at the Major League level in 2016, he improved to a DRS of +7 in 2017. Also, his fielding percentage improved from .983 to .992. Watching Bell play on a daily basis you could also see him improve in little things such as knowing when to stay on the bag and when to come off, when to cut a ball off, and backing plays up.

Overall in 2017 Pirate first baseman owned a .319 on-base percentage, .442 slugging percentage, a .324 wOBA, a WRC+ of 98, and they hit 43 home runs. These overall numbers were drug down but players not named Josh Bell. A larger part of that was Jose Osuna playing instead of Bell against left-handed starting pitchers far too often. While Josh Bell ranked in the top-10 among National League first baseman in home runs, slugging percentage, ISO, wOBA, and wRC+, the Pirates’ overall numbers at the first base position were among the worst in the league.

Moving forward, the Pirates should expect continued improvement from Josh Bell. Not only will his defense only continue to improve with more reps at first base, but his offense should improve as well. In 2018 look for Bell to begin to combine his power from 2017 with his on-base skills from 2016 to become an all-around hitter.

In 2017 Bell sacrificed on-base percentage for power. However, there is no reason Bell can not be a player who does both at an above average level moving forward. Bell was also somewhat snake bitten in 2017 as his 32.6 percent hard contact rate and 88 miles per hour exit velocity do not match his .268 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Assuming Bell’s BABIP is closer to the league average of .300 in 2018, his on-base percentage should improve by 20-25 points while his power remains.

Due to Josh Bell, and assuming Clint Hurdle stops platooning him against left-handed pitching, first base should be a position of strength for the Pirates for a long time.