Breaking Down Josh Bell’s Rookie Season

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 03: Josh Bell
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 03: Josh Bell /

Josh Bell became the everyday first baseman for the Pirates in his technical rookie season.  At times, Bell showed why the Pirates invested $5 million in him, but his ebbs and flows were much more than what was wanted and needed from him.

Josh Bell started his season with a small delay, going under the knife in February to remove a “loose body” from the knee.  He was coming off a season in which he had two stints with the Pirates, the first time up he was played sparingly, though had two big moments in his first two plate appearances.  He finished his first season with 152 plate appearances and hit .273/.368/.406, showing more plate discipline and contact ability than power.

That is what his preseason projections entering the season had him pegged for, more of an on-base threat than a power threat.  ZiPS projected .270/.347/.426 with a .332 wOBA, STEAMER projected .280/.355/.424 with a .335 wOBA, and PECOTA projected .280/.353/.440.  Bell, who changed his approach to allow more power while giving up contact ability, ended the season at .255/.334/.466 with a .338 wOBA in 620 plate appearances.

Bell had his ups and downs, and his playing time against left-handed pitching was inconsistent.  After an April and May in which Josh Bell did not have much consistency, Bell was progressing nicely from early June through the end of August.  For that three-month stretch, June 1st through August 30th, Bell hit .288/.364/.532 with a .374, and along with Andrew McCutchen, carried a substandard offense.

Josh Bell didn’t perform well in September, which could be a result of fatigue, as Bell played in 159 of 162 games, starting 141 of them.  I downloaded his game logs from Baseball-Reference and calculated his progressive wOBA for the season below, and you can see the inconsistent April and May, which had a high peak, and the success he had from June through August before sliding in the final month:

wOBA is a great metric because it sums up a hitters contributions in one number, weighting each form of how to reach base.  It does have its flaws, such as being one number, it will lose some information, and it’s not clear how they produced the wOBA without looking at the components.  But it’s still a tremendous metric to evaluate offensive production from a player.  Another downside is it doesn’t adjust for park and league, such as Baseball Prospectus’ version true average (TAv), which also adds more than what wOBA does in terms of plate appearance results.

Weighted runs created plus (wRC+) accounts for both the league and park, putting it on a scale of 100 being average, and each deviation being a percent.  Above 100 is better than average, and below 100 is below average.  You can read about the methodology on Fangraphs, and just like for the wOBA, I was able to reproduce Bell’s seasonal progression in wRC+ below:

Bell peaked in mid May and late August, with August being his best month overall.  His highest wRC+ of the season occurred on May 19, being 27 percent above average.  However, he plummeted to a 92 wRC+ on June 7th.  In that stretch, Bell hit just .147/.224/.265 in 76 plate appearances.  Below are his monthly splits:


These splits help visualize the graphs above.  He progressed nicely after an up-and-down April and May but sputtered in September, where he struck out 24.5 percent of the time and only hit a home run 2.83 percent of the time.  Both the strikeout rate and home run rate in September were the worst for any month for Josh Bell.  It was also his only month where he was below the non-pitcher league average in home run rate:

MonthlyBell HR%League HR%Percent Above/Below

On the offensive side of things, Bell was a different player compared to what he was in 2016.  The same can be said on the defensive side of thing.  In 2016, Bell split time between first base and right field, where he should probably never play again.  Bell at first base didn’t look fluid in 2016.  In 2017, however, Bell actually looked more comfortable at first, posting six defensive runs saved, which ranked seventh of 21 qualified first baseman.  He didn’t have the best range, his UZR/150 was -2.9 and ranked 15th, but Bell getting comfortable at the position and being better than the average first baseman are nice to see.  He could get more comfortable throwing the ball though.

Next: Elias Diaz First Extended Look

With the bat, Bell had his ups and downs, and on a whole was probably more disappointing than satisfying.  There were both the positives and negatives to the season.  He only finished eight percent above average, and slashed .255/.334/.466 in his 620 plate appearances.  He applied a different approach, relying more on power than getting on-base, but that also increased his swing and miss rate and strikeouts.

He was better defensively than expected, which is a plus and hopefully he will build on in 2018.  Bell will be 25 next season, and after having a partial season of on-base ability and a full season where he showed his power, a marriage of the two seasons is what the hope should be, and that would allow him to carry the offense.

*Numbers from Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus