What is wrong with the Pittsburgh Pirates’ slugging first baseman this season?
In the 2011 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft the Pittsburgh Pirates selected high school hitter Josh Bell in the second round of the draft. Bell was already enrolled at the University of Texas, which was the only reason he was not drafted in the first round of the draft, but after being offered a $5 million signing bonus – the largest in draft history for a player selected in the second round – Bell decided to forgo college and turn pro.
With the hype that was around Bell and the signing bonus he received, the expectations were immediately very high for the switch-hitter. These expectations only grew when he posted a .368 on-base percentage, .339 wOBA, and a 112 wRC+ in 45 games in 2016.
During the 2017 season Bell was a finalist for National League Rookie of the Year when he began to flash his power. Bell finished 2017 with a .211 ISO, .466 slugging percentage, and a National League switch-hitting rookie record 26 home runs. His increase in power made his sacrifice in on-base percentage (.334 in 2017) a worthwhile trade.
When the 2018 season began the Pirates were relying upon Bell to be the team’s biggest power bat. The expectation had become for Bell to be an anchor of the Pirate lineup for many years to come.
Through the first two months of the 2018 season Bell has struggled. He has not had the on-base prowess of 2016 or the power of 2017. These problems are puzzling, however, because Bell should be finding better results than he is.
After going 0-for-4 on Sunday, Bell owns a .317 on-base percentage, .379 slugging percentage, .136 ISO, .304 wOBA, and a wRC+ of 91 this season. All of these are career lows for the 25-year-old Texan.
243 plate appearances into his 2018 campaign Bell is hitting the ball with slightly less authority than the previous two seasons. His 31.4% hard contact rate is the lowest of his career, as is his 16.4% line drive rate. However, the drop off from last season when these numbers were 32.6% and 17.7% should be too small to cause such a drastic drop in power.
There is also Bell and his groundballs. Bell hits a lot of groundballs and that is something I have been critical of him for in the past. However, his 48.0% groundball rate this season is a new career low. His 19.2% soft contact rate is also a career low. A drop in groundballs and soft contact should lead to an increase in offensive production, not a decrease.
Typically when a hitter is hitting the ball well but struggling to produce results it is due to a low batting average on balls in play (BABIP). That is not the case with Bell, though. League average BABIP is .300 and Bell’s currently sits at .289. So, he has not been a victim of bad luck on balls in play.
What is the issue with Bell then? Well, it may be his launch angle.
Via Baseball Savant, Bell owns a launch angle of 11.7 degrees and an exit velocity of 89.2 miles per hour. That 89.2 MPH is actually a new career best exit velocity for Bell. It would appear that launch angle could be the source of Bell’s struggles.
Bell’s launch angle in 2017 was 13 degrees. While it may not sound like much, this difference could be the source of Bell’s struggles. If not, then this case becomes even more puzzling.
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*- shoutout to Dave for being the one who put this graph together earlier this afternoon.
Looking at the density curve above, it would appear that Bell’s average launch angle in 2017 was paired with higher concentration surrounding his average, ultimately helping lead to Bell’s success. This was likely closer to his optimal angle, hence why he was better in 2017 than he has been in 2018, as his 2018 launch angle is less concentrated and more spread out.
If this is what is plaguing Bell then that should be taken as positive news. He is not swinging and missing more this season, he is not hitting the ball softer, and he is hitting fewer ground balls. Addressing a launch angle issue is much easier to do than addressing a ‘hitting the ball too softly’ issue is.
Josh Bell’s struggles this season are puzzling. Have all of his struggles this season been caused due to a slight change in launch angle, and not being as consistent as 2017? It would appear so. If not, however, then Bell and hitting coach Jeff Branson will really need to get back to the drawing board instead of just trying to fix his swing to help get it back to producing the optimal launch angle that it did in 2017.