Pittsburgh Pirates: Analyzing Josh Bell’s Potential Trade Value

PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 05: Josh Bell #55 of the Pittsburgh Pirates celebrates with Adam Frazier #26 after hitting a two run home run during the ninth inning against the Minnesota Twins at PNC Park on August 5, 2020 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 05: Josh Bell #55 of the Pittsburgh Pirates celebrates with Adam Frazier #26 after hitting a two run home run during the ninth inning against the Minnesota Twins at PNC Park on August 5, 2020 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images) /
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If the Pittsburgh Pirates chose to trade Josh Bell before the August 31st trade deadline he would not be just the team’s best trade piece, but one of the best in baseball. What could his trade value look like?

Slugging first baseman Josh Bell is probably one the most valuable players on the trade market right now. Bell’s value is way up after his stellar 2019 season, and is affordably controlled through the 2022 season. What also helps Bell’s trade value is that he’s one of the few impact bats on the could be on the market. Since the Pittsburgh Pirates are one of the few true sellers this deadline, if a team wants an big bat, they’re gonna have to go to the Pirates. So, with that said, what is Bell’s value?

Bell debuted in 2016, but he did not get a full season of playing time until 2017. Between 2017 and 2018, Bell put up overall solid numbers with the bat, but nothing super great. In 2017, he showed power, hitting 26 home runs, and finishing with a .211 isolated slugging percentage. In 2018, he showed plate discipline, seeing his walk rate increase from 10.6% to 13.2%, and his strikeout rate drop from 18.9% to 17.8%. Overall, throughout the two years, he hit .258/.345/.440 with a 110 OPS+ and wRC+, and a .337 wOBA.

Then in 2019, Bell had his big breakout year with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Through 613 plate appearances, Bell hit for a robust .277/.367/.569. To go along with that, the switch hitter slammed 37 home runs, had 37 doubles, a 142 OPS+, and 135 wRC+. Bell carried his strong plate discipline from 2018 into 2019, posting a 12.1% walk rate and 19.2% strikeout rate. Bell was a top 20-25 batter in 2019. He ranked 22nd in wRC+, 25th in wOBA at .378, 16th in home runs, and 16th in OPS. Among first basemen, only Pete Alonso, Anthony Rizzo and Freddie Freeman outdid him in wRC+.

But his 2019 season wasn’t without its flaws. Bell’s second half slump is overstated. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t struggle at one point in 2019.

Bell got off to a scorching hot start for the Pittsburgh Pirates hitting .343/.405/.704(!) with an outstanding 178 wRC+ through his first 242 plate appearances, or two first months of the season. Bell then struggled throughout the next two months of the season, hitting just .213/.318/.448 with a 94 wRC+ in June and July. Bell did bounce back through, and finished out the season batting for a strong .259/.380/.516 line with a 126 wRC+.

Again, Bell’s second half struggles are a bit overestimated. He wasn’t all that bad of a batter in the second half, going on a hot streak throughout his final 154 plate appearances of the season. But one thing that did remain constant throughout the season was Bell’s ability to consistently demolish the baseball.

According to FanGraphs, he was 23rd in hard hit rate. Through the first two months of the season, Bell had a 48.1% hard hit rate. Then even when he was in a slump in June and July, he was still making hard contact 44.4% of the time. Through his final two months, he had a 41.3% hard hit rate. The MLB average hard hit rate was 38% just for reference.

Not only was Bell making hard contact quite frequently, but he had an average exit velocity of 92.4 MPH, or in the top 95th percentile of baseball. When you look at it, Bell might have been one of the unluckiest batters in baseball in the past few seasons from June onward. The switch hitter had a 43.1% hard hit rate, but a batting average on balls in play of just .233. Since 2002, the first time hard hit rate was recorded, a player has had at least 500 plate appearances, a hard hit rate of 40%+, and a BAbip below .250, four times, and never has dipped below .240. Sure he pulled the ball more often than he went to opposite field or up the middle, but it wasn’t to an absurd number, and he still went to opposite field at rate barely below the league average.

While Bell did get unlucky in the second half of 2019, which contributed to the struggles of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the second half, we can say for sure that the slugger is playing first base for his bat. Since 2017, Bell has had -25 DRS, a -15.3 UZR, -8.1 UZR/150, and -5.1 range runs above average. Bell ranks 8th to last in DRS, third to last in UZR and fifth to last in UZR/150. However, with the universal designated hitter likely going to be in place by 2022, or even sooner, whatever team that does trade for him won’t have to put too much worry in his defense if they can split his time at DH.

Now, yes, Bell is off to a slow start for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2020. He currently only has 14 hits, including just one double and two home runs through his first 74 plate appearances of the season. Overall, he has a 54 OPS+ and 50 wRC+. But considering that Eugenio Suarez, Rafael Devers, Eduardo Escobar, Cody Bellinger, Gary Sanchez, and Jose Altuve all have a wRC+ of 64 or lower, there are many elite level batters struggling so far in 2020, which isn’t a huge surprise at all considering the nature of this season.

Even with the poor results, Bell is still tearing the cover off the baseball. So far in 2020, he has a 50% hard hit rate, and 91.3 MPH exit velocity. He’s going opposite field more often than he has in the past while pulling the ball less often than he was in 2019. But he’s put the ball on the ground 50% of the time, which is killing the results. If he can just get the ball in the air, he’ll be the .275/.360/.570 batter he was last year. Plus, let’s not forget that everything in 2020 is going to be a small sample size, and you can’t really factor in for how much things like the Pittsburgh Pirates playing just two games in the last week affect the players.

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Bell is controlled through arbitration through the 2022 season. Despite the results, Bell is still a valuable player. Bell is absolutely crushing the baseball, and that’s what teams like to look at when evaluating their players. Bell could bring in at least one top 100 prospect given his affordability, and power prowess. Someone like Josiah Gray from the LA Dodgers, or someone in that range of top 100 to top 65 wouldn’t be a completely crazy idea of a return. Possibly, if a team gets desperate, the Pittsburgh Pirates could even get in a top 60 guy or better.

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