Pittsburgh Pirates: Exmaining What 2021 Could Hold For Josh Bell
By Noah Wright
Josh Bell has been an extremely inconsistent batter throughout his career, but what could 2021 be like for the switch hitter?
Josh Bell has been one of the more perplexing batters in baseball since his rookie campaign in 2017. He’s shown flashes of potential every season he’s been in the big leagues, but has yet to put together a consistent stretch of everything. So what could be in store for the Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman going into 2021?
Bell showed really good power potential in his first full season in the bigs. He hit 26 home runs for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2017 and had a .466 slugging percentage, to go with a .211 isolated slugging percentage. Throughout the minors he showed really good plate discipline and while he did post a 10.6% walk rate and 18.9% strikeout rate during 2017, those numbers got even better in 2018. His walk rate jumped to 13.2% while he cut his strikeout rate to just 17.8%. The issue was that his power had completely disappeared in 2018. He hit just 12 home runs while having a .411 slugging and .150 isolated slugging.
It seemed Bell put everything together in 2019. Through 613 plate appearances, Bell hit .277/.367/.569 with 37 long balls, 137 wRC+ and elite .292 isolated slugging. He also had a 12.1% walk rate and 19.2% strikeout rate. While he did show both power and great plate discipline, it was a tale of three Bell’s throughout the season.
Bell demolished the baseball during the first two months of the season, posting a .343/.403/.704 line and 178 wRC+. Then during June and July, he would hit just .213/.318/.448 with a 94 wRC+. He ramped things back up for the last two months where he hit .258/.377/.516 with a 126 wRC+.
While his second half struggles were a bit overstated once you consider he did get a bit unlucky with a low batting average on balls in play despite still rippng the cover off of the ball, there was no denying that he was not the same hitter throughout the season. One thing he did manage to stay consistent with was how hard he hit the ball. Bell posted a 92.4 MPH exit velocity and 47.2% hard hit rate. Both ranked among the best in baseball during 2019.
2020 was more or less the same. Bell got off to a freezing cold start, hitting just .190/.245/.270 with a wRC+ of only 41 through his first 110 plate appearances. Then in the second half, Bell hit .260/.367/.450 with a 115 wRC+ in his last 120 plate appearances. Again, he remained well above average in exit velocity (91.7 MPH) and hard hit rate (42.9%).
Although he was still hammering the ball, it was usually into the ground. Bell’s biggest issue was getting the ball in the air. His groundball rate in 2019 was just 44%. This inflated to 55.7% in 2020.
Now this obviously was in a very short amount of time and 2020 stats should be taken with a grain of salt. The first 30 games of 2019, which was half the season in 2020, went from April to the first week of May. Bell had collected 19 hits, including 4 home runs in his last 77 plate appearances of 2020, so maybe he was just heating up. It’s possible we get a fully consistent Josh Bell in 2020 if 162 games are played.
Still, it was yet another inconsistent year for the switch hitting first baseman. It’s hard to predict what he will do for the Pittsburgh Pirates going forward, but it seems most projections see him bouncing back in 2021. Baseball Reference’s projection model sees him hitting .255/.345/.459 with 25 home runs through 562 plate appearances. This would be very close to his 2017 rookie campaign.
Meanwhile, FanGraphs’ Steamer sees him hitting .259/.358/.485 with 26 home runs and a 115 wRC+ across 583 plate appearances. FanGraphs’ other projection model ZiPS is the most optimistic. This projection sees him hitting .269/.362/.510 with 27 home runs and a .360 wOBA through 583 plate appearances. His performance would be comparable to his August and September stats from 2019. His triple slash is almost identical to Bryce Harper’s from 2019 (.260/.372/.510) as well in this model.
Once you look at the batted ball numbers from 2020 compared to 2017 to 2019, it’s easy to see why Bell could bounce back for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Bell’s inflated ground ball rate was 7.8% higher between 2017-2019 to 2020. His fly ball rate went from 33.6% to 25.7%. Meanwhile, his line drive rate stayed pretty much the same, from 18.5% to 18.6%. He also posted a career low soft contact rate according to FanGraphs in 2020. Plus remember, this was in 223 plate appearances. Small sample sizes can inflate stats.
Despite his inconsistency, Bell is primed for a nice bounceback season. Bell’s constant struggles defensively mean that his value comes from his bat. Hopefully for the Pittsburgh Pirates he’s able to get off to a hot start. With just two years of control left, including the 2021 season, the Bucs are looking to move the switch hitter and with the likely possibility of the DH not returning in 2021, there is a log jam at first base with Colin Moran. The Pirates can live with Bell’s defense for now considering the little risk there is in playing him at first, but his offense looks to be on the rebound.