Wind: 1.99 m/h
When the Nationals traded two mid-level minor league prospects to Pittsburgh for Josh Bell over the winter, they assumed they were getting the high-upside power-hitting first baseman that they’ve been lacking for a number of years.
Instead, they’ve been stuck with one of the least productive hitters in the majors to start this season. In fact, his tailspin has risen to the point of him getting demoted from third or fourth in the lineup consistently to the No. 6 slot on Wednesday night.
How has the former top prospect gone from an MVP frontrunner to a liability at the plate in only two years, and what will it take for things to turn around for the 28-year-old slugger?
The Overarching Analytics
Two years ago, Josh Bell was among the best hitters in the National League. He hit for a career best .277 average, reached base in nearly 37 percent of his plate appearances, and recorded a whopping .569 slugging percentage with 37 home runs and 116 RBIs.
This was his more in-depth profile as a hitter during that season, via Statcast.
Ignore outs above average – that’s a defensive metric. Bell was an elite hitter by nearly every metric in 2019. Even his swing-and-miss rate statistics were near (or better than) league average.
Fast forward to 2021.
To translate, when Bell is making contact, he’s hitting the ball as hard as almost anyone in the league, but he’s struggled in essentially every other area at the plate.
Through 13 games and 52 plate appearances for Washington, Bell is batting just .109 with a .192 on-base percentage and .217 slugging percentage. What’s more, he’s struck out in 37 percent of his at bats.
His timing is clearly off right now, but why is that so? Is it because the start of his season was interrupted due to COVID-19 protocols, or could he really just be this enigmatic as a hitter?
While it’s easy to make excuses for him – such as the fact that he was sidelined earlier this season – these tendencies are actually quite similar to his production for 2020.
There are two ways to interpret this. The optimist would suggest that, considering he produced a .226/.305/.364 slash line last year, maybe Bell has been unlucky this year. On the other hand, the fact that these trend extend across multiple seasons suggests that maybe he isn’t as good as everyone thought.
In either case, Bell hasn’t been the hitter Washington was looking for when the organization acquired him this offseason.
His Fundamentals Flaws
Bell’s struggles don’t appear to have anything to do with the pitches he’s seeing. Forty percent of the pitches thrown to him this season have been low and either inside or outside of the strike zone, a rate that has remained almost identical throughout his career.
Pitchers have thrown fastballs to him anywhere between 54 and 62 percent of the time throughout parts of six seasons. In fact, he’s seen the exact same percentage of fastballs (54.6 percent) this year as in 2019. He’s not doing nearly as much with them, though. Whereas his expected slugging percentage against “No. 1” has been well over .500 the last two seasons, it’s dipped all the way to .355 this year. In other words, he’s missing the pitches he normally crushes.
He’s also broken the golden rule of modern-day hitters.
Since 2019, he’s begun to “barrel” the ball less consistently, instead getting on top of the ball much more frequently – as opposed to beneath it, which is how you generate launch angle and deep fly balls. His ground ball rate has spiked, while his slugging has plateaued.
The Defense Has Adjusted
Many traditionalists will tell you that offense can win you games, but defense wins championships. They don’t tell you, however, that defense can also win at bats.
Early in Bell’s career, he rarely drew defensive shifts. Over time, that has changed dramatically – especially from the left side of the plate.
In 2018, he drew the shift in 18 percent of his left-handed plate appearances. At the time, that was a career high by a wide margin.
Opposition deployed the shift at a similar rate to start the following season, and he began to make them pay for it. So, what happened? Teams adjusted.
By the end of that year, he’d been shifted against in nearly 40 percent of his left-handed plate appearances, and that number has continued to skyrocket since – up to 91 percent last season and 88 percent so far this year.
The easiest way to display the impact the shift had on Bell is looking at his pre- and post-All Star break splits in 2019.
The Recipe for a Rebound
The harsh reality is it’s hard to imagine Bell will ever return to his form from the first half of 2019. However, he can start by returning to getting under the ball. Shifts don’t matter if you don’t hit the ball on the ground, and his hard hit rate has remained quite consistent from his best season through the present. Hitting coach Kevin Long has generally been credited for helping hitting in that area – think about guys like Daniel Murphy, Anthony Rendon, and even Trea Turner.
Murphy slugged 95 points higher in Washington than his career average; Rendon improved in that category every year from 2015–19, including .598 in 2019 (third-best in the NL); and the thought of Turner slugging .550 at any point in his career was likely an afterthought before Long showed up, yet he’s thus far on track to do it for the second consecutive season.
It can be argued that sacrificing consistency for the sake of power is a bad thing. Perhaps that’s the case for Bell, or maybe he’s simply lost. Either way, he needs to do more at the plate than he’s done this month. Maybe a brief demotion is what he needed to get his head on straight.