Josh Bell didn’t read the criticism from an anonymous scout in a national magazine last month, the one that labeled the Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman as a player with “five o’clock power,” someone who could put on a show during batting practice only to have all that muscle vanish once the lights came on and pitches started to count.
While Bell appreciated Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington mounting a spirited defense of Bell in response, he also is aware the critique did not come out of nowhere. When your home run total drops in half from one season to the next, particularly at a position where the ability to send ball to the outer reaches of the park is essentially a job requirement, there’s plenty to criticize.
No one knows better than Bell that the 12 home runs he put up in 2018 — a massive drop-off from 26 he hit while finishing third in NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2017 — won’t do for a team that needs an uptick in offensive production if it wants to be a factor in the wide-open NL Central.
“I feel like with last year’s track record, yeah, it was pretty bad,” Bell said. “There’s nothing I can do about it now.”
The Pirates certainly aren’t concerned.
“He just has to be himself,” leftfielder Corey Dickerson said. “He doesn’t have to be ‘home run guy.'”
Manager Clint Hurdle is committed to keeping Bell in the cleanup spot. Hurdle pulled let the cerebral and diligent 26-year-old aside last season and told him what he expected from Bell at the plate, namely being patient and thoughtful in his approach. That message hasn’t changed.
“I feel like the trust is there,” Bell said. “He’s seen me during those stretches where I’m really doing damage series after series.”
Even if those instances were far more sporadic in last summer than they were during his first full season in the majors in 2017. While Bell’s batting average and on-base percentage both ticked up in 2018, his RBIs total fell from 90 to 62. He finished strong — with four home runs and a .265 average in September as the Pirates surged to just their fourth winning season in a quarter century. He spent a significant part of the offseason working out in California and reflecting on what he’s learned through two-plus seasons.
The lessons included an awareness that he’d fallen into a familiar trap. Too often he’d focus on hitting home runs instead of solid contact. In a way, he was getting it backwards. At 6 foot 4 and 240 pounds, he understands he doesn’t necessarily have to swing hard to get results.
“If I’m driving the ball all over the ballpark, with my levers the ball is going to fly,” he said. “If I try and force ball into the seats, these guys are throwing too good, they’re throwing too hard. The ball is going to be on the ground.”
While Bell had just two hits — both singles — through Pittsburgh’s first three games, there were promising signs. He drove in a run a victory over Cincinnati on Sunday by lining a single back up the middle to score Starling Marte. He went 0 for 2 in a 6-5 loss to St. Louis in the Pirates’ home opener but displayed some solid situational awareness.
With runners on second and third and one out in the first inning, he made solid contact off Cardinals start Adam Wainwright and while his sharp grounder to second turned into an out, it also allowed Adam Frazier to score easily. In nearly the same spot in the fourth inning — this time with runners on second and third with no outs — his sacrifice fly to center field pushed Pittsburgh’s lead to 3-0.
The plate appearances might not have resulted in fireworks, but they were plenty productive. The former second-round pick who earned the nickname “Tinker Bell” while coming up through the minors because of his habit of constantly messing with his swing is trying to stick to a simpler formula.
“I feel like you prepare so you can be free on the field,” Bell said. “Preparing beforehand, you can play. If you’re overthinking in the box I think the preparation wasn’t there in the first place.”
And that’s never been an issue for Bell. His teammates and his bosses have never questioned his work ethic and he’s welcomed taking over the role as one of the faces of the franchise following the departure of stars and franchise mainstays Andrew McCutchen, Gerrit Cole and Josh Harrison.
He’s part of the present and the future, no matter what the guys in magazines say.
“With everything I’ve done in the offseason, Bell said, “I’m excited to show whoever that (anonymous scout) and most importantly my friends and my family, my pops, watching every game, that what we’ve done will pay off.”