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Bell looking like strong 'middle' man for Bucs

Young slugger reaping benefits of change in approach
MLB.com

PITTSBURGH -- About a month and a half ago, Josh Bell said he had a conversation with David Freese that sparked perhaps the best offensive stretch of Bell's young career.

Bell entered Monday's series opener against the Dodgers slashing .329/.390/.579 with six homers, four triples, nine doubles and 34 RBIs in 39 games since July 5. The switch-hitting rookie is quickly developing into the kind of middle-of-the-order run producer that manager Clint Hurdle envisioned he'd be.

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PITTSBURGH -- About a month and a half ago, Josh Bell said he had a conversation with David Freese that sparked perhaps the best offensive stretch of Bell's young career.

Bell entered Monday's series opener against the Dodgers slashing .329/.390/.579 with six homers, four triples, nine doubles and 34 RBIs in 39 games since July 5. The switch-hitting rookie is quickly developing into the kind of middle-of-the-order run producer that manager Clint Hurdle envisioned he'd be.

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That was certainly the role Bell played on Sunday night, when he homered and tied a career high with four RBIs in the Pirates' 6-3 win over the Cardinals in the MLB Little League Classic.

What's been the key for Bell? He said his turnaround coincides with the timing of his talk with Freese.

"Just focusing on the ball over the middle of the plate," Bell said. "Sitting middle-middle for the large majority of my at-bats. When the pitchers make mistakes, just turn on it and crush it. It's been working for me."

Video: STL@PIT: Bell lines a two-run single in the 3rd

In other words, Bell is using the same approach most hitters employ for the first pitch of each at-bat on every pitch he sees. After an up-and-down first half in his first full Major League season, Bell said the more focused approach has helped him avoid guessing at the plate.

The numbers back it up. From Opening Day through July 3, Bell swung and missed at 9.2 percent of the pitches he saw and swung at 27.3 percent of the pitches thrown outside the strike zone. When he swung, he made contact with 84.4 percent of pitches in the zone and 68.3 percent of pitches outside the zone.

Since July 5, he has cut down on his swinging-strike rate (8.1 percent) and his swings on pitches outside the zone (26 percent) while improving his contact rates inside (87.8 percent) and outside (70 percent) the strike zone.

"I'm not jumping," Bell said. "I'm not anticipating a fastball in and just missing a fastball away. Just protecting the heart of the zone and working off that."

Familiar face
Left-hander Tony Watson, a longtime fixture in the Pirates' bullpen, is making his first trip to PNC Park as a visiting player. The Bucs traded Watson to the Dodgers on July 31 in exchange for Minor Leaguers Oneil Cruz and Angel German.

Video: LAD@PIT: Fans, players pay tribute to Watson

Watson has made six appearances for the Dodgers, allowing four runs over five innings. Hurdle admitted it would be odd to see Watson in Dodgers blue, not black and gold.

"It'll all go away as soon as he takes the mound. That's the other beautiful part of it," Hurdle said. "When you're involved in it, it'll go away real quick. We already had to go through the scouting report and talk about what we've got to do to beat him. So, game on. I'm sure he'll feel the same way."

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Josh Bell