This time a year ago, Josh Bell was nearing the end of an All-Star season. He struggled through the middle two months of the season and ended the year with an injured groin, but he still hit 37 homers and 37 doubles and drove in 116 runs. He had finally arrived.
Now, Bell is heading into the offseason once again looking to prove himself. He began play Saturday hitting just .225 with a .673 OPS, eight homers and 21 RBIs in 55 games this season. Bell has struggled in the field at times, and he hasn’t hit as well when he’s been the Pirates’ designated hitter. After totaling 2.7 WAR in 2019, Bell has been worth -0.7 WAR this year.
“I know that I expected more of myself going into the season. I know what I’ve got to work on this offseason,” Bell said prior to Saturday's game against the Indians. “I’ve just got to get after it, come back ready to go next year and come back just a better player.”
So Bell is going back to his roots. Rather than staying in Pittsburgh or going back to California this winter, he said he’ll return to his family home near Dallas to work out with his father, Earnest, when this season ends.
“It’s going to be tough. I feel like nothing really changes with the coronavirus this offseason, so I’m going to be back in the garage,” Bell said. “I might try to find a place to hit at eventually, as the offseason goes on, but I can always hit in my backyard and in my garage -- just go back to the basics there and have that fight and that hunger in me from this season.”
Like so many other Pirates, Bell didn’t get off to a good start and he couldn’t swing his way out of that slump. He’s been better in September, putting together a .771 OPS compared to his .606 mark through the end of August, but the 28-year-old switch-hitter hasn’t anchored Pittsburgh’s lineup the way he did last season.
At least one of his issues was unexpected. Players weren’t allowed to watch in-game video this season. Bell reviewed footage of his at-bats during games with hitting coach Rick Eckstein last year, and Bell admitted the video became a “crutch” for him -- a quick, easy way to identify and correct mistakes.
“By the time we get ready for Spring Training next year, I know it’ll be more solidified -- my move to the baseball, my attack plan, more of a two-strike approach and stuff like that," Bell said. "Just knowing that pitchers are going to pitch me differently. They’re not going to give me as many pitches to hit in certain scenarios. Kind of just rolling with those thoughts there.”
The big-picture question with Bell, though, is how much longer the face of the franchise will be with the organization. This offseason will be his second of three trips through the arbitration process before he’s eligible for free agency. As the Pirates look to build a better team in the future, they’re bound to shake up their roster -- and it could start as soon as this offseason.
Will they move Bell?
“That's something I'll stay out of. We put on the jersey every day, ready to play. A lot of the guys have been playing together for a very long time. We’ll see what happens this offseason,” Bell said. “I know [there is] more we need to do in regards to who we are next year and how we play. We’ll see what happens next spring, and hopefully, get off to a better start next year.”
• Pirates manager Derek Shelton said he and general manager Ben Cherington have nearly completed exit interviews with every player. They’ve used those meetings to reflect on the season, discuss goals moving forward with each player and talk about things they can do better.
“One of the things that we've talked about constantly is being player-centric -- and being player-centric means that you have to be able to ask questions and take evaluations and identify areas that we can all collectively, as an organization, get better,” Shelton said. “We have had those [meetings] and they've been extremely productive."
• In addition to the statistical comparisons made Friday night between Mitch Keller’s five hitless innings and Johnny Vander Meer, Dock Ellis and Jason Schmidt, there’s another comparable: Edwin Jackson. Keller’s outing was the 14th in Major League history in which a starter went at least five innings, didn’t allow a hit and walked at least eight batters.
The last to do so was Jackson, who walked eight while no-hitting Shelton’s Rays on June 25, 2010. Before Keller, the last starter to walk eight without allowing a hit in a start of exactly five innings was Houston’s Pete Harnisch on April 11, 1991.
• Entering Saturday, five of the Pirates’ last seven losses were one-run defeats. They lost an MLB-leading 15 games by one run this season, with seven of those losses coming in September. In their first 58 games, the Bucs had five walk-off losses and 11 that were decided in their opponents’ final at-bat.