Bell aims to 'command strike zone' better

Postponed games vs. Cardinals rescheduled as doubleheaders

August 15th, 2020

earned the “Nostradamus” nickname from manager Derek Shelton on Thursday night for predicting that the Pirates’ lineup would break out in their series opener against the Reds. On the flip side, Bell also foretold the way his first at-bat would play out.

On Thursday afternoon, Bell said pitchers had been approaching him like they did late last season: breaking pitches that start in the strike zone, then bore inside on him, along with two-seamers and changeups located down and away.

Sure enough, facing Anthony DeSclafani in the first inning, Bell took a 1-1 changeup down and away for a called strike. After taking a high 97 mph fastball for a ball, Bell went down swinging on a slider that tumbled out of the strike zone toward his left foot. It was one of his three strikeouts on the night.

It’s no secret that Bell isn’t off to the kind of start he would like. The switch-hitting first baseman finished Friday -- his 28th birthday -- batting .203 with a .548 OPS. He struck out in 24 of his first 74 plate appearances and walked only four times, including once in Friday's 8-1 loss to the Reds. He’s shown flashes of his 2019 All-Star form, but he’s also looked at times like the hitter who struggled at times last June and July.

Few players identify their issues as quickly and comprehensively as Bell, and he offered up an honest explanation before Thursday’s game.

“I think that if I command the strike zone just a little bit better, that I would force them into the zone. I think my chase rate is a little bit up from last year,” Bell said. “Just about not missing the pitches that are in the zone and staying off the ones that are underneath or are a bit away.”

Indeed, Bell’s chase rate has climbed from 27.5 percent last year to 33.9 percent through 17 games this season. He’s also seen his swing-and-miss rate on pitches in the strike zone jump from 19.8 percent to 29.3 percent. That’s not a case of pressing at the plate, Bell said. It’s more about timing and sometimes trying to pull the ball rather than being willing to hit it to left-center field.

“I feel like it’s all approach. When you are trying to hit the ball to left-center field, you have just a little bit more time to make swing decisions,” Bell said. “When you’re trying to pull the ball, you have to go a little bit earlier.”

When Bell was crushing nearly every pitch he saw last April and May, he was focused on timing up opponents’ fastballs. That gave him time to react to offspeed pitches, which he’d often effortlessly pull out to right field when batting left-handed. After he established himself as one of the game’s best power hitters two months into the season, pitchers adjusted and began feeding him more offspeed stuff.

Trying to gear up for fastballs felt futile when he wasn’t seeing any, so he adjusted his approach to better prepare for offspeed pitches. Those changes, Bell said, “were the beginning of my downfall.”

Shelton, a longtime hitting coach, agreed that timing issues sometimes give way to mechanical flaws and poor pitch selection. Shelton said hitting coaches Rick Eckstein and Mike Rabelo have been working with Bell to address those problems.

“Just getting back to fastball timing, fastball approach, fastball stride and letting everything else take care of itself. We’re not going to let these guys establish fastballs in the zone,” Bell said. “Our mentality, if you throw a fastball in the zone, you might not get that ball back. If we can play the game like that, we’ll all be in a better place.”

Around the horn
• Major League Baseball announced on Friday that the Pirates’ postponed series against the Cardinals has been rescheduled as part of two doubleheaders.

The Bucs will travel to St. Louis on Aug. 27, a mutual off-day, to play a doubleheader at Busch Stadium. They will make up the final game with a doubleheader at PNC Park on Sept. 18 beginning at 4:05 p.m. ET. The Pirates will be the home team for Game 1, with the Cardinals the home team in Game 2.

• After writing out unique lineups for the Pirates’ first 17 games, Shelton used a repeat lineup on Friday for the first time this season. It was the same starting nine, albeit with a different pitcher, that Pittsburgh used on Aug. 5 against the Twins at PNC Park.

• Dating back to June 1, 2019, reliever Richard Rodríguez has put together the lowest ERA among National League pitchers who have appeared in at least 50 games. In 54 outings since then, Rodríguez owns a 2.44 ERA.

• The Pirates partnered with EMBRACE Pittsburgh to launch “Unpack U,” a program to help universities address the needs of college students as they head back to school. Representatives from nine local colleges and universities -- Carlow University, Carnegie Mellon University, Chatham University, Community College of Allegheny County, Duquesne University, Point Park University, Robert Morris University, St. Vincent College and the University of Pittsburgh -- visited PNC Park on Thursday to receive their portion of 20,000 “Steel Safe” kits, which include hand sanitizer, a face mask and a resource guide for students.