In his second season in D.C., Josh Bell has gotten off to a strong start, and it’s tough not to think back to his 2019 All-Star season, when he hit .302 in the first half.
After a big first half that also included 27 home runs that year, Bell went on to hit .233 the rest of the way. From the second half of 2019 through the end of ‘21, he hit .247 and slugged .441. That span also included a December 2020 trade to the Nationals.
Now? Bell is hitting .316 in 2022, good for fifth in the NL. A comparison to his best season to date seems apt, at first glance.
But this isn’t just a return to his 2019 first-half self for Bell. He slugged .648 before the break that year, and is slugging .456 this year. He had a 20.4% strikeout rate in the first half in ‘19 – which is right around the league average. He has a 10.6% strikeout rate this year. This is different, in a good way, even with the lower slugging percentage.
With elements of 2019 in tow and the tools to avoid the second-half change, here’s a look at what’s working for Bell in ‘22 and how he got here.
A key reunion
Sometimes, when a player experiences results far different from other recent years, it’s easy to dig into numbers and deduce a change in approach. But we didn’t want to make assumptions here, even if the results may back them up. So we asked Bell himself.
“This past offseason, I went to work with my hitting coach from the Pirates because he got [let go],” Bell said. That coach, Rick Eckstein, had been the Pirates’ hitting coach since the end of the 2018 season – meaning he was a key voice for Bell in ‘19.
“A couple things happened in the offseason and I just got to a point where I was like, ‘Dude, do you have time for a phone call?,’” Bell said. “We FaceTimed, and he took me through a little hitting lesson in my garage on FaceTime. And the next day, I hit a homer in the live at-bats that I was taking at Cressey [Sports Performance, a training facility]. That weekend, I flew up to see him in Atlanta. So I flew up to see him quite a few times. He came down to see me quite a few times and watch my at-bats.”
Bell acknowledged that his approach wasn’t consistent for all of 2019.
“I want to say the first couple months of the season, I had it really locked in in ‘19 and then I kind of lost it for a stretch of time. But kind of being separated from him and then going back to him and having the same conversation over was really good [for] me.”
What exactly was that conversation Bell alludes to? What is the goal of his approach?
“We basically got back to what I was doing in ‘19, which was focusing on lower-ball flight and just squaring up the baseball. He calls it ‘barrel accuracy,’ more than anything else.”
Lower ball flight doesn’t mean lower launch angle – not when the phrase “squaring up the baseball” is in the same sentence. It doesn’t mean skying the ball either. The best encapsulation of this concept is sweet-spot rate – the percentage of batted balls in the launch angle sweet-spot range (8-32 degrees). What does that range translate to? Line-drive contact – which Bell noted is his ideal. As it should be, because league-wide in 2022, batters are hitting .581 and slugging 1.029 on sweet-spot batted balls.
“If I stay low and I try to keep the outfielders fielding my ball, then I’m in a good place,” he said.
Indeed, that’s what’s happening so far. His 26.7% line-drive rate would be the highest of his career, with 2019’s 22.8% his current highest for a full season. He has a 33.3% sweet-spot rate which would be his second-highest of his career behind, you guessed it, 2019 (34.9%).
Built to last this time
When Bell talks about how he “lost it for a stretch of time” in ‘19, we can pin down some contact issues. He had a 38.1% sweet-spot rate in the first half, which then fell off by almost 10 percentage points in the second half (29.1%).
“I kind of got caught up in hitting homers, like trying to take games into my own hands,” he said. “But I feel like this [approach] plays a lot more. It’s a lot easier to sleep at night when you’re barreling the ball up on a consistent basis.”
Even if he isn’t slugging as much as he did in that 2019 first half, Bell is conscious of how sound his approach is – which should help show that there won’t be a severe dropoff this time.
“I’m not flying out. I’m not swinging and missing as much,” he said. As noted above, Bell has just an 10.6% strikeout rate, which is eighth-lowest among qualified players. In the past, he struck out at a rate right around league average, and his whiff rate was around there, too.
Not striking out much and hitting line drives sounds a lot like teammate Juan Soto.
Asked if he’s learned from Soto, Bell said: “It’s hard not to pick up – I mean, Juan’s ball flight this year has been incredible…his at-bats have been really good.”
Elder statesman Nelson Cruz has been a notable influence as well.
“He’s heating up now, and the work day, for the most part, hasn’t changed,” Bell said of the veteran who got off to a slow start. “And I think that’s an important learning experience for me. In years prior when I’ve struggled, I’ve tried a thousand different things. And watching him get through…he’s stayed the same person, the work day’s been the exact same and he’s kind of just kind of changing his launch sites. And I think that’s how you play for 15 years in the league, you know?”
What Bell is doing so far this year is an improved version of his 2019 first half. He’s focusing on that ball flight, emphasizing line drives – but he’s also swinging and missing less. With perspective from Eckstein, Cruz, Soto and others, he’s having success with an understanding of how to not let it get away from him.
MLB.com’s Jessica Camerato contributed to the reporting of this story.