Bucs banking on power resurgence for Bell

First baseman hit 12 HRs in 2018 after belting 26 in '17

December 3rd, 2018

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates added a potential power bat to their lineup last month by re-signing third baseman . Nobody knows how he'll perform after essentially two years out of Major League Baseball, but general manager Neal Huntington in September said Kang's upside is "a right-handed bat that can hit 25-30 home runs and play good defense."

The Pirates need that kind of power in the middle of their lineup to take another step forward next year. Last season, they ranked 25th in the Majors with 157 home runs as a team and 27th in RBIs (76) and OPS (.695) from their cleanup hitters. Kang will help if he returns to 2015-16 form, but Pittsburgh is also betting on a potential power bat returning across the infield.

A year after launching 26 homers and driving in 90 runs, Josh Bell went deep only 12 times and recorded 62 RBIs in 148 games. His slugging percentage dropped from .466 to .411, and his isolated power fell from .211 to .150. Bell was the Bucs' Opening Day cleanup hitter, but he only batted fourth eight times after June 7.

It's not as if Bell had a bad offensive season. His 111 OPS+ and 112 wRC+ were above MLB average and marginally better than his output from 2017. Bell's walk rate increased, and his strikeout rate decreased. He hit a career-high 31 doubles. Bell led the Pirates with 77 walks, and his .357 on-base percentage was second only to catcher 's .378 mark.

But the 26-year-old switch-hitter plays a position associated with power and run production, and Pittsburgh first basemen finished last in the Majors with 14 home runs this year. The Bucs brushed aside concerns about Bell's power when he put up low home run totals in the Minors, and Bell swatted those doubts away in 2017. But now, the question remains: What kind of hitter is Bell going to be?

"A good hitter with power. We believe he can be one of those hitters," Huntington said. "A .220 hitter with 35 home runs and low on-base [percentage], he changes the score -- but how many times does he meaningfully change the score? A guy that can come up and drive the ball to left-center field with a runner on base and two outs in the seventh when you're down a run, there is value to that.

"Josh has the ability to be a good hitter. He has the ability to be a power hitter. We're going to continue to continue to push him to be a good hitter with power."

Bell has put together stretches where he hits for average and power. After being benched for three days in early September, he hit .301/.427/.534 with more walks (16) than strikeouts (15) and four homers in 89 plate appearances over his final 21 games. Before that brief timeout, Bell had a conversation with manager Clint Hurdle about finishing strong and finding an approach he could carry into next season.

"Just got the opportunity to watch some games, get some work in in the cages, kind of unwind and reflect on some of the bad that's been happening," Bell said during that stretch. "Just go back to the basics and try to square the ball up, use all fields."

Near the end of the season, Huntington acknowledged it will be important for the Pirates to get more production from their corner bats. They're counting on their third basemen, and Kang, to reach their upside. Pittsburgh is betting on Bell, too.

"Josh cares, and he's worked so hard," Huntington said. "You add those 20-some home runs, and ideally a few more, it changes the complexity of our offense to have that consistent four-hole hitter that we believed we were having develop in front of our eyes. To have that threat in the middle of the lineup, there's no doubt about it."