Here's why Bell thinks his power will return

April 2nd, 2019

PITTSBURGH -- Josh Bell has something to prove this season.

Bell actually improved in some regards last year. He struck out a little less than he did as a rookie in 2017. He walked a little more. His average and on-base percentage went up, as did his OPS+ and wRC+. But until September, he didn’t feel like he was the best version of himself.

“I had to unplug a little bit in the offseason,” Bell said, “look myself in the mirror and realize what this team needs.”

And that would be?

“A first baseman that didn’t hit [.261] with 12 [home runs]," Bell said.

Bell’s power numbers dropped off last season. He went deep 12 times (compared to 26 in 2017) and slugged .411 (.466 in ’17) while driving in 62 runs (28 fewer than the previous season). He got bumped out of the cleanup spot on a team with only two 20-homer hitters. He was benched for three days after going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts on Sept. 3, and manager Clint Hurdle challenged Bell to find consistency at the plate.

“Just look him in the eye and say, ‘Here’s what I’ve got. Here’s what I’d really appreciate seeing you give a shot. Because you’ve given everything else a shot, and I’ve given you the freedom to. Some of those freedoms need to go away, and here’s what we need to stay committed to,’” Hurdle said this spring. “And I like the way he’s responded to that.”

Bell hit .301/.427/.534 with four home runs and more walks (16) than strikeouts (15) over his final 21 games last year. His work continued over the offseason, when he trained in Southern California. Before Monday’s home opener at PNC Park, the 26-year-old switch-hitter said he spent hours looking at his home runs and hours looking at his outs. Both types of video were instructive.

“Putting in the time kind of researching has allowed me to get to a point, at least right now, where I know there are certain things I can’t do against a guy like [hard-throwing Cardinals reliever Jordan] Hicks,” Bell said. “You have to be really short to the baseball in order to have success.

“Anybody with spin rate, anybody with plus velocity, you have to be short to the baseball, so that’s what my workday is centered around. I feel like … not being afraid to look at outs from time to time is definitely going to help out in the future.”

Bell’s focus since last September has been on driving the ball to left-center field the way he did as he tore through the Minors. He tried too hard to pull the ball last season and wound up hitting more ground balls than he’d like. With this approach, he thinks he can muscle fastballs the other way and still have time to turn on offspeed stuff.

“Just staying in the middle part of the field, being a tough out, trying to find the barrel every at-bat and seeing how that plays,” he said. “If I’m driving the ball all over the ballpark, with my levers, the ball’s going to fly. If I try to force balls into the seats, these guys are too good, they’re throwing too had, and balls are going to be on the ground. That’s what I’m going to stay off of this year.”

Bell is 2-for-10 without an extra-base hit to start the season, but he was encouraged by the way he pounded three pitches to center field on Sunday. He also plated a run on Monday, one of his three RBIs in his first three games, with a sacrifice fly to left field.

The Pirates view Bell as a run producer, which is why Hurdle put Bell back in the cleanup spot to begin the season. When the first baseman looked in the mirror this offseason, he saw himself the same way.

“It’s awesome. I feel like the trust is there,” Bell said. “From that point last year where he kind of took me aside and let me know what I needed, what the team needed -- from that point on, the trust is going to be there, and I’m going to continue to earn that on a nightly basis.”