Bucs challenge Bell to get back to basics in '19
Switch-hitter finished 2018 well after struggling most of year
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Josh Bell stepped to the plate on Field 1 at Pirate City late Tuesday morning and assumed his left-handed stance. Bench coach Tom Prince delivered pitch after pitch, and Bell swatted each one through the gap all the way to the fence in left-center field.
It was a good day of work for Bell, exactly the kind of hard contact he's looking for this spring. After an up-and-down 2018, the 26-year-old first baseman is carrying the approach that worked so well for him last September into this year. The Pirates are counting on getting more power from within this season, and there is no more likely power source in their lineup than Bell.
"He has a chance to be the best of both worlds," Pirates hitting coach Rick Eckstein said. "A really good eye at the plate, a really good hitter when the ball's in the hitting area. Then within that same umbrella, the ball jumps off his bat. He hits the ball really hard, and at times it goes really far. Just blending that package and not really trying to formulate anything other than how important timing is with him, getting into a good solid position and repeating it."
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After slugging .466 and going deep 26 times as a rookie, he slashed .261/.357/.411 with 12 homers in 148 games last season. Bell spent much of last season searching for answers and finding inconsistent results. The switch-hitter's drive to improve has often led him to tweak his stance and approach, a tendency that once earned him the nickname "Tinker Bell."
Early last year, Bell said, he tried to pull the ball during part of his pregame routine. It's key that Bell be able to launch pitches over the right-field wall when he bats left-handed, especially given the dimensions at PNC Park. But pitchers are aware of those dimensions, too. They worked outside against Bell, and when he tried to pull those pitches, he wound up hitting grounders rather than ripping line drives to the opposite field like he'd done in the past.
In early September, Bell was benched for three games so he could work away from the spotlight. Pittsburgh challenged him to stop tinkering.
"Josh got to the point where he committed to a couple core principles at the plate, stayed steadfast with them," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "Basically, I told him if he committed to them, he'll stay in the lineup. If he didn't commit to them, he's coming out of the lineup."
Bell stayed in the lineup. He hit .301 with a .961 OPS, four homers and more walks (16) than strikeouts (15) in his final 21 games of the season. It was Bell at his best -- the contact and patience he displayed as a top prospect along with the power he showed as a rookie. He stuck with that approach throughout the offseason, when he worked with hitting consultant Joe DeMarco in Southern California.
"For the most part, it's what I was doing in the Minor Leagues," Bell said. "Focus on driving the ball the other way, then with offspeed pitches, my barrel would automatically sync up to them."
He rediscovered that approach in September, and improved results came along with it.
"If I can get back to where I was in the last month of the season and continue to solidify my right-handed swing as well, I'm in a good place," Bell said.
Bell has already hit it off with Eckstein and assistant hitting coach Jacob Cruz this spring. He said he's "all in" on the technology they've introduced, and they've encouraged him to hit the ball hard where it's pitched rather than trying to alter his swing and force something.
"Where the ball ends up, that's where it's going to end up," Bell said. "If I put my 'A' swing on it and stay inside it, I should be able to drive the ball to all fields.
"That's going to be my mentality from Game 1 on. I'm excited to see how it plays out."