How Bucs' faith put Bell on road to stardom

July 9th, 2019

CLEVELAND -- Clint Hurdle and Neal Huntington were talking over the winter, batting around ideas about the 2019 Pirates and one of their most important players: .

Bell was coming off a disappointing season. He hit .261 with 12 home runs and 62 RBIs in 148 games. He was bumped out of the cleanup spot and, at one point in early September, benched for three straight days. He finished the year strong, hitting for average and power while showing patience at the plate in his final 21 games.

That was enough for Hurdle. In a conversation with Huntington, Pittsburgh’s manager said he “put all my chips in” and fully committed to Bell. The switch-hitting first baseman was going to be the Pirates’ cleanup hitter from Day 1, no questions asked.

“I remember loving the belief in Josh and knowing how important that is to a young player, to feel that belief from a manager, from a coach, from an organization,” Huntington said. “I believed that was going to pay huge dividends for Josh and for us.”

Meanwhile, in Southern California, Bell was working. His excellent three-week stretch to finish the season did not wash out the bad taste in his mouth. He took only three weeks off from hitting, headed west and put in full workdays of training in the offseason.

“I was just ticked off with last year. I was really hungry,” Bell said. “Especially now, I’m kind of seeing that we’ve got a chance at this thing if we all pay our dues and play our part.”

This is what it took to make Bell an All-Star, the starting designated hitter for the National League. It took talent and discipline, of course, and no one has ever doubted Bell’s ability or work ethic. It also took unwavering faith from the Pirates, from the day they drafted him in 2011 through his struggles last season, that he was capable of exactly this.

“For the last eight years now, I’ve felt nothing but support from the organization,” Bell said. “That paved the way for me to be where I’m at right now.”

The initial investment

Heading into the 2011 MLB Draft, the Pirates viewed Bell as one of the 10 best players available. There was one problem: Bell was intent on attending the University of Texas, and he wrote a letter to MLB informing every team that he would be honoring his scholarship offer instead of playing professional baseball.

The Pirates believed Bell’s letter was “legitimate,” team president Frank Coonelly said, not an attempt to drive up the price of the Texas high school outfielder’s signing bonus. Their area scout at the time, Mike Leuzinger, knew that Bell’s parents, Earnest and Myrtle, put his education first. The Pirates thought his interests aligned well with their system, and they had ownership’s blessing to spend significantly to sign him.

“If a club had a chance,” Huntington said, “it might be us.”

The Pirates picked Gerrit Cole first overall. When the 61st pick rolled around, Bell was so far ahead of the next player on their board that they saw no other option. They picked Bell and eventually convinced the 19-year-old to sign for $5 million.

“We thought we could make a case that starting with the Pirates’ organization was his best opportunity to become a great superstar and Major League player,” Coonelly said.

The right path

Bell’s turnaround began last September in Hurdle’s office. The Pirates’ manager sat down with Bell, took him out of the lineup for three days and encouraged him to learn from his struggles.

As a highly-touted prospect, Bell developed a reputation for tweaking his swing and adjusting his stance in the batter’s box. It earned him the nickname “Tinker Bell.” That helped him hit 26 homers as a rookie, but it wasn’t helping him through a mostly disappointing sophomore season. Hurdle asked Bell to stop changing.

“Josh got to the point where he committed to a couple of core principles at the plate, stayed steadfast with them,” 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 was slashing .255/.344/.390 when he was benched on Sept. 4. When he returned to the lineup, primarily batting third, he hit .301/.427/.534 with four homers and more walks (16) than strikeouts (15).

“I had to look myself in the mirror,” Bell said. “When we were pretty much out of the race and you look at my stats, I wasn’t the player that I wanted to be and that we needed. Then I felt like I was that last month, you know?

“I realized that this was possible and the Minor Leagues wasn’t a fluke. I just had to work my tail off.”

The work begins

Rather than going home to Texas, Bell spent the winter in Newport Beach, Calif. It was far from a vacation.

Bell spent his mornings working out at the Boras Sports Training Institute or with range specialist Hunter Cook. He improved his mobility, and the foundation he laid over the winter has allowed him to train harder than ever with Pirates strength coach Jim Malone.

“He’s bigger and stronger, but moving better,” Huntington said. “That typically doesn’t happen.”

After his morning workout, Bell would see hitting consultant Joe DeMarco. The two met through a mutual friend who works with Scott Boras, Bell’s agent. DeMarco said Bell was “a blank canvas” for him, as he couldn’t remember ever watching one of Bell’s at-bats before last October.

DeMarco was blown away by Bell’s hand-eye coordination and swing path. His focus was not only helping the 26-year-old develop better timing, but on getting him to understand why they made certain changes -- not just changing for the sake of change.

They spent six to eight hours working together every week from October until February. Every day was different. They performed various drills in the cage and on the field, alone and with groups, day in and day out.

“He knew that, to be great and to get to where he wanted to get to at the Major League level, he needed to make the adjustments and adapt to the league,” DeMarco said. “The way that he worked, it was impressive to watch. It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, just come and hit.’ He never canceled a session. … He didn’t take a day off.”

Rick Eckstein, hired as the Pirates’ hitting coach in November, flew west to meet Bell and DeMarco in the cages one day. That work carried into Spring Training, Bell’s first with Eckstein and assistant hitting coach Jacob Cruz. The Pirates have raved about Eckstein and Cruz this season, with Bell saying they create “the perfect mixture between shooting the breeze and getting work in.”

“It’s just a perfect atmosphere for all of us to thrive,” Bell added.

Eckstein and Cruz help each player create an individualized game plan, and Bell has tweaked his accordingly. He’s breaking down video and preparing to hit opposing starters’ fastballs. He’s hitting soft tosses for the first time in his life, something he picked up from teammate Melky Cabrera. He’s putting less pressure on himself during batting practice.

“He’s been on a relentless pursuit to do the things he knows he’s capable of doing,” Eckstein said.

Bell and his girlfriend had dinner with DeMarco when the Pirates were playing in San Diego in the middle of Bell’s historic, award-winning May. According to DeMarco, Bell’s girlfriend laughed and asked if they were going to spend the whole night breaking down his swing.

“I’m like, ‘There’s nothing to break down right now,’” DeMarco said.

The franchise player

The applause is louder when Bell steps up to the plate at PNC Park. There are more No. 55 jerseys in the stands and on the streets. During the All-Star Starters Election, the Pirates hosted a “Ring the Vote” party just to support Bell.

“He’s a blue-collar guy with a blue-collar mentality,” Coonelly said. “A blue-collar work ethic is appreciated in Pittsburgh.”

It helps when a player hits like Bell, of course. He came to the Midsummer Classic batting .302/.376/.648 with 27 homers, 30 doubles and 84 RBIs. He broke a first-half extra-base-hits record previously held by Albert Pujols. He’s shattering club records with seemingly every swing.

“It’s really incredible. It’s fun to watch,” starter Jameson Taillon said. “I think everyone, in a way, expected him to be some version of this guy at some point.”

He’s also inheriting a new title: face of the franchise, a role left vacant when the Pirates traded Andrew McCutchen to the Giants a year and a half ago.

Before the Pirates’ July 1 game against the Cubs, Bell was interviewed in the clubhouse by several members of the local media. Then came an interview with ESPN during batting practice, a postgame interview on the field following his three-homer performance and another interview with reporters at his locker. A crowd of reporters constantly surrounded Bell during Monday’s All-Star media day.

The spotlight hasn’t changed Bell at all. When he was named to the All-Star team, he couldn’t fully celebrate because the Pirates lost that day. Four hours before Friday’s game, he was fielding grounders at shortstop -- a new drill that’s made him feel more athletic at first base -- with coaches Joey Cora, Dave Jauss and Tom Prince.

“He’s the same guy,” said Jonathan Schwind, a longtime friend who pitched to Bell in the Home Run Derby on Monday. “He’s a pretty transparent guy. What you see on the outside is how he is. He’s a pretty honest, generous person.”

And now, he’s an All-Star.

“That’s the hope when you make that kind of investment in a young man,” Huntington said. “That that’s the type of player he will become.”