PITTSBURGH -- Three days before the Pirates traded center fielder Starling Marte to the D-backs, manager Derek Shelton sat inside the PNC Park press dining room surrounded by a crowd of reporters. He wouldn’t tip his hand by guaranteeing anybody a starting job or a spot in the lineup, with one exception.
“I’m going to go out on a limb here,” Shelton said, “and say Josh Bell is probably going to play first base a lot.”
The Pirates’ decision to trade Marte was an admission that they don’t expect to contend this season. General manager Ben Cherington did not hide the fact that the organization needs more talent to build a sustainable contender. The obvious follow-up question, then: Why not go ahead and trade Bell, too?
Bell has three seasons of club control remaining before he can reach free agency, so the Pirates do not have to do anything to keep him besides tendering contracts each year through 2022. They don’t have much of a history of extending arbitration-eligible players like Bell into their free-agent years, and Scott Boras clients like Bell typically establish their value on the free-agent market.
If the Pirates don’t believe they can be competitive within that window, odds are they’ll look to trade Bell at some point -- but likely not before Opening Day. That’s a front-office concern for the future, though, and the slugger is much more focused on the present.
Need proof? While Bell’s agents were negotiating his $4.8 million salary with the Pirates earlier this month, the 27-year-old said he went “M.I.A.” He learned of the deal after he finished working out in Newport Beach, Calif.
“One of our trainers brought me over a phone, because I had like 15 missed calls,” Bell said. “They were trying to keep me in the loop, but I was just focusing on me.”
Bell spent part of the offseason in Pittsburgh while getting healthy, but he ramped up his workload over the past month. The 2019 All-Star is so detail-oriented that he started chewing gum during his batting cage work to simulate his in-game routine.
What else has Bell been working on to improve on his 37-homer, 116-RBI campaign? Here’s what he said at PiratesFest.
Bell took a great deal of pride in playing 159 games during his rookie season, and he was equally pleased to take the field every day early last season. But Bell’s season ended on Sept. 13 due to a groin injury, limiting him to only 143 games.
In addition to his strength and flexibility work, Bell altered his diet by increasing his intake of fruits and vegetables. He plans to carry those changes into the season.
“I think that 155-160 games is attainable if I’m just ready to play every day,” Bell said. “So I think health, first and foremost. … I think that’s what’s going to make the most difference this year, because six months of baseball, you’ve got to focus on the little things as well. So that’s my key for this year.”
Back to basics
Bell’s swing is not as simple as that of, say, Christian Yelich or teammate Bryan Reynolds. As a switch-hitter, he essentially must maintain two swings full of moving parts. But when Bell slumped last season, the mechanics of his swing weren’t really the issue.
The way Bell described his approach last spring, it sounded like anybody could hit the way he did throughout April and his Player of the Month Award-winning May. He studied pitchers and timed up their fastballs, focused on driving the ball to center or the opposite field. That gave him the ability to adjust to breaking/offspeed pitches and launch them to the pull side.
For two months, he crushed everything. Last May, Bell posted a .532 wOBA against fastballs and a .527 wOBA against breaking pitches, according to Statcast. Then something entirely predictable happened: Perhaps noticing Bell’s results against offspeed pitches (a .383 wOBA in May), opponents increased their offspeed usage against Bell from 19.3 percent in May to 26.8 percent in June.
For the first time, Bell got off his game and started trying to time up those offspeed pitches. His results in June against fastballs (.317 wOBA), breaking balls (.407 wOBA) and offspeed pitches (.262 wOBA) all declined as a result.
“I feel like if you’re not syncing up to the fastballs, you can’t hit either -- at least with my move, because I have a lot of stuff going on,” Bell said. “I wasn’t doing the normal progression, giving my body time to get in sync and behind baseballs. The first couple of months, I was hitting fastballs, curveballs, changeups, strikes and balls pretty much forever. But once I started focusing more and more on offspeed pitches, I just went downhill for a stretch of time.”
Indeed, Bell’s unbelievable spring at the plate gave way to a more pedestrian summer (.766 OPS in June/July) before he bounced back toward the end of the season. This year, he’s determined to stick with what worked best.
“I got maybe caught up in my own head just a little bit too much,” Bell said. “But going back to the basics, that’s the easiest thing in the world, just focusing on timing one thing.”
Finding his form
Bell previously said he’s been working on his fielding with two-time American League Gold Glove Award-winning A’s third baseman Matt Chapman and Yankees utility man Tyler Wade. On Saturday, Bell revealed he’s also adjusted his arm slot to improve his throwing.
“Day 1 of my throwing program, I just told myself that I was going to release the ball sidearm every time. I think I’ve gotten good at it, in my mind,” Bell said. “As Spring Training rolls around, you start getting reps every day, I’m excited to be able to finally drop that ball into [shortstop Kevin] Newman to turn that double play.
“I was learning [in recent years] how to [play the infield] for the first time and trying to have a shorter arm stroke. Never really understood the aspects behind when and why. Now, as I’ve gotten older, I’m starting to understand when my arm needs to be up and why I need to stride a little bit longer toward the target that I’m throwing at. I’m excited for it.”
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.