Here’s a concept to ponder Friday night while watching the Pittsburgh Pirates and San Diego Padres and wondering what additional damage Josh Bell can inflict on a baseball:
Compared to the five greatest Pirates hitters of the past 71 years — Ralph Kiner, Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Dave Parker and Andrew McCutchen — Bell has done well, but he falls short when you look at the numbers generated at similar points in their careers.
Bell, 26, is being mentioned as the National League’s first baseman for the All-Star Game on July 9 at Progressive Field in Cleveland. And deservedly so.
He took a 15-game hitting streak into the Pirates’ game Thursday night in San Diego, and that was the least of his accomplishments this season.
He’s hit five home runs of 451 feet or longer, which could positively affect attendance when the Pirates return home Tuesday.
Fans in this region traditionally flock to the big events, and that’s what Bell’s at-bats could become, a PNC Park attraction to rival fireworks and bobbleheads. How far will his next home run fly?
Bell’s .333 batting average is tied for fourth in the major leagues, which is good, but still six points behind teammate Melky Cabrera.
He has driven in 39 runs, an average of almost one per game.
Yet, when you compare his numbers against Kiner, Clemente, Stargell, Parker and McCutchen after a nearly identical number of at-bats to start a career, Bell is behind most of them in three important categories: batting average, home runs and RBIs. But, in some cases, not by much.
Most of those players were in the majors as long as Bell by their 25th or 26th birthdays, with the exception of Clemente, who was 22 when he recorded his 1,328th at-bat in 1957.
Bell trails all five in batting average, but it’s interesting to note he has only 10 fewer hits than Clemente (356/366), possibly a product of Clemente’s age at the time. Clemente ended up with a .317 career batting average.
Bell and Clemente are different hitters. The young first baseman is a switch-hitter with a big roundhouse swing, and the Hall of Fame right fielder cut through the air efficiently when attacking a pitch.
Until the first 40 games of this season, Bell hasn’t been a .300 hitter in the majors, but he did it three times in the minors — once each in Single-A, Double-A and Triple-A. That’s an indication .333 might not be an aberration.
Bell’s numbers surpass Parker, McCutchen and Clemente in home runs and McCutchen and Clemente in RBIs.
Four of the Mount Rushmore of Pirates sluggers reached 1,000 RBIs. The exception is McCutchen, who is still playing and hitting .236 this season with 15 RBIs for the Philadelphia Phillies.
If Bell maintains his RBI-per-game pace, it would be a feat of epic proportions. When Manny Ramirez drove in 165 in 1999, it was the most in 61 years. Sammy Sosa reached 160 in 2001, and that’s the record for this century.
Which brings up a final topic: longevity.
All five of those former Pirates played at least 10 years (Kiner). Stargell, Parker and Clemente kept going through 21, 19 and 18 seasons. McCutchen is in his 11th.
How long can Bell, who broke into the majors in 2016, play?
Those players who enjoy long careers make smart decisions off the field, take care of their bodies and have a good measure of luck to avoid many serious injuries.
Bell (6-foot-4, 240 pounds) has the body of an NFL linebacker, only without the need to collide with other human beings (for the most part). He’s smart and thoughtful about his career, and he already has played 392 games while going through only two full seasons. Stargell didn’t reach that number until after he had played three full seasons.
It’s not a stretch to envision Bell playing into his mid-30s. Another 10 years, perhaps?
Check back in 2029, and we’ll see if the Pirates’ Mount Rushmore needs another face.