Kevin Gorman: Pirates need more pop out of Josh Bell's bat
Clint Hurdle talked about how home runs, more often than not, are thrown and not hit in the major leagues. Josh Bell reminisced about how he never tried to hit a home run in the minor leagues.
The Pittsburgh Pirates aren’t expecting opposing pitchers to serve up home runs for them, so they are counting on Bell to produce more power by hitting more homers without, you know, trying to hit homers.
“It’s producing power the right way for me,” the switch-hitting Bell said Saturday at PiratesFest at PNC Park. “In the minors, I tried to create a swing and drive it to the opposite field, where I can take a fastball inside and drive it to the left-field gap. If I can do that, it puts the challenge on the pitcher.”
The Pirates are preaching an increase in power in the lineup will have to come internally, and they are depending upon Bell to provide more pop. They have challenged Bell to produce more power after his 12 home runs in 2018 ranked 34th among all first basemen, and the Pirates ranked 25th in MLB with 157 last season.
Their hope is the 26-year-old doesn’t tinker too much with his swing while trying to do so, as Hurdle cited the need for Bell to identify and differentiate his strike zone from his hitting zone “because he has the ability to hit anything.”
Hurdle recounted a late-season conversation in which he warned Bell his tendency to tweak had become counterproductive — “There comes a point in time if you continually change and tweak,” Hurdle said, “you’re going to become good at changing and tweaking” — and reminded him to focus on the core principles at the plate. Or else.
“Basically, I told him if he committed to them he’d stay in the lineup, and if he didn’t he was coming out of the lineup,” Hurdle said. “He knows the importance of him driving the baseball in our lineup, of being a middle-of-the-order bat. He was able to embrace that, too.”
A sophomore slump not only saw Bell’s home runs decline from 26 to 12 but also drops in his OPS from .800 to .768 and RBIs from 90 to 62. But Bell slashed .265/.390/.470 in the final 24 games, hitting as many home runs (four) as he did in the previous three months combined.
What did Bell learn? “There’s nothing wrong with my swing,” he said.
Instead, it was a chain reaction from his swings and misses. Bell studied video of his struggles and saw when he was late on a pitch, his foot wasn’t down. When he overcorrected, forcing his weight and his hands to drift forward and his body to ride up and down, he hit ground balls.
“If I hit the ball on the ground, I’m out,” Bell said. “So it’s a timing aspect, especially if I’m repeating the same swing.”
With his 6-foot-4, 240-pound frame, the Pirates believe Bell is capable of hitting 30 homers and driving in 100 runs. They are hoping he can do so out of the cleanup spot, where he started 65 games last season and slashed .233/.317/.363, with five homers and 34 RBIs.
“He’s intelligent. He’s driven. He wants to be great. He has the ability to be great,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. “He’s in his third full season this year, and that’s an exciting opportunity for us, to have him become that carrying bat that we believe that he can become.”
The Pirates really can’t afford anything less from Bell, especially with right fielder Gregory Polanco, who hit a team-high 23 home runs last season, sidelined with a shoulder injury. Starling Marte was the only other Pirates player to hit 20 or more home runs in ‘18. So, Bell put a premium on power lifting movements in his offseason weight training.
Bell also has another reason to be driven, with Paul Goldschmidt (Cardinals) the latest All-Star first baseman to join the cast of Jesus Aguilar (Brewers), Anthony Rizzo (Cubs) and Joey Votto (Reds) in the NL Central. Those four account for a total of 16 All-Star appearances and six Gold Gloves. Aguilar and Rizzo had 100-plus RBIs last season, Aguilar and Goldschmidt hit 30-plus homers, and Votto led the majors with a .417 on-base percentage and has a career .957 OPS.
“We definitely have the best first basemen in the league in our division,” Bell said. “I’m excited for the competition, to show what I can do, mano y mano . It’s you versus me. Who’s going to be the best first baseman on the field? Who’s going to be the best power hitter? I’m excited to rise to the occasion when it shows up.
“I think everyone wants to be the best something on the field. … I’m going to focus on hitting the hardest ball every game and doing my job out there. I can’t really focus on what Goldschmidt’s doing or Rizzo or Aguilar or Votto. They have their own game plan.”
The Pirates love that Bell has no shortage of incentive to prove he belongs with the best players at his position, especially at the plate.
“That’s a pretty talented group,” Huntington said. “If that motivates him, fantastic, because he has that ability. When Josh does what we believe he’s going to do, he’s going to belong in that conversation.”
Until then, the Pirates will continue to have the conversation about challenging Bell to produce power the right way, by hitting home runs without trying to hit home runs.
It’s not what they want so much as what they desperately need.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.