Written by: John Storey
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Josh Bell is beginning a new stage in his career. Not only is he joining the Washington Nationals after four years in Pittsburgh, who drafted him back in 2011. He also stands at crossroads. Bell is coming off a season that was undeniably his worst. Not only that, but his 2020 season came much anticipated after he had a career year in 2019. Now, the Nationals hope he can reproduce something closer to his 2019 performance.
But before we dig into the likelihood of that, let’s figure out exactly what happened in 2019. Of course, in aggregate it was a strong campaign. However, it’s easy to bias the results. Josh Bell’s 2019 was powered by an unbelievable month of May. It doesn’t take much context to see just how influential those games were on Bell’s season. After May, he slashed .232/.342/.467 – fairly pedestrian. April was also was a good month for Bell, but well within the subset of possibilities. So, really, he had one good month.
Whether you consider Josh’s May to be at all indicative of his performance is irrelevant. In that span, he dominated not just Pirates opponents, but all of baseball, manufacturing highlight reel, home runs into the Allegheny River.
Bell’s approach in May was fascinating because in hindsight it wasn’t all that different from other months. He sustained a very similar swing and miss rate, 12.6% in May of 2019, and 12.2.% through all of 2019. His walk to strikeout rate wasn’t dramatically different – well within the confines of April’s minimum and September’s minimum. It’s also worth noting the increasing walk-to-strikeout ratio trend here – whether that has any merit or not, May was no outlier.
|Month (2019)||BB/K (Josh Bell)|
The biggest change for Josh Bell come May was his exit velocity and launch angle. He posted an exit velocity of 95.4 mph and a launch angle of 9.1 degrees despite hitting higher, lazier batted balls across 2019, with a 92.4 mph exit velocity and a 12.9-degree launch angle. This naturally led to a myriad of benefits such as improved barrel and hard-hit rates. His batted balls were just more productive.
This is a frustrating result, as there is insufficient public data to define exactly what factors contributed to Bell’s power surge. Whether it was an adjustment to his plate approach or something mechanical like bat speed, we’ll never know. This also makes it difficult to predict what sort of direction Josh Bell might trend going forward.
It’s all dependent on whether or not he’s able to change some of the components influencing his batted ball profile. It won’t have to be a significant change, just enough for Bell to hit the ball in the air a little more. He’ll have to move past a career-low launch angle (5.9 degrees) that ranked 234th among 257 qualified hitters in 2020 if he wants to capture a bit of the productivity he enjoyed in 2019.
Another result of the low launch angle was diminished batted-ball distance. With little change in exit velocity, the majority of Bell’s 26-foot decline in average batted-ball distance was simply a result of less flight time.
The subtlety of these significant changes is underscored by Bell’s ground ball rate. While 56.4% was a career-high, it was little more than 4% higher than what Josh produced in 2017, with virtually no change in his line drive rate. Yet Bell went from being an all-star in 2019 to an ageing, somewhat expensive, project player for the Nationals.
An aspect that Josh may always struggle with is his tendency to pull the ball. In 2020, teams took note. After facing the shift 39.7% of the time as a lefty (16.8% as a righty) in 2019, opponents put the favourable split to work and shifted him an overwhelming 91.1% of the time (batting left, 44.3% as a righty) in 2020. Although the results from 2019 didn’t carry over into 2020. Bell seemed to perform better when facing the shift this year. However, it’s easy to wonder if some of the lower level byproducts of shifting are playing a role here. Bell saw more pitches out of the zone when facing the shift (its Achilles’ heel), but no more than he did in 2019.
In any case, so long as pitchers are on board, there’s space for Bell’s spray chart to be exploited. He’s consistently pulling the ball. So, if teams are shifting him, and he’s struggling to elevate the ball, the impact of the shift, the number of additional outs defences collect is multiplied by his lower launch angle. A high, predictable pull rate and low launch angle is a recipe for disaster.
So, it’s difficult to get especially excited about Josh Bell. He’s got as good a chance in 2021 at replicating what he did in 2019 as he did in 2020, for better or for worse. But he’s struggled to sustain the peripherals he needs to achieve that projectability. And his spray chart illustrates a potentially exploitable inefficiency for opponents to suppress hits. That being said, Washington is going to extract some value out of Josh Bell, regardless of his performance.
The Nationals had a dismal first base situation, so it’s difficult to imagine it getting any worse with Josh. They were projected to see nearly -1.0 fWAR out of the position, and this acquisition certainly helps, providing some substance beyond Jake Noll. Those praising the Pirates in this deal cite the cost (Pitching prospects Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean), and that’s fair. However, upgrading at first base was non-negotiable for the Nationals.
Mike Rizzo jumped at the chance to exploit the Pirates’ willingness to sell low on Bell. It suggests Washington is confident in Bell. Confident he can bounce back and make the necessary adjustments to come into his own and produce consistently, or more consistently at the very least.
The free-agent market menu continues to serve plenty of generally comparable, cheaper alternatives such as Brad Miller, C.J. Cron, Jake Lamb or better yet beloved Nat Ryan Zimmerman who’s eager to find a home after sitting out the 2020 season. However, Josh Bell offers more upside than other possibilities. He’s also shown us his ugly floor, yet, the Nationals aren’t phased.
Bell is a player who has always shown power, it’s just a case of how much – again, we saw what was likely, hopefully, the floor of that power in 2020. His ceiling remains lofty and it’s far from impossible that Bell finds his stride next year given a change of scenery, now playing in a more competitive environment. Well before we’re able to assess the true winner of this deal, before Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean reach Pittsburgh, Washington is likely to be highlighted and recognized for completing either an expert acquisition or careless swap.
All data sourced from fangraphs.com, baseball-reference.com and baseballsavant.mlb.com.
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