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Ground Balls, Shifts Are Holding Josh Bell Back

Josh Bell has not lived up to his massive hype yet, and ground balls are a big reason why. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

While the Pirates ? offense has improved dramatically this year and is among the best in baseball, they are doing it mostly without the guy most people had pegged as the big bat this year: Josh Bell. He ?s the big, former hot shot prospect, clean-up hitting first baseman. He finished third in rookie of the year voting last season and hit the most home runs of any returning Pirate. If someone was going to carry the offense, it was supposed to be him, right?

Bell has the most potential of any Pirate position player since Pedro Alvarez broke onto the scene, but like Alvarez, he has not come close to reaching that ceiling. He may have hit 26 home runs with a 10.6% walk rate and a .211 ISO in his first full season, but it only translated to a 108 wRC+, which is only one step up from average. Mix that with his defense and he only posted 0.6 fWAR. For reference, Max Moroff, who spent half the season in AAA and the other half on the bench, was worth 0.5 WAR last year.

So what ?s different? Well, nothing, really. The league ?s made adjustments to him. He hasn ?t been able to fight back.

Most of his problems stem from putting the ball on the ground too often. His rookie year, he had a 50% ground ball rate. It rose to 51.1% in 2017 and sits at 51.5% this season. Teams have finally caught on, and they are throwing more shifts at him.

According to Fangraphs, Bell faced a shift in 111 of 410 batted balls in play last season — roughly 27% of the time. Through 102 balls in play this year, he ?s faced a shift 59 times, or roughly 58%. Teams are employing twice as many shifts against him this year, and they ?re working.

When teams deploy a standard defense, he has a .395 batting average and .488 slugging percentage, good for a 147 wRC+. When there ?s a shift, he is hitting .207, slugging .276 and has a 25 wRC+. On Monday, Bell was in the top 25 for most shifts faced and bottom 25 for productivity against those shifts. That ?s a recipe for disaster.

In fact, let ?s conduct a little experiment. What would happen if we reduced the number of shifts against Bell to his 2017 rates, and he hit just as well against non-shifted defenses as he does right now? So instead of 59 shifts in 102 at-bats, it ?s instead just 28. That gives Bell 31 more at-bats against traditional defenses, of which he hits 188 points higher and slugs over 200 points better. Multiply those figures by 31, and all of a sudden Bell has six bonus hits and seven extra total bases. Now his season ?s slash line jumps from the current .238/.315/.346 to a far more respectable .284/.356/.400.

I checked Fangraphs ? leader boards to find a similar slash line, and Oakland’s Matt Olson ?s is pretty darn close. He is slugging a little more and getting on base a little less, but he too has a .756 OPS. That translates to a 111 wRC+. That ?s right around what Bell did last year. If he was having that type of season, the narrative would be, ?He ?s still hitting. The home runs will come later. ? Nobody is sticking to that narrative right now. If you want a one word answer on what ?s wrong with Bell, it ?s ?shifts. ?

But there ?s one major concession with this theory: Bell would still be hitting a lot of grounders. That ?s what is truly holding him back from being a great hitter. Shifts don ?t work when you put the ball in the air. So let ?s ask the big question: why does Bell hit so many worm killers? I don ?t have an answer, but I do have a theory.

Let ?s go through some Josh Bell at-bats from this season. Some of the results will be good, some results will be bad. For the sake of simplicity, all of these swings will be left-handed and with one strike (besides one obvious exception). See if you can spot some similarities. We ?ll start with this beauty of a home run from April 4.

Fast forward 12 days to him whiffing for strike three on a similar pitch in the same part of the zone.

Nine days later, he hit this ground ball.

Finally, an RBI single from April 28.

The only commonality between those four swings is that they are all different from one another. Sometimes he has a leg kick, sometimes it ?s a toe tap. Sometimes he starts with a very open stance to aggressively close it, sometimes it only closes halfway. Don ?t like Josh Bell ?s swing or Pittsburgh weather? Wait two hours, it will change.

Bell likes to tinker, probably to a fault. One of the biggest sports cliches reporters hear is when a player says they are ?trying to repeat their mechanics. ? It ?s stupidly simple, but logical. If a player fails to do what they ?ve trained to do, they ?ve made a mistake. Mistakes get punished. Bell, on the other hand, hardly ever repeats his mechanics because he keeps changing them week to week, if not game to game. I just showed four very different swings in just a three and a half week stretch, and that was from just the left side.

This isn’t a new development, either. Bell experimented all throughout last year with leg kicks, stances and even bat sizes. He was allowed to make those changes because he was young and producing at a reasonable clip. Now a year older and far less successful, it might be time to stop trying so hard.

The league has adjusted to Bell, but it seems he is making too many adjustments to his swing to fight back against the league. If he can just find a swing he likes, I ?m convinced he could become the fly ball hitting machine that goes yard 30+ times a year. He certainly has the physique and the raw power to do it. What he needs is the repeated mechanics. If he can ?t do that, the ground balls are going to stay the norm, and so will shifts.

Alex is a Pirates and Duquesne basketball contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. He graduated from Point Park University with a degree in Journalism and Mass Comm. and a minor in English in 2014. Everything can be explained with numbers. If you want to keep up to date on both teams or have a story idea, you can follow or reach him @AlexJStumpf.

3 Comments on Ground Balls, Shifts Are Holding Josh Bell Back

  1. Good article. If you can see this then why can’t the hitting coach. If he sees it then Hurdle needs to have a talk with the guy. The offense is pretty good, but the two guys who were supposed to be the big sticks, in Bell and Polanco, are both very disappointing. It is one thing to be in a slump, but quite another to have a bad approach/no corrections in regard to hitting.

  2. I hope Osuna gets at bats now and Bell sits for a few games.

    • Kevin Creagh // May 8, 2018 at 11:17 AM //

      About a week ago, I would have said that was ludicrous, but I’m tentatively onboard with this idea now.

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