The Pirates’ offense is bad. It didn’t look so hot coming into the year, and losing Starling Marte and Corey Dickerson to the injury list hasn’t helped. Francisco Cervelli and Jung Ho Kang’s struggles have been a hamper as well. The lineup been one disappointment after the other.
That is except for one Joshua Evan Bell. The Pirates’ first baseman has been their only consistently good hitter this April. In fact, this past month has been the best of his career.
Bell has already been worth 0.6 fWAR this year. That’s the same total he had in his entire rookie season. At this pace, he’ll set a new career high for WAR by mid-May. The defense is still suspect at best and he isn’t doing too well when running the bases, but for the first time in his career, he’s been more than just a “good” hitter. He’s been great.
Now there is one game left to go before we close the book on April, and knowing my luck, Bell will strike out five times tonight. Even if that happens, I’ll stand by the headline. And I’ve got charts to prove it!
We’ll start with a simple enough chart: OPS by month.
Now let’s add some context to that OPS. His wRC+ by month:
One of the persistent problems throughout Bell’s career has been getting the ball in the air. Chart three is all about ground ball percentage. This time, the lower, the better.
Ok, time for a chart breather (there’s one more coming). Going off the first three graphics, the best four months of Bell’s career were August of 2017, July and September of last year and this April. All four are on basically even footing with one another. Bell got the ball in the air and got results. But how hard was he hitting the ball?
Time for the fourth chart, and it’s the one that separates him from any other month in his career. Here is his average exit velocity per month.
Bell is averaging an exit velocity of 94.1 MPH this season, which is in the top 5% in baseball. The only other time he has come close to hitting the ball this consistently hard was…last September. He may have had months with similar or even slightly better results than what he’s done in April, but he’s never hit it this hard before. His stats aren’t being artificially inflated by bloops and seeing eye singles. He’s earning his bases.
So what is he doing differently? He hasn’t cut down on swings out of the zone, and he’s whiffing a bit more, actually. There is still some noticeable tinkering in play with his swing, too. Take for consideration this crisp base hit he roped in Cincinnati during the opening series…
…and compare it to this home run he hit last week.
They are two very different swings. I don’t want to argue the pros and cons of an open or closed stance or big leg kick or a short one. The point is this has been a habit throughout his career, and the coaching staff went as far as to sit him a couple days to try to get him to stop doing it last September. If he did stop then, he’s back at it now.
So has anything changed? Is Bell just riding the manic highs of a small sample size and will come back down to earth when his 23.1% home run-to-fly ball ratio regresses? Perhaps, but there is one other encouraging sign worth noting- he’s finally hitting the breaking ball.
Bell hit .196 with a .287 wOBA against breaking pitches last year. Going by his xwOBA- which is weighed based on exit velocity and launch angle- he might have been lucky to get even that, finishing with a .261 xwOBA. This season, he’s hitting .292 with a .387 wOBA on sliders and curves. Again, there haven’t been a lot of cheapies there either. His .403 xwOBA on said pitches is in the top 10% in baseball.
I have previously cited how he told reporters this PiratesFest that he is going to try to drive the ball to opposite center field again. Speaking as the resident “pull your fly balls” table banger, this confused me. Who looks at the 410 left-center notch and thinks “yeah, I’ll hit it there.” But last year, of the 71 batted balls Bell hit against breaking pitches, 39 of them were pulled. Pulling the ball didn’t do him any good. Meanwhile, in 2019, those batted balls are going to opposite-center field.
It looks like he’s staying back on the ball more. He’s hitting these pitches harder and they’re falling in for hits. If the change in mentality is working, then he should keep running with it.
Bell is currently alone in the lineup. Once he gets a little bit of protection when Dickerson and Marte come off the IL and Cervelli and Gregory Polanco (hopefully) return the form, he might finally have some runners to drive home. If April is a signal of things to come, then this might finally be his breakout campaign.