On the eve of the regular season last year, I wrote Gregory Polanco was the most important player to the Pirates success that season. He had the most untapped potential out of anyone on the roster, and while he still didn ?t reach it in 2018, it was his best season as a big leaguer. When he was hitting, the Pirates were winning.
Same theory, new year, different player. This year ?s most important Bucco is the newly announced cleanup hitter Josh Bell. He has the power to take what looks like an average offense to the next level or the depths of mediocrity.
First base has been the sore spot for the Pirates this decade. Since 2010, they have only had three first basemen be worth at least 1 WAR: David Freese in 2016 (1.6), Garrett Jones in 2012 (1.6) and Gaby Sanchez in 2013 (1.0). Bell was supposed to change this, but so far, he ?s following in the footsteps of his predecessors, being worth 0.6 WAR in 2017 and 0.9 in 2018. Worse yet, he set the pace for the infield.
The Pirates had one of their worst infields in franchise history last season, combining for only 3.4 fWAR. While Neal Huntington could have done more to upgrade the unit this offseason, they do look better now. After all, there is nowhere to go but up. If this spring is a sign that Jung-Ho Kang is back, he could be worth three or four wins by himself. Adam Frazier revamped his swing and lead all second basemen in OPS after the All-Star Break. It ?s hard to get excited for Erik Gonzalez and Kevin Newman, but shortstop had been a black hole for years now. They will at worst be replacement level, too.
That leaves Bell at first. It looks like the ship has sailed for him ever having a good WAR, if for no other reason than his glove. Going by FanGraphs ? DEF, Bell was the worst fielder for the Pirates last year. He was the worst fielder on the team in five of the sixth months of the season, and the worst defensive first baseman in the NL for three months.
Barring a drastic turnaround, Bell’s defense will prevent him from ever becoming a SABR darling. But WAR isn’t everything. He can still be a good player, assuming he hits enough. Despite a stark drop in homers in 2018, he took steps in the right direction last year, improving his wRC+ from 108 to 112.
He needs to get his power numbers back to at least 2017 levels, but those are encouraging peripherals.
He also matured as a ball player. Bell is a notorious tinkerer, and the coaching staff challenged him to stop last September. He did. He sat a couple games, and when he returned on Sep. 7, he slashed .301/.427/.534 with four home runs down the stretch. If he can come close to replicating that over 600 plate appearances, the Pirates are golden. The concern is the mindset he had while doing it.
I ?ve already written about the importance of pulling fly balls for TPOP and in PiratesGuide. Bell didn ?t do that during his final weeks of September, pulling only one of his 16 fly balls starting on Sep. 7. Of course not every batter needs to drive the ball down the line to be successful, but Bell says he was trying to hit it to opposite-center field. There are a lot of things that have held Bell back at the plate during his major league career, ranging from hitting too many ground balls, shifts and constant mechanics changes. This may be a silent culprit. He ?s trying to hit it into the big part of the park at PNC.
This may be why Bell has been a traditionally better hitter away from Pittsburgh. Last season, he had a 126 wRC+ on the road and a 95 wRC+ at home. PNC Park ?s left field is a power vacuum for him.
If this mentality works for Bell and he gets results, good. It’s only weird if it doesn’t work. However, it seems like a flawed strategy from a player with enough flaws in his game already.
2019 is Bell ?s make or break year. The Pirates need him to be a big time bat. Another ?good, not great ? year offensively with poor defense is not enough. Such a player won ?t lose a team a lot of games, but he won ?t win a lot for them, either.