Bell grew up a fan of the Texas Rangers.
Josh started playing baseball when he was four years old. And he started switch-hitting when he was five, at the behest of his father, Earnest. He was between kindergarten and first grade.
His mother, Myrtle, was a Pirates fan, connecting with Roberto Clemente despite the fact she grew up in Baton Rouge, La.
"His father, a former track star and wide receiver at Southern University, has worked with him all his life and trained him such that he would be ready for the next level," Myrtle Bell said, pointing out that her son played against older competition as well as against his father throughout his childhood. "That kind of helped him understand there's a lot to learn, but then, 'I can learn it, yes I can.' That's what you're seeing in him."
Earnest saw the requisite coordination in his son to think the arrangement might work. So he handed the boy a bat, and from tee-ball through Little League, young Josh Bell alternated between hitting from the left side and the right during games.
“It was fun to give the pitcher a different look,” Bell said. “It was cool to be able to hit homers from both sides of the plate at a young age.’’ (Baseball America - October, 2017)
His family is very big on education. Bell's mother is a professor at the University of Texas-Arlington, while his father is well-educated and considers education very important.
In 2011, Bell's senior year at Jesuit College Prep in Dallas, he committed to the University of Texas on a baseball scholarship.
But in June Josh was the Pirates second round pick in the draft. And he signed with scout Mike Leuzinger on the August 15 deadline for a bonus of $5 million.
In 2012, Baseball America rated Bell as the third-best prospect. They had him at #6 in the winter before 2013 spring training, and at #7 in the spring of 2014 and at #4 in 2015.
In 2016, he was ranked as the third-best prospect in the Pirates organization; and he was at #4 again in the spring of 2017.
Josh is a great kid, a hard worker and a good guy.
Bell gained over 30 pounds during the offseason before 2013 Spring Training. He worked out at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida with Pirates 2B Neil Walker and 3B Pedro Alvarez.
Josh has continued to work out every off-season. He reported to 2015 spring training at an imposing 245 pounds, after a power-lifting program.
"I want to be one of those guys who puts a little fear in the other team’s pitcher when he looks at me from across the field,” Bell said during the 2015 season.
In 2014, Bell was dubbed the Pirates' Minor League Player of the Year after he led the Florida State League (and was MVP) in average (.335) and slugging (.502) before a late-July promotion to Double-A Altoona. His .325 average topped the Pirates organization.
Josh was selected to play for the US in the 2015 Futures Game.
July 8, 2016: (MLB debut): On the very first pitch of his first Major League at-bat, Bell ripped a single to right field off reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta.
October 2016: Bell was recognized by MLBPipeline.com as the Pirates' 2016 minor league Player of the Year.
Bell impressed throughout his last few years in the Pirates minor league system and developed into one of the organization’s best young stars in the process. His MLB debut was highly anticipated by fans and he didn’t disappoint after dressing in a Pirates uniform for the first time on July 8, 2014.
Bell showed an incredible amount of poise for a 23-year old getting a taste of his first Major League action, reaching base in his first four plate appearances as a Pirate. In that span, Bell drew two walks and compiled two hits including a pinch-hit grand slam in only his second career at-bat.
Bell finished the year by hitting at a .273/.368/.775 clip with three home runs and 19 RBIs. When looking at basic statistics, it’s easy to like what Bell did in his first glimpse of MLB action. He’s a top talent and a big part of the Pirates future. He didn’t necessarily play like a rookie, showing exceptional prowess at the plate; however, there is still room for improvement as his career progresses.
Impressive Plate Discipline: The biggest surprise to those that tuned in to his at-bats is his tremendous plate discipline and composure especially for someone his age. In 152 plate appearances, Bell compiled an impressive walk rate of 13.8 percent and struck out at a 12.5 percent rate. He finished 2016 with 21 walks and 19 strikeouts, which is uncanny for a young player. It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that Bell showed so much patience at the plate.
What makes Bell unique within the Pirates lineup is that he has the ability to hit from both sides of the plate. In 2016, Bell only had 19 Major League at-bats from the right side of the plate, but he also only compiled four hits for a .211 average and walked and struck out three times each.
Bell had 131 at-bats from the right side while playing at Indianapolis in 2016, compiling a .267 average. He had more success in Indy from the left side of the batters box, sporting a .307 average with 11 home runs and 45 RBIs in 290 at-bats. The same success as a lefty that Bell had in the minors translated to his time in Pittsburgh. Bell saw more opportunities from the left side of the plate, 109 to be exact, and hit .284 with all three of his home runs and 18 of his 19 RBIs coming as a left handed hitter.
Despite not having a ton of success as a right handed hitter at the Major League level, Bell does have the talent to hit for average and power from both sides of the plate. However, his work in the minors and in Pittsburgh shows that his strength is from the left side of the plate and that he will need to show consistency from the right side in the future.
Despite a few struggles on defense, Bell held his own at first base for the most part and showed rare maturity at the plate. Because of this, he earned a B+ grade. I went back and forth about whether or not to give him a B or an A, but I feel as if we didn’t see enough of him for an A to be given out.Bell is a huge part of the Pirates future plans and though 2016 didn’t end well, this 23-year old first baseman is definitely a reason to hold onto hope when it comes to 2017 and the years beyond that. (October 17, 2016 by Jose Negron)
Dec 26, 2016: Since the Pirates drafted him in 2011, Josh Bell set his sights on reaching the Major Leagues. That was the end point, he thought, the ultimate goal, the light at the end of the tunnel. He made it this year, but it wasn't the finish line he'd built up in his mind.
"You realize you're just getting out of the starting blocks," Bell said.
This time last year, Bell was preparing to dazzle Pirates brass with Spring Training home runs and web gems, thinking that would get him to Pittsburgh. Now, the 24-year-old switch-hitter said, he is thinking about "longevity," how he can stay effective in the big leagues as long as possible. The 6-foot-2 slugger has cut his weight to around 233 pounds, he said during PirateFest, down from 240-245 during the season. He's taken up yoga and spin classes. "Just focusing on my body and not how hard I can swing a bat," Bell said. "Trying to focus on the complete package."
Bell is taking hacks in his garage, swatting at heavy bags to keep a feel for his swing without worrying about results. He's been doing that after seeking out offseason advice from veteran infielder David Freese, who told Bell, "You don't want to get in a slump in the offseason."
Bell has already spent time working on his defense with special assistant Kevin Young in Dallas and infield coach Joey Cora in Miami. He spent time at first and moved back to right field halfway through this past season, but most of his work this winter has been at first base.
"First base is more of a focus. I know the kid is always going to have the ability to run in the outfield," manager Clint Hurdle said at the 2016 Winter Meetings. "We asked him to do that last year based on need. That's a position he grew up playing."
"Just taking the pressure off and realizing that you're there to get the cobwebs off and get ready to go for the season, it's going to be fun," Bell said. (A Berry - MLB.com - Dec 26, 2016)
Josh and his father shared a daily routine. Almost every afternoon, Josh and his father, Earnest Bell, played baseball together in their backyard in Coppell, Texas. During these sessions, Josh tried to hit as many home runs as possible, with homers being balls that landed over the backyard fence. If he hit five or six home runs that day, his father rewarded him by taking him out to eat.
"When I think back about it, a lot of people were like, 'Oh my gosh, you spent so many hours. That must have been hard work,'" Josh said. "For me, it was always like, No. 1, I get to hang out with my pops … It was always in good spirits."
All those hours in the backyard paid off. Years later, Josh is still hitting home runs. He's just doing it in a different setting. Bell traces his development as a baseball player back to all those hours spent playing in the backyard, and more specifically, to his father.
"I mean especially in regards to baseball, he is my first connection with the game, which is pretty cool," Josh said. "All the time that he devoted is pretty cool and I am really thankful for."
Earnest Bell did everything in his power to help his son succeed. He and Josh spent hours in the car driving across the country for baseball tournaments. He trained to Josh to switch-hit at age 5 so he could be a more dangerous hitter. And he bought Josh a Wiffle ball pitching machine when Josh was about 10 or 12 to help him perfect his swing.
Earnest also didn't allow his son to play football because he thought there was too great a risk of injury, so Josh only played baseball and basketball as a kid. But Josh made sure to emphasize that his father was never demanding. While Earnest wanted to see Josh succeed, he never pressured him to be a great baseball player.
"It was never forced or anything like that, because there are some parents out there who go about it the wrong way," Josh said. "It was never, 'You are going to have to!' It was always like, 'You get to go in the backyard and do what you got to do to get better.' "
Earnest still remains involved with Josh's career. The two talk on the phone every other day about baseball and other things going on in Josh's life, with Earnest offering support.
"He knows what I need to do to get to the next level," Bell said. "He also knows in certain areas where I can get better to. It's cool to have like a coach there, but also a father figure who can still lead me."
Earnest and his own father traveled with the the Pirates to Atlanta on their annual dads road trip to watch their four-game series against the Braves. Earnest watched his son smash an RBI double off R.A. Dickey on May 23. It was a moment that Josh won't forget.
"That was a cool scenario," Josh said. "Getting an RBI in front of my pops there and my grandfather. You can't ask for much more." (Toye - mlb.com - 6/15/17)
Bell quickly became a fan favorite in Pittsburgh because of his energy and passion for the game.
During the Pirates’ August, 2017 visit to Williamsport, Pa., for a nationally-televised game, Bell wasn’t quite as popular as the Cardinals’ Tommy Pham and Yadier Molina, who sprung for 200 snow cones for the Little Leaguers in attendance. But he was clearly in his element bantering with the kids and enjoying the game of baseball for baseball’s sake. (Jerry Crasnick - ESPN.com - Sept., 2017)
October 2017: For all the questions the Pirates faced throughout their frustrating 2017 season, one answer emerged. They finally found their first baseman. Josh Bell was a bright spot during a mostly disappointing year. He had a slash line of .255/.334/.466 with 26 home runs and 90 RBIs and silenced three preseason criticisms. After left knee surgery in February, would he hold up physically during his first full Major League season? Could the Pirates trust him on defense? Would he hit for power? Yes, yes and yes.
Bell led the team with 159 games played. He developed into a reliable defender at first base and produced six Defensive Runs Saved. Offensively, he finished first on the team in RBIs and second in homers, set the National League record for most home runs by a switch-hitting rookie and tied Jason Bay's club record for most long balls by a rookie.
"I'm in a good place," Bell said. "I'm happy to say I made it."
But Bell readily acknowledges he is not a finished product. His rookie season was full of growing pains, especially from a rocky Spring Training through a May slump that made him wonder if he'd be sent down to Triple-A. After that, he bounced back to hit .271/.348/.483 in his final 105 games.
"The game's a lot different up here," Bell said. "I know what I need to do to have success for next year, so I'm excited about that."
Bell spent previous winters taking "1,000 swings a day," he said, constantly working and tinkering. This 2017 offseason will be different. The native Texan is planning to spend some time in California, driving up the coast and hiking and watching the Pacific Ocean—leisure he didn't think he had time for in the past.
"It's always been a little bit of a revolving door for us. Josh stepped in in a big way," general manager Neal Huntington said. "He's going to be fun to watch." (A Berry - MLB.com - Oct 27, 2017).
In 2017, Bell finished third in NL Rookie of the Year voting, behind Cody Bellinger, the winner.
Josh's father, Earnest, cares deeply about his son's performance, with the two of them playing baseball in the backyard almost every afternoon while Josh was growing up.
"When I think back about it, a lot of people were like, 'Oh my gosh, you spent so many hours. That must have been hard work,'" Josh said in 2017. "For me, it was always like, No. 1, I get to hang out with my pops." (Clair - mlb.com - 8/15/18)
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle learned that Josh Bell's family would be in attendance on Mother's Day at Busch Stadium. Since it was Mother’s Day, Hurdle jokingly asked his slugging first baseman if he was going to do something special for his mom, Myrtle. “Yeah,” Bell answered, “I got this.”
As Hurdle said afterward, “It turned out that he had it.”
Bell tied a career high with four hits, set a new career-best mark with five RBI and clubbed a game-tying homer in the Pirates’ five-run seventh inning as they stormed back to beat the Cardinals, 10-6. That qualifies as something special, right?
“It was awesome. It’s one of those scenarios where I know my mom would be just as excited to watch me play if I go 0-for-4 right there,” Bell said. “To be able to perform and celebrate the win with them watching, it’s unbelievable."
Left-hander Steven Brault said, “He’s just so confident. The swings he’s taking are just gorgeous. He’s not afraid to swing and miss. He’s attacking baseballs, and it’s cool to see. Dude’s got a lot of pop.” (Berry - mlb.com - 5/12/19)
May 29, 2019: Each year since Clint Hurdle became the manager of the Pirates, the team has organized an annual "Dad Trip," where fathers of the current players have the opportunity to join their sons on a road trip. That means plane rides, a trip to the ballpark, visiting the clubhouse -- the whole shebang. It's about as wholesome as you can imagine, and it can lead to exciting moments like what happened at Great American Ball Park on Wednesday afternoon.
Earnest Bell, well-known strongman/baseball dad was so happy for father Moran, watching his son Colin's dinger fly into the stands. Bell had to be wondering if his own son, Josh, would provide him with a dinger, too. Given the first baseman's scorching start, it was a reasonable hope. An inning later, the kid came through with homer No. 18:
What a good lad. Bell's three-run bomb put the Pirates up, 7-0, and they held on for a 7-2 win. It was an excellent day for the dads, and I have no doubt that they celebrated with terrible jokes and a trip to the hardware store. (CUT4 - MLB.com)
July 1, 2019:They met a few months after they were selected by the Pirates in the 2011 MLB Draft, Josh Bell in the second round and Jonathan Schwind in the 41st. Schwind was playing in the Gulf Coast League, learning how to catch after being drafted in a round that no longer exists. It took longer for Bell to sign, but he eventually accepted a $5 million bonus and reported to the Pirate City complex in Bradenton, Fla.
So began a friendship that takes them to the center of the baseball world, when Schwind pitches to Bell in the 2019 Home Run Derby at Progressive Field in Cleveland.
“I’m very excited for him. It’s definitely something that I’ve heard him talk about a lot in the Minor Leagues when we were playing together and something that has been kind of a dream for him,” Schwind said in a phone interview with MLB.com. “Just really, really humbled, excited and honored that he would even consider sharing it with me.”
It wasn’t much of a question for Bell. They talk all the time and know each other’s families. Every offseason, one of them visits the other at home. Last winter, Schwind traveled to meet Bell while he worked out in Newport Beach, Calif. At some point after this season ends, Bell will travel north to see Schwind near Rochester, N.Y.
They became close friends during their shared journey in the Minors, one that started on an unfortunate note. While playing for Class A West Virginia in April 2012, Bell tore his meniscus. Less than two weeks later, Schwind broke his arm. They headed south to rehab at Pirate City and wound up hanging out every day.
Schwind was drafted out of Marist College, so he had a little more perspective and life experience than Bell. Schwind is also a relentlessly positive and upbeat person, the product of his faith and family. His cheerful nature helped Bell handle his season-ending injury during his first full year away from home—and earned a nickname from some of their teammates.
“He kind of scooped me up underneath his wing and made sure I was in a happy place,” Bell said. “The younger Dominican cats who didn’t speak much English would call him ‘Happy Happy.’ That was his name for a lot of the guys, so that definitely paints a solid picture.”
When Bell and Schwind returned to West Virginia for the 2013 season, they decided to live together. They did the same when they advanced to Class A Advanced Bradenton in 2014 and Double-A Altoona in 2015. When Schwind got married in 2014, Bell performed a reading at the ceremony.
“He probably would have been in my wedding if I had known him for a year longer,” Schwind said, laughing. “He always rips on me about it. ‘Yeah, I was a guy that wasn’t in the wedding. I had to do a reading, a sympathy reading.’”
Before the wedding, perhaps in a bit of foreshadowing, there was a home run-hitting contest—the only one Schwind says he’s ever participated in. It happened during Schwind’s bachelor party at a high school field close to home, and it didn’t end well for Bell.
“He was there, and I’m not going to let him live this down,” Schwind said, “because I beat him.”
“He definitely beat me at that,” Bell confirmed, grinning, “but I was swinging a bat that was too big for me.”
Their career paths eventually diverged. Bell, 26, moved through the Pirates' system as one of the game’s top prospects, finished third in the 2017 NL Rookie of the Year Award race and broke out this season as a power-hitting All-Star first baseman for the Pirates.
“It’s not a shock. I’m not surprised that he’s having a monster year,” Schwind said. “That’s the type of talent he is. Combine that with his work ethic, and it becomes a possibility.”
Meanwhile, injuries continued to bother Schwind. There was the broken arm and thumb in 2012, the fractured hamate in ’14 and the ruptured spleen followed by a splenectomy in ’15. In '17, the final year of his contract, Schwind sustained tears in his internal and external oblique muscles. He eventually returned, only to tear another core muscle. The 29-year-old hasn’t played since.
“It’s not a very uplifting story,” Schwind said, laughing. “I don’t regret any of it. People ask me that a lot. It was just part of my journey.”
And that journey is not over. The Pirates knew from the moment they drafted Schwind that he would have a spot with the team after his playing career ended. Sure enough, after taking the 2018 season off, Schwind returned to Pittsburgh’s system as an assistant hitting coach for Triple-A Indianapolis.
“From Day 1, his makeup was off the charts,” said senior director of Minor League operations Larry Broadway. “Really, in the Draft room, that was one of the things that was said about him: He was a guy we’d want to stay in the organization in the future. He had always been a leader on the clubs he was on. Even when he wasn’t playing, he was watching the game and helping out younger players.”
Schwind has a number of responsibilities with Indianapolis. He works with hitters, of course, but he also helps out with defensive positioning and serves as the third-base coach.
Oh, and he throws batting practice almost every day -- just one more reason Bell knows he’ll be the right man for the job.
“I will say that I do throw strikes. I can usually put it where I want,” Schwind said. “The goal is to throw ‘em where he wants ‘em and get as many pitches within the time limit, and hopefully we come out on the other side.”(A Berry - MLB.com - July 1, 2019)
July 8, 2019: Bell participated in the All-Star Home Run Derby.
July 9, 2019: Clint Hurdle and Neal Huntington were talking over the winter, batting around ideas about the 2019 Pirates and one of their most important players: Josh Bell. Bell was coming off a disappointing season. He hit .261 with 12 home runs and 62 RBIs in 148 games. He was bumped out of the cleanup spot and, at one point in early September, benched for three straight days. He finished the year strong, hitting for average and power while showing patience at the plate in his final 21 games.
That was enough for Hurdle. In a conversation with Huntington, Pittsburgh’s manager said he “put all my chips in” and fully committed to Bell. The switch-hitting first baseman was going to be the Pirates’ cleanup hitter from Day 1, no questions asked.
“I remember loving the belief in Josh and knowing how important that is to a young player, to feel that belief from a manager, from a coach, from an organization,” Huntington said. “I believed that was going to pay huge dividends for Josh and for us.”
Meanwhile, in Southern California, Bell was working. His excellent three-week stretch to finish the season did not wash out the bad taste in his mouth. He took only three weeks off from hitting, headed west and put in full workdays of training in the offseason.
“I was just ticked off with last year. I was really hungry,” Bell said. “Especially now, I’m kind of seeing that we’ve got a chance at this thing if we all pay our dues and play our part.”
This is what it took to make Bell an All-Star, the starting designated hitter for the National League. It took talent and discipline, of course, and no one has ever doubted Bell’s ability or work ethic. It also took unwavering faith from the Pirates, from the day they drafted him in 2011 through his struggles last season, that he was capable of exactly this.
“For the last eight years now, I’ve felt nothing but support from the organization,” Bell said. “That paved the way for me to be where I’m at right now.”
The initial investment.
Heading into the 2011 MLB Draft, the Pirates viewed Bell as one of the 10 best players available. There was one problem: Bell was intent on attending the University of Texas, and he wrote a letter to MLB informing every team that he would be honoring his scholarship offer instead of playing professional baseball.
The Pirates believed Bell’s letter was “legitimate,” team president Frank Coonelly said, not an attempt to drive up the price of the Texas high school outfielder’s signing bonus. Their area scout at the time, Mike Leuzinger, knew that Bell’s parents, Earnest and Myrtle, put his education first. The Pirates thought his interests aligned well with their system, and they had ownership’s blessing to spend significantly to sign him.
“If a club had a chance,” Huntington said, “it might be us.”
The Pirates picked Gerrit Cole first overall. When the 61st pick rolled around, Bell was so far ahead of the next player on their board that they saw no other option. They picked Bell and eventually convinced the 19-year-old to sign for $5 million.
“We thought we could make a case that starting with the Pirates’ organization was his best opportunity to become a great superstar and Major League player,” Coonelly said.
The right path. Bell’s turnaround began in September, 2018 in Hurdle’s office. The Pirates’ manager sat down with Bell, took him out of the lineup for three days and encouraged him to learn from his struggles.
As a highly-touted prospect, Bell developed a reputation for tweaking his swing and adjusting his stance in the batter’s box. It earned him the nickname “Tinker Bell.” That helped him hit 26 homers as a rookie, but it wasn’t helping him through a mostly disappointing sophomore season. Hurdle asked Bell to stop changing.
“Josh got to the point where he committed to a couple of core principles at the plate, stayed steadfast with them,” Hurdle said. “Basically, I told him if he committed to them, he’ll stay in the lineup. If he didn’t commit to them, he’s coming out of the lineup.”
Bell was slashing .255/.344/.390 when he was benched on Sept. 4. When he returned to the lineup, primarily batting third, he hit .301/.427/.534 with four homers and more walks (16) than strikeouts (15).
“I had to look myself in the mirror,” Bell said. “When we were pretty much out of the race and you look at my stats, I wasn’t the player that I wanted to be and that we needed. Then I felt like I was that last month, you know?
“I realized that this was possible and the Minor Leagues wasn’t a fluke. I just had to work my tail off.”
The work begins. Rather than going home to Texas, Bell spent the winter before 2019 spring training in Newport Beach, Calif. It was far from a vacation.
Bell spent his mornings working out at the Boras Sports Training Institute or with range specialist Hunter Cook. He improved his mobility, and the foundation he laid over the winter has allowed him to train harder than ever with Pirates strength coach Jim Malone.
“He’s bigger and stronger, but moving better,” Huntington said. “That typically doesn’t happen.”
After his morning workout, Bell would see hitting consultant Joe DeMarco. The two met through a mutual friend who works with Scott Boras, Bell’s agent. DeMarco said Bell was “a blank canvas” for him, as he couldn’t remember ever watching one of Bell’s at-bats before last October. DeMarco was blown away by Bell’s hand-eye coordination and swing path. His focus was not only helping the 26-year-old develop better timing, but on getting him to understand why they made certain changes—not just changing for the sake of change.
They spent six to eight hours working together every week from October until February. Every day was different. They performed various drills in the cage and on the field, alone and with groups, day in and day out.
“He knew that, to be great and to get to where he wanted to get to at the Major League level, he needed to make the adjustments and adapt to the league,” DeMarco said. “The way that he worked, it was impressive to watch. It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, just come and hit.’ He never canceled a session. He didn’t take a day off.”
Rick Eckstein, hired as the Pirates’ hitting coach in November, flew west to meet Bell and DeMarco in the cages one day. That work carried into Spring Training, Bell’s first with Eckstein and assistant hitting coach Jacob Cruz. The Pirates have raved about Eckstein and Cruz this season, with Bell saying they create “the perfect mixture between shooting the breeze and getting work in.”
“It’s just a perfect atmosphere for all of us to thrive,” Bell added.
Eckstein and Cruz help each player create an individualized game plan, and Bell has tweaked his accordingly. He’s breaking down video and preparing to hit opposing starters’ fastballs. He’s hitting soft tosses for the first time in his life, something he picked up from teammate Melky Cabrera. He’s putting less pressure on himself during batting practice.
“He’s been on a relentless pursuit to do the things he knows he’s capable of doing,” Eckstein said.
Bell and his girlfriend had dinner with DeMarco when the Pirates were playing in San Diego in the middle of Bell’s historic, award-winning May. According to DeMarco, Bell’s girlfriend laughed and asked if they were going to spend the whole night breaking down his swing.
“I’m like, ‘There’s nothing to break down right now,’” DeMarco said.
The franchise player.
The applause is louder when Bell steps up to the plate at PNC Park. There are more No. 55 jerseys in the stands and on the streets. During the All-Star Starters Election, the Pirates hosted a “Ring the Vote” party just to support Bell.
“He’s a blue-collar guy with a blue-collar mentality,” Coonelly said. “A blue-collar work ethic is appreciated in Pittsburgh.”
It helps when a player hits like Bell, of course. He came to the Midsummer Classic batting .302/.376/.648 with 27 homers, 30 doubles and 84 RBIs. He broke a first-half extra-base-hits record previously held by Albert Pujols. He’s shattering club records with seemingly every swing.
“It’s really incredible. It’s fun to watch,” starter Jameson Taillon said. “I think everyone, in a way, expected him to be some version of this guy at some point.”
He’s also inheriting a new title: face of the franchise, a role left vacant when the Pirates traded Andrew McCutchen to the Giants a year and a half ago.
Before the Pirates’ July 1 game against the Cubs, Bell was interviewed in the clubhouse by several members of the local media. Then came an interview with ESPN during batting practice, a postgame interview on the field following his three-homer performance and another interview with reporters at his locker. A crowd of reporters constantly surrounded Bell during the All-Star media day.
The spotlight hasn’t changed Bell at all. When he was named to the All-Star team, he couldn’t fully celebrate because the Pirates lost that day. Four hours before the game, he was fielding grounders at shortstop with coaches Joey Cora, Dave Jauss and Tom Prince. It was a new drill that’s made him feel more athletic at first base -- .
“He’s the same guy,” said Jonathan Schwind, a longtime friend who pitched to Bell in the Home Run Derby. “He’s a pretty transparent guy. What you see on the outside is how he is. He’s a pretty honest, generous person.”
And now, he’s an All-Star.
“That’s the hope when you make that kind of investment in a young man,” Huntington said. “That that’s the type of player he will become.” (A Berry - MLB.com - July 9, 2019)
July 16, 2019: Bell received the MLB Players Alumni Association "Heart and Hustle" award for the Pirates. This esteemed award honors active players who demonstrate a passion for the game of baseball and best embody the values, spirit and traditions of the game. The Heart and Hustle Award is also the only award in Major League Baseball that is voted on by former players.
Jan 23, 2020: Josh Bell spent the past two days on the road, traveling with the Pirates Charities CARE-a-van as far east as Johnstown, Pa., and as far southwest as Wheeling, W.Va. At every stop, he’s seen fans in No. 55 jerseys -- his jersey.
“It’s cool. It’s cool to hear cheers from kids. I think they actually know who I am,” Bell said, laughing, during a break from signing autographs for kids and taking pictures with teachers inside the PNC Park clubhouse store. “It’s cool to see jerseys. We were out in Johnstown, different spots an hour-and-a-half away from the stadium, and still seeing my jerseys out there, so that’s pretty cool. Hopefully, there’s more stuff to come like that this year, too.”
It should come as no surprise that, once the offseason began, Bell went to work almost immediately. But he didn’t go to his childhood home in Texas or directly to Southern California, where he spent last winter.
Bell remained in Pittsburgh for the first part of the offseason, recovering from his groin injury and working with a kettlebell instructor recommended by Pirates strength coach Jim Malone. Bell dabbled in kettlebell work last offseason, mostly teaching himself through YouTube videos, but he wanted to learn more about the swing and how to properly hinge at the hips. As a bonus, Bell got out and enjoyed the city he typically only calls home from April to early October.
“Got healthy. Got to go to all the restaurants that close at 10 o’clock or aren’t open on Mondays, our only off-day. Just got to enjoy seeing sunsets in downtown, stuff you normally miss,” Bell said. “I got to see the city, got to understand what it’s like to experience a fall in Pittsburgh. This fall was gorgeous. It was cool to experience that.”
When the temperatures dropped, Bell went west. He’s been training with hitting instructor Joe DeMarco, who helped put Bell on the path to All-Stardom last offseason. He’s been working out at the Boras Sports Training Institute. He’s been taking ground balls with Yankees utility man Tyler Wade and A’s third baseman Matt Chapman.
“I learned some things from those guys,” Bell said, smiling, “so hopefully I can show it this year.”
Bell noted that he’s been working with another kettlebell instructor in Newport Beach, Calif. What’s the significance of that work?
“Body control, being able to control weight behind you and in front of you. Pushing up through the ground,” Bell said. “It’s similar to swinging a baseball bat, fielding and getting into an athletic position. Just lower-body strength and coordination.”
Bell will learn more in a few weeks, when he reports to Spring Training, but he is encouraged by the early results.
“I feel really strong in my batting practices. It was nasty last year. It was a lot of fun. But this year, it’s the same,” Bell said. “Defense has felt a lot better. I feel a little bit lower to the ground, a little bit wider.”
This season will be different in some ways, though, as evidenced by Bell’s company at the teacher appreciation shopping event. New manager Derek Shelton was chatting up people across the room, and new first-base coach Tarrik Brock was doing the same nearby. From the time Bell was drafted in 2011, he had only known a Pirates organization led by Frank Coonelly, Neal Huntington and Clint Hurdle. Things will be different this spring, but Bell likes what he’s seen so far.
“[Shelton] seems like a player-centered coach. He’s got an open line of communication in how he wants to run camp and how he wants the season to go right from the get-go,” Bell said. “Seems like it’s going to be none of the eyewash -- just come in, get your work done, do what you need to do and get out, enjoy your family, enjoy your lives.
"When you come to the baseball field, work, do what you need to do, we’ll all come together -- but also enjoy being a 27-year-old so you can disconnect from the field. It was working with the Twins, so hopefully it works for us.” (A Berry - MLB.com - Jan 23, 2020)
May 10, 2020: ESPN producer Patrick Truby asked on Twitter: Who is the “coolest” person in baseball? That’s the sort of question during these sad days without live Major League Baseball that gets our engines motoring over here. That’ll continue to fill the days.
So, today, we take a look at the Pirates “coolest” player. That is, of course, a vague concept, “cooler,” so we’ll just give you our definition of it: When an 8-year-old is pretending to be his favorite player on his favorite team out on the diamond, which player is he pretending to be? That’s how we’ll define it. And here are our picks.
Pirates: Josh Bell, 3B -- For the first half of the 2019 season, Bell looked like he was going to be the next cool Pirates superstar. There’s still time. (Will Leitch)
June 5, 2020: When Josh Bell saw the video of a police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, one question popped into his mind: “Again?”
Bell, Mychal Givens, Dwight Smith Jr, Delino DeShields Jr., Lorenzo Cain and Taylor Hearn joined Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick on MLB Network Radio to discuss issues of race and social justice. Their conversation began with each player’s initial reaction to the disturbing video of Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, being killed while being detained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25.
“It’s a scenario where, as a nation, it felt like we went through the Amy Cooper incident, then the Ahmaud Arbery incident shortly before that,” Bell said on MLB Network Radio. “So, it was like within a week and a half, two weeks, it was three glaringly disgusting things going on where it felt like injustice was continuing to thrive.
“We’re all sitting at home watching. We have no baseball. We have no LeBron posterizing somebody on TV. There’s no SportsCenter Top 10 right now. We’re all sitting at home watching these disgusting things unfold. You know, it’s tough. But it’s awesome to see that people of all color are feeling the same way, people of all color are feeling that injustice is real here in the States.
“I’m just hoping that this time next year, this time four or five years from now, things will have changed so that things like this don’t happen. It can’t be swept under the rug. It doesn’t need a video camera somewhere. It’s time for that change, so I’m hoping that it comes now.”
The former officer who pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck has been charged with second-degree murder while three other officers on the scene were charged with aiding and abetting murder. With protests taking place across the country, players throughout baseball have joined in expressing their empathy and anger while calling for systemic change following Floyd’s death.
In the past, some professional athletes have been cautious when asked to discuss social issues like police brutality and racial inequality. But Bell and several other players noted the importance of using their platform as prominent African-American athletes to call for justice at a time like this.
“Right now, we have an opportunity where it seems like everyone’s on the same page about this,” Bell said. “If you didn’t feel for George Floyd crying out for his life when he was out on that concrete, with his hands handcuffed behind his back, crying out and gasping for air. I don’t know—you’ve got different problems. But 99 percent of people watched that video and they were like, ‘Something’s wrong here.’
“I think that now is an awesome opportunity for all athletes—whether you’re black, white, whatever—to come together and start voicing these injustices, just because now’s the time.
“As more people realize what’s going on, as more people look around and start asking questions why things are the way they are, I think that’s when real change can happen across the States.”
To wrap up the 47-minute discussion, Kendrick asked Bell what he would like to see put into place to create that kind of real change. Bell called for public policy reform related to police accountability, encouraged people to vote and expressed his hope for a more compassionate, understanding society that never leads him to ask, “Again?”
“It’s got to be illegal for cops to make arrests without a body cam on,” Bell said. “If something goes down and your body cam wasn’t on, make it so that it’s like six months with no pay and you can’t go work in the next county over. You know what I’m saying? Make it so that it hurts so bad that stuff like this doesn’t happen.
“I also want to see a world where this footage is more readily and easily available for the community. It shouldn’t be a fight to see stuff like this. I feel like a lot more instances have been swept under the rug and nobody ever hears about it, and that shouldn’t be the case.
“I think that people should vote people into office that want to reform these things, change these things. I want to see a change to the system as a whole. I want to see people care about this system and care about an equal playing field for all people of all backgrounds, of all races, of all religious beliefs. If we can create that kind of atmosphere, I would feel so much more comfortable bringing kids into this world and so much happier about the kids that they’re gonna have, the life they’re gonna live.
“Because people 100 years ago were terrified about the world that they were bringing their kids into, and it shouldn’t be the same way 100 years later. So, let’s make sure that 100 years from now, that’s just not the case. It can’t be the case.” (A Berry - MLB.com - June 5, 2020)
June 29, 2020: Pittsburgh Pirates players Steven Brault and Josh Bell will resume their baseball careers this week at PNC Park, but during the covid-19 break, they showed off another skill in a recording studio.
Brault and Bell joined former players Ozzie Smith, Bernie Williams, Nick Swisher and Sharon Robinson, daughter of baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson, plus cast members from the musical “Hadestown,” in recording two videos.
The video “Wait For Me” features Brault and Grammy Award winner Reeve Carney sharing the role of “Orpheus.” Bell and Tony Award winner Andre DeShields share the role of “Hermes.” (JERRY DIPAOLA)
2020 Season: After a monster May that led to his first All-Star appearance in 2019, Bell was by far the team’s biggest disappointment.
Bell blamed some of his struggles on a crucial crutch, as he wasn’t able to watch video between at-bats.
He was lost without the ability to see what was wrong with his timing. Bell batted .279 against fastballs — hitting seven of his eight home runs on heaters — but his whiff rate soared from 25.3% in 2019 to 33.5% this past season as he struggled to hit breaking (.174) and off-speed (.132) pitches.
“I do know that the success I had last year came from me and (hitting coach Rick) Eckstein breaking down swings on a regular basis,” Bell said. “It started in spring training. We were videotaping batting practice and trying to find something that worked in the games and when things were on. I had different cues that I could look at on a regular basis. Without those cues, I kind of felt like it was definitely tough baseball.”
Where Bell slashed .333/.398/.685 with 20 doubles, 18 homers and 52 RBIs through his first 57 games on his way to a 37-homer, 116-RBI season in 2019, he was on pace to hit 23 homers with 63 RBIs this past season. His launch angle dropped from a career-best 12.9 to a career-worst 5.9, and he also produced career-worsts in strikeout percentage (26.5) and groundball rate (56.4).
Bell blamed his timing.
“I feel like if you go down to the science of the game, ground balls happen with late contact,” Bell said. “The closer the ball is to home plate itself, the more likely your launch angle is going to be negative. The more out in front you can hit the ball, the more likely it is to be in the air. That’s the name of the game — being on time — but being on time enough to push that barrel out in front of the body just a little bit to be on the upper part of your swing when you’re making contact. With regards to my ground ball rate, I just feel like I wasn’t on time. If I’m missing balls pull side on the ground, that means I was beat.”
What’s worse, Bell also had difficulties on defense, especially with his throwing after dropping his arm angle to a sidearm, and adjusting to a platoon with Colin Moran as the two took turns playing first base and serving as designated hitter. In the 34 games Bell played first, he slashed .274/.338/.492 with eight homers and 17 RBIs. In his 21 games as DH, he batted .129 with no homers and five RBIs.
“When I’d DH in the past, you can always go down and break down the (at-bat), break down how you felt with video,” Bell said. “This year without the video, you’re kind of just waiting on for the next at-bat. That was a little bit different. I can’t make any excuses.”
The future: Bell is going back to the basics, returning to Texas to work in the garage and backyard with his father. Work ethic has never been an issue for Bell, and he will try to rediscover what made him successful.
“I’m going to go back home, just work my tail off,” Bell said. “This season was a season of taking swings without reviewing in between at-bats. Just trying to prepare myself for that next year because I don’t think anything’s going to change in those regards. Just going to work my tail off on both sides of the ball, swing and field as much as I can, try to put in as much work as I can in the weight room with my dad and, hopefully, come back next year a better player.”
One MLB scout suggested Bell might be best served as a full-time designated hitter, despite his statistics this past season in that role. The scout pointed to the inconsistency of former NL MVP Christian Yelich of the Brewers as a sign that 2020 might be an aberration.
“That’s probably his best option. That’s where he provides the best opportunity for a Major League club,” the scout said of Bell. “First base is pretty involved, with bunt plays and relays and pickoffs, especially with the over-shifts. There’s no doubt that he works. He’s a tireless worker. He’s constantly trying to perfect his craft defensively. When he’s right, it’s .280-.300 and 30 homers.
“I’m going to give a lot of guys a pass on this season. Lots of guys with proven track record that just didn’t click this year. Not sure what the answer is, but routine has a lot to do with it.”
The Pirates haven’t given up hope on Bell returning to All-Star form at first, but general manager Ben Cherington made it clear before the trade deadline there were no untouchables. That includes Bell, who was once expected to be the next face of the franchise.
Now, as the Pirates rebuild, Bell could be trade bait.
“You have to keep turning it over until you build a champion,” said MLB analyst and former GM Jim Bowden. “I love Josh Bell, his makeup, intelligence, ceiling … but if somebody came to the Pirates and said they’d give you two really good prospects for him, you have to do it.”
If the Pirates are going to trade Bell, they would probably prefer to do so when his stock is stronger and the return is greater. Bell, for one, believes he still can fulfill his potential with the Pirates.
“I feel like I’ve shown at times who I can be on a regular basis, and I’m a glass that’s like, the glass is half full,” Bell said. “I feel like in regards to my career and where it can go from here, this season as a whole was such a learning experience for me. There’s one thing you can’t take away from me is that hunger and that desire to be the best player on the field, hit the hardest ball in the game and make the play when it comes to me. That’s what’s driving me.
“I feel like I can be more than a .260, .270 hitter. I definitely want to be a guy that drives in 100 runs every year. In regards to the homers, I know that’ll take care of itself. Just an overall pure hitter, that’s the first thing that I want to aspire to be next year — not necessarily power but pure, you know, line drives to all fields and just being on time on a regular basis. That’s what I strive to do.” (KEVIN GORMAN | October 29, 2020)
June 2011: Josh was the Pirates second round pick in the draft, out of Jesuit College Prep in Dallas. And he signed with scout Mike Leuzinger on the August 15 deadline for a bonus of $5 million.
Jan 10, 2020: The Pirates avoided arbitration with All-Star first baseman Josh Bell by agreeing on a $4.8 million contract.
- Dec 24, 2020: The Pirates traded 1B Josh Bell to the Nationals for RHP Wil Crowe and RHP Eddy Yean.
- Jan 15, 2021: Bell and the Nats avoided arbitration, agreeing to a one-year deal worth $6.35 million.
|DOB:||8/14/1992||Agent:||Scott Boras Corp.|
|Birth City:||Irvin, TX|
|Draft:||Pirates #2 - 2011 - Out of high school (TX)|
Bell is a switch-hitter with a wiry strong physique who displays power from both sides of the plate. With his bat speed, strike-zone discipline and mature approach, he also should hit for average as well. He has learned to better get to his power.
He has a 60 grade for his hit tool, along with 50 for power, on the 20-80 scouting scale.
Josh has been switch-hitting since he was 5 years old. And now, he is equally efficient from either side. Scouts report his righthanded swing is geared more toward contact with a flatter swing plane. He doesn't use his legs enough from the right side, but adding a leg kick in July 2015 helped him drive the ball more consistently.
Josh turns it loose and has more leverage from the left side, where he displays a better swing. He works counts to get to a pitch he can hammer, making hard contact, especially from the left side of the plate.
Both his swing and results are consistently better when he's hitting lefthanded. Bell is more productive batting lefthanded, but he does a good job of sticking with his mature approach from both sides. His righthanded swing is more unorthodox, but he added a toe tap back in 2015 to improve his timing. (Spring 2017)
He has quick hands that provide power and a good batting average. He should add more power when he gets more balanced and incorporates his legs more in his swing.
Josh has a knack for barreling the ball and it jumps off his bat when he does barrel it up, which he does consistently.
The question is: Will Bell hit with enough power to be a difference maker at first base? The 6-foot-3, 235 pounder certainly has the strength to drive the ball over the fence.
“Josh has been able to hit the ball out of basically any ballpark since he was 15,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said before 2016 spring training. “The raw power has never been a question, and he does some things in the batter’s box, the barrel to the ball, the feel for an at-bat. He is that 1970s, 1980s guy where the power comes as he matures, and he begins to understand hitting in counts and begins to understand how to leverage and how to pull.”
Bell has a mature approach and repeatedly makes sweet-spot contact.
Josh Bell has the makings of a No. 3 or 4 hitter in a contender's lineup. But, while his power is apparent in batting practice, it doesn't really show up in games as often. Scouts love his bat-to-ball skills, but note that he does it with an inside-out stroke that doesn’t allow him to hit the ball out of the park. (Oct. 2015)
In 2014, Bradenton manager Tom Prince compared him to Prince’s former Pirates teammate, Bobby Bonilla, for his size, switch-hitting ability and potential pop.
Most scouts consider Bell’s hitting ability better than his power presently, but he has the potential to hit 20-25 homers annually as he matures.
Josh has become more patient in his approach at the plate. "I like working counts," said Bell, who endeavors to walk more than he strikes out. "I like drawing walks when I can. Right now it's working out for me and hopefully I can keep going with it."
His stature screams slugger, but his composure has led to only one home run thus far, and that doesn't bother Bell, who has come to realize that he was pushed too hard for the long ball early in his career. The results have allowed him to collect 60 hits, tied for the league lead, while smacking seven doubles and a career-high five triples.
"A couple of more feet and it's a home run, but I'll take a triple as well," Bell joked. "As I get older I know that they're just going to come. In my younger years I tried to press and hit home runs—that's where the swings and misses come. As I pick my swings more maturely, I feel that I can pick my spots." (2015)
2014 Season: Bell enjoyed a career year at the plate, reaching Double-A and leading the Pirates' organization with a .325 average. The 22-year-old added additional feathers to his cap after Major League Baseball recognized him as the Florida State League leader for batting average (.335) and slugging percentage (.502).
April 22, 2016: Bell officially broke out of his early-season funk with a tremendous performance as he hit for the cycle for the Indianapolis Indians (PCL-Pirates).
During his rung-by-rung progression through the system in low Class A West Virginia, high Class A Bradenton, Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis, he showed a knack for putting the bat on the ball by striking out just 14 percent of the time.
July 9, 2016: In his second at-bat in the Majors, Bell hit a monster grand slam.
September 4, 2017: Josh clobbered a two-run homer to right field off Cubs starter Jake Arrieta in the first inning at PNC Park, his 24th of the season. That blast set a record for most home runs by an NL switch-hitter in his rookie season, surpassing the previous mark set by the Braves' Chipper Jones in 1995.
2017 Rookie season: Bell was a bright spot amid a disappointing season for the Bucs. He set the NL record for most home runs by a switch-hitting rookie and fell one short of the Major League mark held by Eddie Murray and Tony Clark. He led NL rookies in hits (140) and walks (66) and tied for first with 26 doubles.
Though he would like to improve his throwing and batting average, Bell no longer has to wonder about his durability, defense or power. He finished the year tied for fourth among all NL players in games played, his 159 the second most among all Pittsburgh rookies, behind only Johnny Ray (162 in 1982).
Bell tied Jason Bay's 2004 club record for most homers by a rookie and became the eighth rookie in Pirates history to tally at least 90 RBIs.
The 25-year-old ranked second among NL rookies in RBIs, runs (75), triples (six), total bases (256) and extra-base hits (58) while tying for second in homers. Like the Dodgers' Clay Bellinger, Bell became his team's primary cleanup hitter despite his age and relative inexperience. Bell hit .301 and recorded 69 RBIs while hitting with runners in scoring position, an average and RBI total that led all NL rookies.
This is true for every hitter, including Bell: It's critical to get ahead in the count. In 2018, he hit .297 with a .971 OPS when ahead in the count; and .209 with a .508 OPS when behind. His impressive hand-eye coordination allows him to make contact with pitches he probably shouldn't be able to reach, but that's not an ideal way to make the kind of solid contact that leads to homers and extra-base hits. (A Berry - MLB.com - Jan 16, 2019)
Jan 16, 2019: Big question: What kind of hitter is Josh Bell going to be this summer? In some ways, Bell, 26, is coming off a better season than he was this time last year in 2018. The switch-hitter's OPS+ climbed from 109 in 2017 to 111 last year, and his wRC+ ticked up from 108 to 112.
His batting average increased slightly and his on-base percentage jumped 23 points. He walked more often and struck out less. That's all good, right? The problem was Bell's power outage. He went from 26 homers to 12, from a .466 slugging percentage to .411. His RBI total dropped from 90 to 62. He was the Pirates' everyday cleanup hitter for more than two months, but he returned to that spot only sporadically toward the end of the season.
Manager Clint Hurdle has said he views Bell as a middle-of-the-order run producer. General manager Neal Huntington has said the Pirates believe Bell will be a "good hitter with power." For Pittsburgh's lineup to be more productive this year, Bell is going to have to prove them both right.
Bell will get a chance to work with new hitting coaches this spring, as the Pirates brought in Rick Eckstein and assistant hitting coach Jacob Cruz over the winter. They should probably start with where Bell finished last season. After a brief benching in early September, in his last 21 games, he slashed .301/.427/.534 with more walks than strikeouts, four homers and five doubles in 89 plate appearances. (A Berry - MLB.com - Jan 16, 2019)
Durability isn't a concern with Bell, as he's only been on the disabled list once since making his Major League debut in 2016. Defense remains an issue, however. The former Minor League outfielder has improved over the past few years, but he still graded out as the Majors' worst regular first baseman last season according to the SABR Defensive Index. (A Berry - MLB.com - Jan 16, 2019)
- April 2, 2019: Josh Bell has something to prove this season. Until September 2018, he didn’t feel like he was the best version of himself.
“I had to unplug a little bit in the offseason,” Bell said, “look myself in the mirror and realize what this team needs.” “A first baseman that didn’t hit [.261] with 12 [home runs]," Bell said.
Manager Clint Hurdle challenged Bell to find consistency at the plate.
“Just look him in the eye and say, ‘Here’s what I’ve got. Here’s what I’d really appreciate seeing you give a shot. Because you’ve given everything else a shot, and I’ve given you the freedom to. Some of those freedoms need to go away, and here’s what we need to stay committed to,’” Hurdle said this 2019 spring. “And I like the way he’s responded to that.”
“Putting in the time kind of researching has allowed me to get to a point, at least right now, where I know there are certain things I can’t do against a guy like [hard-throwing Cardinals reliever Jordan] Hicks,” Bell said. “You have to be really short to the baseball in order to have success. “Anybody with spin rate, anybody with plus velocity, you have to be short to the baseball, so that’s what my workday is centered around. I feel like … not being afraid to look at outs from time to time is definitely going to help out in the future.”
Bell’s focus since September 2018 has been on driving the ball to left-center field the way he did as he tore through the Minors. He tried too hard to pull the ball last season and wound up hitting more ground balls than he’d like. With this approach, he thinks he can muscle fastballs the other way and still have time to turn on off-speed stuff.
“Just staying in the middle part of the field, being a tough out, trying to find the barrel every at-bat and seeing how that plays,” he said. “If I’m driving the ball all over the ballpark, with my levers, the ball’s going to fly. If I try to force balls into the seats, these guys are too good, they’re throwing too had, and balls are going to be on the ground. That’s what I’m going to stay off of this year.” (A Berry - MLB.com - April 2, 2019)
- May 8, 2019: Facing Rangers starter Shelby Miller with one out in the fourth inning, Bell launched a 92.9 mph fastball over the right-field seats directly into the river. His 472-foot blast is the fifth-longest home run in PNC Park history; he also has the fourth spot on the list with his 474-foot homer over the batter’s eye in center field on April 7.
Bell became the fourth player in PNC Park history, and the third Pirate, to reach the Allegheny River on the fly. The small group: Daryle Ward (July 6, 2002), Garrett Jones (June 2, 2013), Pedro Alvarez (May 19, 2015) and now Bell. (Adam Berry-MLB.com)
May 20, 2019: Josh Bell took home National League Player of the Week honors after continuing his power surge. Bell crushed four home runs during the week, tied for the most in the NL last week. The 26-year-old first baseman is having a breakout year for the Pirates and has 14 homers—already two more than he had all last season in 148 games. He trails only Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich for the NL lead.
- May 31, 2019: Bell’s name now belongs in elite company. More total bases in a month than Ralph Kiner ever had. More total bases in a month, in fact, than any Pirates player ever. Yes, it was quite a month for Bell—one of the best months by any hitter in Pirates history.
June 3, 2019: Bell was the National League Player of the Month for May.
Bell, 26, enjoyed one of the hottest months by any hitter in recent history. Pittsburgh’s budding star paced the Majors with 46 hits and 31 RBIs in May, while also tying for the big league lead with 12 homers and ranking within the top five in average (.390), on-base percentage (.442), slugging (.797) and OPS (1.238). Bell’s 94 total bases set a Pirates record for the club’s most in any calendar month of a season. And it was the most produced by any hitter in the month of May since Willie Mays had 102 in 1958.
Bell also became the third player in NL history with at least 12 doubles and 12 homers in any month, joining Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson, who both achieved that feat in July 1961. Bell’s 24 extra-base hits tied another Hall of Famer, Paul Waner, for the Pirates’ franchise record for a calendar month.
Bell's 94.6 mph average exit velocity on balls in play ranks second in baseball to the Rangers’ Joey Gallo.
2019 Season: Bell earned recognition in the 2019 season, his first All-Star campaign. The switch-hitting first baseman slugged 37 homers and 37 doubles, drove in 116 runs and batted .277 with a .936 OPS in 143 games.
Still, Bell expects more of himself this season. As unstoppable as he seemed in April and May, he hit .213 with a .766 OPS in June and July. He rebounded in his final 37 games, but his season ended on Sept. 13 due to a strained left groin. He took significant steps forward defensively early in the season, but his minus-5 infield Outs Above Average last year ranked 37th among 40 qualified first basemen in the Majors.
Jan 28, 2020: Bell spent part of the 2019 offseason in Pittsburgh while getting healthy, but he ramped up his workload over the past month. The 2019 All-Star is so detail-oriented that he started chewing gum during his batting cage work to simulate his in-game routine. What else has Bell been working on to improve on his 37-homer, 116-RBI campaign? Here’s what he said at PiratesFest.
Bell took a great deal of pride in playing 159 games during his rookie season, and he was equally pleased to take the field every day early last season. But Bell’s season ended on Sept. 13 due to a groin injury, limiting him to only 143 games.
In addition to his strength and flexibility work, Bell altered his diet by increasing his intake of fruits and vegetables. He plans to carry those changes into the season.
“I think that 155-160 games is attainable if I’m just ready to play every day,” Bell said. “So I think health, first and foremost. I think that’s what’s going to make the most difference this year, because six months of baseball, you’ve got to focus on the little things as well. So that’s my key for this year.”
Back to basics
Bell’s swing is not as simple as that of, say, Christian Yelich or teammate Bryan Reynolds. As a switch-hitter, he essentially must maintain two swings full of moving parts. But when Bell slumped last season, the mechanics of his swing weren’t really the issue.
The way Bell described his approach last spring, it sounded like anybody could hit the way he did throughout April and his Player of the Month Award-winning May. He studied pitchers and timed up their fastballs, focused on driving the ball to center or the opposite field. That gave him the ability to adjust to breaking/off-speed pitches and launch them to the pull side.
For two months, he crushed everything. Last May, Bell posted a .532 wOBA against fastballs and a .527 wOBA against breaking pitches, according to Statcast. Then something entirely predictable happened: Perhaps noticing Bell’s results against off-speed pitches (a .383 wOBA in May), opponents increased their off-speed usage against Bell from 19.3 percent in May to 26.8 percent in June.
For the first time, Bell got off his game and started trying to time up those off-speed pitches. His results in June against fastballs (.317 wOBA), breaking balls (.407 wOBA) and off-speed pitches (.262 wOBA) all declined as a result.
“I feel like if you’re not syncing up to the fastballs, you can’t hit either—at least with my move, because I have a lot of stuff going on,” Bell said. “I wasn’t doing the normal progression, giving my body time to get in sync and behind baseballs. The first couple of months, I was hitting fastballs, curveballs, changeups, strikes and balls pretty much forever. But once I started focusing more and more on off-speed pitches, I just went downhill for a stretch of time.”
Indeed, Bell’s unbelievable spring at the plate gave way to a more pedestrian summer (.766 OPS in June/July) before he bounced back toward the end of the season. This year, he’s determined to stick with what worked best.
“I got maybe caught up in my own head just a little bit too much,” Bell said. “But going back to the basics, that’s the easiest thing in the world, just focusing on timing one thing.”
Finding his form
Bell previously said he’s been working on his fielding with two-time AL Gold Glover Matt Chapman and Yankees utility man Tyler Wade. Bell revealed he’s also adjusted his arm slot to improve his throwing.
“Day 1 of my throwing program, I just told myself that I was going to release the ball sidearm every time. I think I’ve gotten good at it, in my mind,” Bell said. “As Spring Training rolls around, you start getting reps every day, I’m excited to be able to finally drop that ball into [shortstop Kevin] Newman to turn that double play.
“I was learning [in recent years] how to [play the infield] for the first time and trying to have a shorter arm stroke. Never really understood the aspects behind when and why. Now, as I’ve gotten older, I’m starting to understand when my arm needs to be up and why I need to stride a little bit longer toward the target that I’m throwing at. I’m excited for it.” (A Berry - MLB.com - Jan 28, 2020)
May 1, 2020: Who has the best eye on the Pirates? Josh Bell.
If the goal is to swing at strikes and not swing at balls, then Bell displayed the Bucs' best batting eye last season. The switch-hitting first baseman swung at 30.2 percent of the pitches he saw outside of the strike zone, according to FanGraphs, while swinging at a team-leading 77.8 percent of the pitches he saw in the zone. That's impressive discipline when you consider that only 37.7 percent of the pitches Bell saw last season were strikes, the lowest rate on the team.
Bell also led the Pirates with a 12.1 percent walk rate and a 0.63 walk-to-strikeout ratio last season. He struck out 118 times, the second-highest total on the team, but he easily led the club with 74 walks. And he made strides early in the season in terms of not just recognizing pitches to hit, but recognizing his pitch, which led to his 37-homer/37-double campaign. –Adam Berry
The underlying metrics back up Bell’s success. In 2019, he ranked 12th in the Majors with an average exit velocity of 92.3 mph. His hard-hit rate was in the Majors’ 90th percentile and his expected slugging percentage in the 93rd percentile His maximum exit velocity (116.2 mph) was 14th in baseball, and his 474-foot bomb over the batter’s eye at PNC Park gave him the ninth-longest maximum distance among Major League hitters last year. –Adam Berry
2020 Season: Bell, 28, is entering his sixth Major League season. Last year, he slashed .226/.305/.364 with a .669 OPS and eight home runs in 57 games. Bell was an All-Star in 2019, when he ranked in the top 10 among National League players in RBIs (116, sixth), OPS+ (142, seventh), doubles (37, eighth), homers (37, ninth), slugging (.569, ninth) and OPS (.936, 10th).
In his career, Bell has hit 261/.349/.466 with an .814 OPS. He averages .271 against righties compared to .232 against lefties.
Dec 26, 2020: “Looking back at this past year 2020, I think that things got long,” Bell said of his swing. “I feel like I was kind of jerking into my front side just a little more than I'd like to. … I just kind of was jumping toward the ball, and that doesn't play at this level. That doesn't play with guys with high velo.”
In his career, Bell has hit .261/.349/.466 with an .814 OPS. He has averaged .271 against righties compared with .232 against lefties. Rizzo said the Nationals believe Bell is a candidate for a bounce-back season, and the team is putting together a hitting program for him ahead of Spring Training.
“We feel that only enhances his value on a team and in a lineup,” Rizzo said of Bell’s switch-hitting abilities. “[It] makes the lineup longer, makes the bench even longer, and it gives the manager a lot more options to manage that game. When we looked at Josh, that was a big piece of what we were trying to do.”(J Camerato - MLB.com - Dec 26, 2020)
- Spring Training 2021: “We wanted Josh to be aggressive in the strike zone. We talked about that with him. Yet, he understands that taking his bases is part of the process,” Nats manager Davey Martinez said. “I love having him. He is unique. He is a switch-hitter with power from both sides. He loves to play the game. He is a great teammate in the clubhouse.” (Ladson - mlb.com - 3/21/2021)
- As of the start of the 2021 season, Bell's career Major League stats were: .261 batting average, 86 home runs and 496 hits with 309 RBI in 1,900 at-bats.
Josh has enough range for center field, and his bat has enough power to enable Bell to move to a corner outfield spot or first base, where he profiles better. His arm is strong enough for right field.
Bell also can play first base, a position he learned a lot about in the Arizona Fall League after the 2014 season.
Josh has a 40 grade for his fielding and a 50 for his arm, in the outfield.
Josh has really worked hard to improve his defense at first base. But he lacks range and has stiff hands.
Bell is in truth, a DH who plays first base, but not very adequately. (Spring, 2018)
MOVES FROM OUTFIELD TO FIRST BASE
Bell needs to work to maintain his athleticism if he wants to stay on an outfield corner—a crowded position in Pittsburgh—long-term.
But the Pirates moved Josh to first base for the 2015. And he had rarely ever played there until the Arizona Fall League after the 2014 season.
Josh has trouble making backhand plays at first base. He is still adjusting to the quicker reaction times, the different spins and directions that a ball can take and the range needed at first base, but feels that each pitch is an opportunity to improve.
Bell is also quick to credit sure-handed Altoona Curve shortstop Gift Ngoepe for providing him with needed knowledge about infield play.
"I try to take what I can from Gift," said Bell. "He's taught me a lot with footwork and how the glove works toward the ball, and I try to really apply that. The ball just gets on you like that. You've got to be quick on your toes, got to be balanced in a ready position as the pitch crosses the plate. It's just reading that ball off the bat and getting that first good step in before I move the glove toward the ball." Josh is improving at all facets.
"I feel tons better than I did in the fall league, tons better than I did in Spring Training," said Bell, who had only previously played the position on occasion at the age of 12. "It's slowly but surely getting there. I want to be one of those players that the pitchers trust over there and people enjoy playing around. Infield and outfield are two completely different positions. So it's re-learning the game, re-learning where I need to be. I'm trying to be on my toes for every pitch that's thrown."
Bell is still learning to shorten his arm stroke from the one he utilized in right field to one more acceptable for a spot on the infield. He has worked hard with Pirates infield instructor Kevin Young to hone his skills in the field. (Oct. 2015)
Improvements Needed on Defense: With Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco occupying the outfield for the Pirates, Bell, who was drafted as an outfielder, began the transition to first base at the end of 2014. The move was made in order to give the young prospect a more direct path to the majors but there have been some obstacles.
At the Major League level, Bell has received playing time both in the outfield and at first base. Bell committed only one error in over 100 innings played in right field, while committing three errors in over 150 innings at first base. Bell’s up and down transformation from outfielder to first baseman has not affected his ability at the plate, but it is an aspect of his game that he has and must improve on moving forward. The Pirates 2014 Minor League Player of the Year had some instances in 2016 where he showed his inexperience at first base, but he indeed has the talent to become a solid option at the position for the Pirates in the near future.
In 2016 for the Pirates, Josh played outfield and first base. But in 2017 and 2018, he played first base exclusively.
Josh lost 15 pounds in the offseason before 2017 spring training. He wanted to get lighter so that his agility and footwork around the bag would improve.
- 2020 Improvements: Bell spent the off-season streamlining his throwing motion, switching to a sidearm release, in an effort to show that the All-Star first baseman belongs on the field as an everyday position player.
Josh had average speed before he got hurt, but he lost a step after his knee injury: a torn meniscus in his left knee.
Now, Bell is a below-average runner once under way, with a 40 grade.
- Summer 2010: Bell missed a couple of months of action following his junior year of high school after he cracked and bruised his kneecap while sliding into a base.
April 26, 2012: Josh was on the D.L., undergoing left knee surgery to repair his meniscus in his left knee, which he tore while running the bases. He was slow to recover from the surgery and missed the rest of the season.
In November 2012, Bell received platelet-rich plasma injections in his knee in an effort to spur healing. He has been slow to recover from the surgery.
August 15, 2014: Josh was on the D.L. with a left knee contusion.
February 1, 2017-April 1, 2017: Bell underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove a loose body from his left knee. But he was back by Opening Day.
He was injured while striking the fire hydrant pose during a yoga class in his hometown of Dallas.
“I started feeling discomfort, and then I couldn’t fully extend my leg,” said Bell. “Next thing you know, I’m under the knife.”
July 27-Aug 8, 2018: Josh was on the DL with oblique injury.
- April 6-12, 2021: Bell was on the IL.