Josh Bell – A Study in Arbitrary End Points

Depending on your point of view, Josh Bell entered this season as either a perfectly fine but not particularly great first basemen who put up a career year in 2019 or a young first basemen who found his power stroke and broke out at age 26, with a great career ahead. A few weeks later, he is either proving last year was a fluke or mired in a slump that is due to end, and your feelings before the season likely color your feelings now.

But it also depends if you are looking at Bell before or after August 27.

For the year as a whole, Bell is posting a .311 OBP and .395 SLG, good for a .302 wOBA which is both a) bad and b) a far cry from the .363 wOBA projected by Steamer before the season. Coming off a year in which only four 1B had a higher wOBA than Bell, Steamer projected him to have the sixth highest 1B wOBA in 2020 and instead, he has the 25th.

It’s not hard to see what happened, either. Even compared to his career averages, Bell is striking out far more (26.6% vs. 18.9% for his career), walking far less (9.0% vs. 11.8%) and hitting fewer fly balls (27.4% vs. 32.8%). The one thing he has maintained is his HR/FB rate – last year he posted a career best 23.9% and this year it has dropped only to 22.6%.

Digging a layer deeper, things remain pretty clear. Why the increased Ks and decreased BBs? He isn’t chasing more than he has in the past, but he is attacking less in the zone (70.9% vs. 75.4% last year) and he is swinging through far more pitches (14.4% Swinging Strike rate this year after 11.1% last). When he makes contact, his average exit velocity is still very good (92.8 this year after 92.4 last), as is his Hard Hit (46% this year, 46.4% last).

When you have 94th percentile exit velocity, 86th percentile HH%, but 10th percentile Whiff %, you are going to end up walking less, striking out more, but still pounding the ball when you make contact. All in all, his xwOBA is certainly better than his actual – but it’s still only .329.

But, as the title of this piece suggests, there is a point in time at which things flip. As of August 26, Bell had 103 plate appearance and a .223 wOBA. The EV was fine (91.4) but he was walking 4.9% of the time, striking out 31.1% of the time, and his HR/FB rate was a weak 11.1%. His swinging strike rate was 17.3%. He was chasing pitches outside the zone 36.1% of the time.

Then, something happened. What happened? I have no idea. Bell knew there was a problem. He even knew what the problem was. So maybe he just needed to…fix it. Or maybe something else happend. I have no idea. Hence the “arbitrary end point” in the title. Maybe it is just noise, but check out the difference.

In 74 PA starting August 27, he has a .413 wOBA. His walk rate is up to 14.9% and his K rate is down to 20.3%. His exit velocity is up to 94.6. His HR/FB rate is up to 38.5%. His Swinging Strike rate is down to 10.8%. His chase rate was down to 22.2%. Before August 27, he looked like a guy who was lost at the plate. Now he looks like a guy who made a major leap forward from his 2019 breakout.

And all it took? He stopped chasing, made pitchers come to him, and stopped swinging through pitches. His O-contact and Z-contact both went up while his O-swing and Z-swing both went down (though his O-swing went down a lot more). He got more selective, stopped missing the ball, and continued to pound the ball when he made contact. So he’s back to being a star, right? Maybe even a better star?

As always, the truth likely lies somewhere in between. But we saw last year what Bell can do for a full season. And it is worth remembering that if you thought bell was a .360 wOBA guy before the year, one month of .223 followed by one month of .413, followed by four months of .360 is a full season of .346. Which isn’t what you hoped for, but happens to be awfully close to Steamer’s updated ROS projection of .349. And makes Bell the 9th best 1B by projected wOBA. With Hoskins out and Bellinger a fantasy outfielder, he would be the 7th best fantasy 1B bat rest of the way.

If you see Bell get cut, pick him up. If you play in a league that still has trades, I think he is well worth acquiring. And if you can’t get him now, give him a good hard look in the off-season. He may well have just been using August as spring training, getting in his reps and finding the zone. And if so, he may be a top 5-10 1B who comes at a borderline-playable Util price.

Featured Image by David from Washington, DC / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

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