What do Vanilla Ice, Los del Rio, and Walt Dropo have in common? They are one-hit wonders.
The masses tend to be very reactionary – in both music and sports. Ever heard of bandwagon fans? It is always after something special that a band or an athlete gains a following.
The masses expect a breakout performer to continue at that level of production indefinitely. The problem is that sustained success is hard to come by in any endeavor – especially sports.
Take the Walt Dropo example from earlier. Dropo killed it in his rookie year (1950) with a .322/34/144 season. He won Rookie of the Year and made the All-Star team.
Dropo never hit above .281 for any season after, nor did he ever drive in 100. Dropo began a nobody, quickly rose to the top, and then fell back to earth.
The masses are reactionary. When do you think most people began buying into the Walt Dropo hype? Not until after his rookie season. His best was already behind him.
Smart sports bettors know we must dig deeper to see if breakout players were a fluke or were earned. The masses don’t differentiate and end up hitching their wagon to the wrong horse.
Flukes are unlikely to repeat themselves. Earned success is repeatable.
Let’s examine the profile of Josh Bell – the Pirates’ 27-year-old first baseman. Bell broke out in 2019, and I want to analyze the likelihood he repeats or even improves upon his past performance in 2020.
Is Josh Bell a one-hit wonder or an emerging star here to stay? Let’s find out.
Josh Bell’s 2019 Rollercoaster Ride
Switch hitting first baseman Josh Bell was the Pirates’ 2nd round pick in the 2011 draft – 61st overall. Bell was graded a 60 hitter with 55 raw power as a prospect – decent marks, but underwhelming considering his 6’4 240 lb frame.
Bell progressed rather slowly through the minor leagues, hitting for a good average and avoiding strikeouts but not supplying much pop. The big guy finally began to hone his power swing in 2016 at AAA Indianapolis, hitting 14 homeruns and 23 doubles in 114 games.
This outburst was enough for Bell to get called up to the show in August of 2016. His career began modestly – hitting .273 with just 3 homers in 45 games.
The Pirates saw potential in Josh Bell, however, and kept him in the big leagues. Bell looked good in 2017 – hitting .255 with 26 homers, 26 doubles, and 90 runs driven in during his first full MLB season.
He regressed in 2018 – hitting for a slightly higher average but with only 12 home runs and 62 RBIs. His chances were running out. He was not “wowing” anybody. The media was throwing around the B word – “bust”. Then 2019 happened …
Bell started out like gangbusters. 6 home runs and 21 RBIs in April. 12 more bombs and 31 RBIs in May. Who was this guy and what did he do with the real Josh Bell?
At the All-Star break, Bell was hitting .302. He had put 27 balls over the fence and added 30 doubles for good measure. RBIs? He was leading baseball with 84!
Bell was an easy choice for an NL All-Star bid. He was in MVP talks. His jersey sales were up. Bell could do no wrong. But shortly after the ASG, the bubble popped.
Bell stumbled to the finish line, hitting a paltry .233 in the second half. His 10 second-half homers and 32 second-half RBIs were one-third of his first-half totals.
Because of his awesome first 3 months, Bell’s full-season 2019 stat line is very impressive: .277/37/116. Sports bettors need to determine which Josh Bell will show up in 2020 – hot Josh or average Josh.
Josh Bell’s Approach at the Plate
Before we dive into the changes, let’s first understand Bell’s approach to hitting. He is a lift-and-separate, launch angle kind of guy. Of his 27 first-half homers in 2019, only 3 came on line drives.
Bell hits for the most power from the left side and also utilizes the entire field much better from the left side. Look at this spray chart comparison.
First check out those black dots deep in the outfield. Those are homeruns. Notice how Bell sprays his dingers to all fields when hitting lefty. He can go pole-to-pole with power. From the right side, Bell only has 2 homerun swings. He either yanks middle-in pitches to straight left or takes middle-away pitches into the right-center field gap.
From the right side, Bell has many blue dots in deep center field. These are fly balls that didn’t quite have the distance. This shows Bell attempts to use the center of the field when hitting righty but doesn’t quite have the pop from that side to reach the seats.
Bell is a fly ball hitter. He seldom drives liners into gaps or over the fence. His line drives from the left side are mostly pulled through the 3-4 hole or shot back up the middle. From the right side, Bell will spray liners into shallow right, but doesn’t attempt to drive those pitches over the right field fence.
Bell is very one-dimensional when hitting right handed. Combine this with the fact that he gets to practice hitting righty less often, and it is easy to see why he is prone to lengthy slumps from this side.
Bell hit just .224 from the right side in 2019. His strikeout rate was 8% higher hitting righty while his walk rate was 2% lower – not a healthy combination. Left-handed pitchers did not need to work very hard to slow Bell’s roll. He was never great against them to begin with.
Neutralizing Josh Bell’s Left-Handed Production
As Bell’s offense from the right side sputtered, opposing defenses were learning the secrets to stopping Bell from the left side.
Scroll back up to those spray charts – Bell did his left-handed damage in 2 main areas: homeruns to all fields and hard grounders through the right side of the infield.
Find a way to take away those ground ball hits and Bell’s average will plummet. Find a way to take away those homers and Bell is now back to mediocrity. Opposing teams did both.
The most straightforward adjustment was a simple shift – moving the second-baseman into short right and putting the shortstop up the middle to take away ground ball hits to the right side of the field.
These shifts flummoxed Bell. He couldn’t adjust. Without defensive shifts, Bell hit .336 in 2019. With the classic lefty-shift on, Bell hit just .258.
What Changed in the Second Half of 2019 for Josh Bell?
With his ground balls now turning into routine outs, Bell was turned into a pure fly ball hitter. In the first half of the season, his fly balls were carrying. Bell posted a first-half hard hit rate of 49.4% – 9th in the majors. This translated into a HR per fly ball percentage (HR/FB) of 28.4% – 6th highest in the majors.
Bell stopped hitting the ball hard in the second half and the bottom fell out of his HR/FB rate as a result. Bell’s hard hit rate was just 38.4% post-ASB and his HR/FB rate was 16.7% in the final 2-and-a-half months of 2019.
Fly balls were becoming outs with regularity down the stretch for Bell. So were ground balls. He looked handcuffed at the plate. His approach was no longer producing winning results.
Did pitchers change their gameplan against Bell? A little bit. It began with the classic throw less fastballs treatment that all young MLB hitters receive once they break out. Bell saw 51.4% heaters in the first half and only 46.9% heaters in the second half.
This change is partially responsible for Bell’s lower hard-hit rate in the second half. In lieu of fastballs, pitchers began throwing Bell more sliders late in the season. Bell struggled to adjust.
As a fastball-first hitter, Bell was fooled more often in the second half. His Z-Swing% – the percentage of strikes swung at – was down nearly 4% in the second half. This indicates Bell was getting frozen on pitches in the zone, most likely back door breaking balls.
As is the case with most young hitters, Bell received a steady diet of outside pitches early in the season. Once he proved he had power to all fields, pitchers began to work Bell down in the zone. Check out these side-by-side heat maps of pitch locations to Bell while hitting lefty. These are from Fangraphs, of course.
The lower pitches in the second half of the season coincide with the increase in defensive shifting against Bell. Force a fly ball hitter to hit grounders into the shift – a pretty good plan.
The shifts and the increase in low pitches messed with Josh Bell’s head. He’d see fastball out of the hand and would whiff at air as he realized too late the pitch was actually a calf-high slider. When Bell would get a fastball, he’d be too anxious and would pop it up.
Bell’s first-half infield popup rate was an excellent, low 2.1%. In the second half, Bell was popping out on 13.3% of batted balls – an insanely high rate.
Bell was no longer trusting himself at the dish. The end of the season could not have come soon enough. Bell was saved by the … bell.
Josh Bell’s 2020 Outlook
Bell was never considered a true power hitter as a prospect. I’d be very shocked if his power numbers in 2020 are anywhere close to his 2019 first half outputs.
The shift has stymied Bell, but he has the talent to beat the shift. Bell has proven he can hit the ball to all fields from the left side of the plate. He just needs to adjust his mindset.
Given how poorly Bell hit from the right side last year, he may want to consider abandoning right-handed hitting and focusing solely on his lefty stroke.
Of course, this would steepen his progression curve as he would need to train his eye and hands to hit left-handed pitching from the left side of the plate.
Bell has the tools to hit .300 in this league. 25-30 homeruns is a realistic mark for Bell to shoot for in a full season – a far cry from the 50 he was on pace for at the ASB last year. In the 2020 60-game campaign, I expect Bell to hit between 9-11 homers with an average in the .280-.300 range.
There are no gaping holes in Bell’s offensive approach. He will not drown, but it may be awhile before we think about inviting Josh Bell to another All-Star game.
It’s almost Opening Day! See you on top!