Last season Josh Bell broke into the majors in spectacular form with a grand slam that provided a memorable moment for not only himself, but also for the organization. The unforgettable home run left Pirate fans anticipating the future of the young first baseman. However, with Bell’s defensive struggles, there was much room for growth. Anytime a player converts to a different position, more often than not, there are some early drawbacks. Bell had previously played outfield, but due to his tremendous size, the Pirates felt that he would fit nicely as a first baseman. He has adjusted well to the duties of first base and has posted fantastic rookie numbers through the first half of this season. At 6.2 feet tall and 230 pounds, these attributes prove to describe the future physical ability that Bell has.
We have just surpassed the all-star break, and Bell has already accumulated 17 home runs. During his time in the minors, he never hit more than 13 home runs, so this power surge could not have easily been predicted. In the past, he usually maintained a relatively high batting average and an above average on base percentage. It is not uncommon for a player to develop into a more power-oriented asset as their career progresses, but how Bell has done so in such a short amount of time is special. I want to take a look at how Bell has increased his power numbers and how his current pace ranks among other players in the major leagues.
In the new stat-cast era, a ‘barreled ball event’ is a ball that is struck with an exit velocity higher than 98 mph and a launch angle that ranges from 26-30 degrees. Additionally, if a ball is hit with an exit velocity of 99 mph, the launch angle that is needed for it to be classified as a barreled ball grows to 25-31 degrees. So forth, a ball hit with an exit velocity of 100 mph can have a launch angle of 24-33 degrees for it to be classified as a barreled ball. The launch angle rises either 2 or 3 degrees for every mile per hour over 100 until an exit velocity of 116 mph is reached. At this high velocity, the launch angle can be from 8-50 degrees.
An ideal launch angle for line drives (the type of hit that yield the highest batting average) is anything from 10-25 degrees. Some of the leaders in the major leagues with the number of hits inside this launch angle are Jose Altuve, Matt Carpenter, and Daniel Murphy. For hits with this particular launch angle, batters are hitting around .500 on average. Additionally, the exit velocity that is best paired with these launch angles is anything above 90 mph. As the exit velocity increases, the home runs will become more frequent.
Bell’s batting average this year is much lower than any other batting average we have seen him produce. A reason for this low batting average is a result of his very unlucky .256 BABIP. However, this is not due to weakly hit balls because his average exit velocity is 88.4 mph, which ranks higher than Rockies slugger Nolan Arenado who has 18 home runs this season. Additionally, his max exit velocity is 110.3 mph, which ranks only slightly behind Reds slugger Joey Votto (110.9 mph) who has 26 home runs this season. Bell is actually producing quality exit velocities across the board, but when he bats right handed, he is actually hitting it slightly harder. Below I have included photos of Bell’s exit velocity for different areas of the strike zone.
In terms of launch angles, Bell’s average launch angle is unknown to the public. However, there are photos that represent his average launch angle on baseballsavant.com and I have included them below. As you can see, his launch angle against left handed hitters is not very good, especially considering his exit velocities. This mediocre launch angle vs left-handed pitchers is very low, which is resulting in lack of production. Even his launch angle vs right-handed pitchers could benefit from some improvement. The majority of the time, his launch angle is below 20 degrees, which is resulting in a less amount of line drives and fly balls. His exit velocity against lefty pitchers is very good, but he is pounding the ball straight into the ground. If he elevates the ball more, he would see more success and even more homeruns than he has already. He has the potential to be a serious power threat in the middle of the Pirates lineup, but he has to start elevating the ball more.
In addition to his offensive power surge, Bell has drastically improved his defense at first base. Last season Bell was a liability when he lost the team 3 runs through only 150.1 innings. However, this season, Bell has saved the team 3 runs through 655.1 innings. This is a huge improvement from a rookie who has had no previous experience playing first base and this growth speaks to his work ethic. Along with his defensive runs saved improvement, he also has 8 scoops so far this season and a much improved ultimate zone rating. All in all, Bell has been a fantastic rookie and he will continue to get better. With all of the hype about launch angles floating around the major leagues, it is only a matter of time before more players start to catch on. Bell clearly has the credentials to be an elite power threat in the majors and based off of how much he has developed already, he is only going to get better.