Before he refurbished his swing over the winter in Orange County, before he streamlined his workload and quit his incessant tinkering, before he emerged as the one of the most fearsome hitters in the National League in 2019, Pittsburgh Pirates teammates Josh Bell and David Freese had a conversation about switch-hitting.
The two men spoke last summer, in the days before the Pirates traded Freese to the Dodgers. Freese was never a switch-hitter, but he had played with Lance Berkman. Bell had spent the entirety of his professional career trying to craft identical swings from each side of the plate. Berkman, Freese explained to Bell, never did that. Berkman understood his body well enough to wield two different swings, two different approaches.
Bell added the point to his offseason checklist. He recalled the moment last week at Petco Park, when he had swatted 10 homers as a left-handed hitter and only two as a right-handed hitter. The disparity didn’t bother him, he insisted.
“I definitely have more pop left-handed than I do righty,” Bell said. “But, I mean, I’ll probably run into a ball or two. We’ll see.”
Two days later, Bell did precisely that. He hit two home runs off San Diego Padres left-hander Nick Margevicius to cap a prodigious week at the plate. Bell received National League Player of the Week honors as a reward. The first baseman looms as the most dangerous Pirate when the Dodgers visit PNC Park this weekend.
In 46 games, Bell has already produced more home runs (15) than he did in 2018 (12). At 26, he has blossomed into an MVP candidate. Heading into Thursday, Bell ranked third in the National League with a .694 slugging percentage, behind only Dodgers star Cody Bellinger and reigning MVP Christian Yelich. Bell also trailed only Bellinger and Yelich with a 1.092 on-base plus slugging percentage.
“Josh is understanding himself at a much higher level,” Pirates hitting coach Rick Eckstein said. “Some of that comes from experience. Some of that comes from mindful work. Some of that is just his overall growth and development.”
After reaching the playoffs each fall from 2013 to 2015, the Pirates have stumbled toward mediocrity. Their front office misfired on a pair of franchise-altering trades last season. The Pirates sold low on pitcher Gerrit Cole before the season, and watched the Houston Astros mold Cole into an ace. During the summer, Pittsburgh paid a premium in prospects to the Tampa Bay Rays for pitcher Chris Archer. Archer has a 5.55 earned-run average in 2019; former Pirates Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow have been crucial to Tampa Bay’s early success.
The missteps have left the Pirates caught between the cycle of tanking and the realistic possibility of competition. They lag behind the Chicago Cubs and the Milwaukee Brewers in their division. But they still possess enough talent to vie for a Wild Card berth. Bell will play a considerable role in that push, a year after spending the summer pounding baseballs into the ground.
On the strength of a 26-homer, .800-OPS campaign in 2017, Bell finished third behind Bellinger in National League Rookie of the Year voting. Both players experienced a sophomore swoon. Bell’s was more pronounced. His patience at the plate improved, but his slugging percentage sagged to .411. When he put the ball in play, it was a grounder nearly half the time.
Bell compounded the trouble by fiddling in the batting cage. His approach adjusted from day to day, at-bat to at-bat. He spent hours trying to make his swings from each side of the plate look identical. In September, with the season already lost, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle benched Bell for a series to allow him to reset. Hurdle advised Bell to devise a brief list of principles at the plate and stick with them.
Bell grew up in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but he chose to relocate to Southern California this winter. He contacted his agent, Scott Boras, about using the agency’s facilities in Newport Beach. Boras put Bell in contact with Joe DeMarco, a hitting consultant who played in the minors and coached at the University of Kansas and UC Irvine. Bell went to work with DeMarco in early October.
“He wanted to just go back to the drawing board and revamp it,” DeMarco said. “And really learn and understand from a different point of view.”
The sessions lasted hours in Irvine and Santa Ana. DeMarco determined that Bell was operating with too wide of a base, which disoriented his swing as soon as it began. Bell stands 6-feet-4 and weighs 240 pounds. Even a small disruption in the kinetic chain can derail a larger player, and Bell “just wasn’t putting himself in a position to make it work,” DeMarco said.
As the offseason progressed, Bell polished the edges on his two stances. From the right side, he utilized a toe tap as a timing mechanism. As a left-handed hitter, his leg kick became more pronounced, with the knee of his front leg rising as high as his waist. His timing began to sync up. DeMarco sent videos of their sessions to Bell’s management team with a tantalizing prelude: “He’s getting dangerous.”
“It’s scary,” DeMarco said. “I wear a helmet when I throw. But still — he hits the ball hard. There’s a flow to it. He’s got a lot of mass. He’s got a lot of twitch to him.”
For Bell, the toil extended beyond the cage. Bell believes “iron sharpens iron,” so during workouts at Boras’ facility he studied the patterns of another budding power hitter, Oakland Athletics third baseman Matt Chapman. “He’s unreal,” Bell said. “He’s a puma. He’s one of those guys who looks like he grew up on Jupiter, like under heavier gravity, and he got transported to Earth.”
When the season began, Bell started to lift baseballs into orbit. He slugged .592 in April with a .955 OPS. In early May, he became the fourth player in the history of PNC Park to splash a homer into the Allegheny River. Bell had deposited balls there on a bounce twice before. This one was his first to land in the drink on the fly.
Bell has cut his groundball rate by nearly 10%. In conversations with DeMarco and Eckstein, Bell rarely discusses the launch angle of his swing. He focuses on his timing, because “if you’re in a good hitting position on time, then good things happen,” he said.
The Pirates implemented measures to keep Bell from excessive time in the cage. Eckstein asks Bell to vocalize his goals before each session. “A lot of times, guys who tinker, they swing and swing and swing and swing and swing and swing and swing,” Eckstein said. “So we were very mindful of saying ‘This is what we want to accomplish.’ And when we’ve accomplished that, we trust it.”
There will be hiccups. Bell is striking out more often than before. He is still learning how to be a different hitter from the left side of the plate and the right side of the plate. But the progress has already resulted in plenty of damage.