Can This Power Hitter Bring the Pirates Back to Glory?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the Pirates’ offensive game just might be saved by this Bell.
Josh Bell was making the big leagues look easy. Pittsburgh’s prized prospect announced his presence to the baseball world last July, launching a go-ahead grand slam into the summer night sky. And suddenly crowds were gathering daily to catch a glimpse of the 24-year-old slugger. Still, one month into his first full MLB season, the question remains: Will Bell live up to the hype?
Bell’s aforementioned slam was a notable high point in a Pirates season distinguished for being the first losing season since 2012. His performance — batting .273 with three home runs, 19 RBIs and more walks than strikeouts in 45 games — spurred fans’ hope for the future, but the native Texan now finds himself at the center of an organizational retooling. With a 38-year drought since the Pirates reached a World Series, a search is underway for fresh talent to take the reins from aging All-Star Andrew McCutchen.
At 6′2″, 230 pounds, the barrel-chested Bell looks every part the professional athlete. His journey started in the backyard batting cage with his father, Earnest. By age 6, hours in the batting cage had become a nightly ritual, and Bell was already hitting from both sides of the plate. At 12, an opposing coach told Bell he’d be cheering for him down the line. “He was like, ‘You might have a future in this. I might be watching you on TV one day.’”
As a senior at Dallas’ Jesuit College Preparatory School, Bell hit .548 with 13 home runs and was named an All-American and Texas Player of the Year. The stands at Jesuit morphed into an MLB scouting convention — men in short-sleeved button-downs scribbling notes at every turn. But Bell had other plans: going to college. His mother, Myrtle, is a business professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, Earnest holds a master’s degree in computer science, and academia has always been the family’s top priority. So Bell sent a letter to the commissioner of baseball’s office informing all 30 MLB teams not to draft him. He enrolled in summer classes at the University of Texas and began his undergraduate career.
He could be one of those switch-hitters like we saw back in the day.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle
But Bell never graduated. In fact, he never made it through that first summer in Austin. Pittsburgh called his bluff, drafting him in the second round in 2011. But signing their future slugger wasn’t exactly easy, and with an August deadline looming, Pittsburgh offered Bell the largest non–first round signing bonus in draft history. For $5 million, Bell packed up and turned pro.
“He’s a future star,” Milwaukee Brewers scout Pete Vuckovich Jr. tells OZY. “Moving to first base isn’t easy; there’s so much technique to master. He looks much better [this year].”
Through four seasons in the minors, the only uncertainty with Bell has been on defense. The Pirates have long been absent a consistent first baseman, so Bell moved from his natural outfield position to first. Still, he says his biggest adjustment as a pro has been “trusting that I can be a power hitter and still not strike out as much as I’d like.” In today’s home-run-obsessed climate, high strikeout rates are common. Even National League MVP Kris Bryant, the Chicago Cubs superstar Pittsburgh believes Bell will one day rival, strikes out roughly once per game. So far, Bell’s rate is about half that. Fewer strikeouts are a good thing, but to truly become the transformative slugger Pittsburgh had bet on, Bell had to change his approach. In 2015, he says he “started doing a leg kick and going all out” to generate power. He made the All-Star Futures Game, was promoted to Triple-A and then to the majors.
Bell’s boss, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, has been watching his pupil’s growth. “He’s really worked hard to improve his game from the right side,” Hurdle told MLB.com, who is reminded of power hitters from decades past. “There’s force behind his swing. He could be one of those switch-hitters like we saw back in the day.”
Through 18 games this season, Bell is batting just .220 with two home runs — the presumed superstar with contact and power has, to date, had neither. Success is never a given, but in the wake of star center fielder Starling Marte’s recent 80-game suspension for steroids, Bell will now be expected to produce more than ever. Along with McCutchen — the 2013 MVP and Pittsburgh’s top talent since 2009 — Bell is key to any postseason hopes. After missing the playoffs last season and the unpalatable prospect of chasing the division rival Cubs for the foreseeable future, Pittsburgh has started shopping McCutchen on the trade market. Bell stands to learn a great deal from one of baseball’s consummate professionals, but there’s a lesson in his impending exit too: win or find real estate elsewhere. The small-market Pirates are quick to rebuild and can’t afford to pay gaudy long-term contracts without bankable returns.
This time last month, Bell was jumping between three minor league spring training games at once, squeezing as many plate appearances into one day as possible. Every swing triggered the sweep of a hundred heads — not from fans or scouts, but from fellow ballplayers enamored with the sight of a peer on the verge of breaking through the finish line. As Bell now knows, there’s a whole other race to win.