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It’s been slow going on the baseball hot stove front this off-season, even by the tortoise-like standards of the recent past. Before the sport largely took a break for the holidays, the Washington Nationals and the Pittsburgh Pirates did get together to make a fairly significant trade, with the Nats obtaining first baseman Josh Bell for two minor league right-handed pitchers, Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean.
This type of deal—a cost-controlled 28-year-old just two seasons removed from star-level production, in exchange for two non-elite prospects—never used to get made. In the recent past, however, the market value of sub-star-level, bat-only players at the wrong end of the defensive spectrum has clearly declined, and in most cases, I find that decline quite appropriate. It’s kind of like the de-emphasis of the running back position in football. Only the great ones should be paid at the premium level.
I would submit, however, that sometimes the pendulum swings too far in the other direction.
Let’s look at one of the Pirates’ direct competitors in the National League Central, the Milwaukee Brewers. In just the last five seasons, they’ve entertained a cast of thousands at first base. As recently as 2016, they got 41 homers from their primary first baseman, Chris Carter. Remember him? They let him walk rather than pay him an arbitration salary surely to be inflated by those 41 long balls.
He was followed by the likes of Eric Thames, Ji-Man Choi (for a brief interlude), Jesus Aguilar and Justin Smoak. They let each and every one of them walk rather than pay them market value. And guess what: They were right. Some of those players, like Choi and Aguilar, have high floors while the others have a bit more upside as boom-or-bust guys. They figure they can piece that position together on an annual basis, and more often than not, they’ve been right. They’ve reached the postseason multiple times in the process.
I’m here to tell you, however, that Josh Bell is not Thames/Choi/Aguilar/Smoak—he’s potentially much, much better.
I could begin my case just about anywhere, but I’ll start here.
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2019 NL Batting Title Qualifiers With Average Fly Ball/Liner/Grounder Exit Speed > 90 mph:
2020 NL Batting Title Qualifiers With Average Fly Ball/Liner/Grounder Exit Speed > 90 mph:
Fernando Tatis Jr.
Pretty short lists. Now, exit speed is not the be-all-and-end-all, but it does mean quite a bit to hit all batted ball types hard. It’s pretty obvious that hard-hit fly balls often go over the fence and hard-hit line drives become precious doubles. It’s less obvious that hard-hit grounders serve as batting average insurance. Other players who suffered through poor 2020 seasons, like Kris Bryant, hit their grounders quite weakly thanks to uppercut swings. Bell’s nightmarish 2020 could have been even worse if he didn’t materially exceed league-average production on ground balls. A .226 seasonal batting average never looked so good.
Now would be a pretty good time to take a step back and see exactly who Bell is as a hitter, and what made him so good in 2019 and so bad last season.
We already know he hits the ball hard. That’s a positive. One notable positive outlier about his 2019 season was his league-average-range fly-ball rate. In his other three seasons as a regular, including 2020, his fly-ball rate was materially below league average. It was over a full standard deviation below, at 23.4%, last season. As a result, his average launch angle plummeted from 13.0 degrees in 2019 to 5.9 in 2020.
One notable negative outlier about his 2020 season was his elevated strikeout rate (26.5%). In his other three seasons, it floated in a narrow band between 17.8% and 19.2%, average to slightly better than league average.
He has shown one consistently negative offensive trait through all four seasons: a below-league-average line drive rate. It’s ranged from 17.7% to 19.0%, never above the 23rd percentile among NL regulars.
So what is Josh Bell? I feel pretty comfortable saying that he isn’t as good as he was in 2019, and not nearly as bad as he was in the Covid-shortened 2020 season. He hits the ball hard and has a history of making contact at a quite consistent level for a masher, but he doesn’t elevate the ball as much as you’d like. The low liner rate means .300-plus batting averages aren’t likely in his future. Glass half full, there’s tons of upside if he can post even a league-average fly-ball rate (see 2019).
In other words, I’m pretty comfortable with valuing him, conservatively, at his 2017-18 level, when he posted “Tru” Production levels (my batted ball-based statistical proxy for wRC+) of 112 and 116. He’s better than 2020 (97 “Tru” Production) and not as good as 2019 (148), although he certainly has the potential to do that again.