The Pittsburgh Pirates have become notable for their decades-long stretch during which they achieved very little success. The Barry Bonds era in Pittsburgh culminated in consecutive NLCS losses from 1990-1992. That 1992 season still represents the last time the Pirates won their division. The 1997 “Freak Show” Pirates had a division lead as late as July 17th and a .500 record as late as August 30th before ultimately settling for just 79 wins and a second-place finish in the NL Central. The Pirates had not achieved a winning season since 1992, when they flirted with ending their streak of futility in both 2011 and 2012 before faltering in the second half in both seasons. They achieved another three-year playoff stretch starting in 2013, but had to settle for a Wild Card berth in each season, and again suffered three painful playoff exits. The 2015 season is still the last time the Pirates made the playoffs.
While there are many factors responsible for the Pirates’ streak of losing seasons – and how could there not be, during an unprecedented 20-season losing streak? – there is one problem in particular that plagued the Pirates during their futile stretch, and even continued into their playoff seasons, that is largely unrecognized. The Pirates suffered from a remarkable lack of production and consistency at one of the premier positions on the diamond, first base, for the majority of the last two decades. They may have finally turned the corner, thanks to a very bold decision made by former GM Neal Huntington in 2011.
By virtue of a 105-loss 2010 campaign, the Pirates had the first pick in the 2011 draft and selected Gerrit Cole. While he is by far the biggest name the Pirates landed in that year’s draft, their next pick would wind up having a more long-lasting impact. With the 61st overall pick, the Pirates selected a high school center-fielder by the name of Josh Bell.
It wasn’t exactly a surprise that Bell slipped into the second round, but that wasn’t at all a knock on his status as an elite talent in an absolutely loaded draft class. Bell was Baseball America’s 15th-best prospect in the entire 2011 draft, and was considered by some to be the best high school bat in a class that also included the likes of Francisco Lindor, Javier Baez, Trevor Story, Brandon Nimmo and, much later in the draft, Mookie Betts. So what made him a risky selection, and why did Neal Huntington pull the trigger?
Bell had received a full scholarship to play baseball at the University of Texas and, after having become eligible for the 2011 draft, made clear his intentions to still follow through on his commitment to the school and asked teams to not draft him. The Pirates, however, were determined to add a bat of his caliber to the organization and, in their attempt to sweeten the pot and get Bell to sign, coughed up a $5 million signing bonus, a record for any non-first-round draft selection. Money talks, and Bell forewent his commitment to Texas and signed with the Pirates.
The path to get to Josh Bell as we know him today has not been pretty. The Pirates’ last first baseman who regularly manned the position for a considerable length of time was Kevin Young, who, aside from a one-year hiatus in Kansas City, spent his entire career with the Pirates from 1992-2003. A career .258/.324/.428 hitter, Young’s bat was well below-average for a first-baseman in the height of the steroid era. Despite this, he garnered some votes for NL MVP in 1997, and would go on to hit 20 homers in three separate seasons and drive in 100 runs twice.
The list of first basemen between Young and Bell features a combination of unspectacular platoon bats, exciting prospects who never panned out, and veterans who had much more success outside of Pittsburgh. Examples of such platoon players include Craig Wilson, Randall Simon, Daryle Ward, Casey McGehee, Garrett Jones, Ike Davis, Gaby Sanchez, and John Jaso. In fairness, all of those players accomplished some impressive feats over the course of their careers. Wilson, Ward, McGehee, Jones, and Davis all recorded at least one 20-homer season, Sanchez made an All-Star team with the Marlins, Jaso was a white man with dreadlocks, and Simon was once famously arrested mid-game. It goes without saying that some of these players were more accomplished than others.
The following list of failed prospects will surely be a painful trip down memory lane for any Pirates fan. “Big Country” Brad Eldred homered 40 times in 2005, including 12 in his first taste of big-league action, but that was the peak of his Major League career, as injuries and a failed attempt to convert to the outfield derailed his young career.
Steve Pearce made the climb from High-A ball all the way to Pittsburgh in 2007, but played sparingly in parts of five seasons with the Pirates and spent the following eight seasons with six different teams. Still, Pearce managed to play a key role on the 2018 World Series champion Boston Red Sox, homering three times in the World Series and being named series MVP.
Jeff Clement, drafted third overall by the Mariners as a catcher in 2005, was the main prize in the trade that sent Jack Wilson and Ian Snell to Seattle at the 2009 trade deadline. Clement batted .193/.233/.343 as a Pirate and was out of professional baseball by 2014.
Andrew Lambo, the Dodgers’ top Minor League prospect in 2009, was traded to the Pirates the following year after serving a 50-game PED suspension. A natural outfielder, the Pirates sent him to play winter ball in Venezuela to get extra reps at first base. The result was a career .525 OPS and one Major League appearance at first.
The best player in this group is probably Pedro Alvarez, although he spent the majority of his career at third base. Alvarez was an All-Star in 2013, when he tied for the National League lead with 36 home runs. He moved to first base full-time in 2015 and was an above-average offensive performer, but was borderline unplayable defensively and was eventually benched in the Wild Card Game in favor of Sean Rodriguez before being non-tendered in the off-season. He last appeared in the Majors with the Orioles in 2018.
The Pirates also employed a list of big names who didn’t exactly live up to expectations in the black and gold. A December 2005 trade brought Pittsburgh-native Sean Casey to the Pirates, however his time as a Pirate lasted only until July. The following offseason, the Pirates swung a trade for Adam LaRoche, who was serviceable as a Pirate but performed more notably elsewhere both before and after his time in Pittsburgh.
The Bucs entered the 2011 season with Lyle Overbay as their starting first baseman, but he was designated for assignment after the trade-deadline acquisition of former Cubs star Derrek Lee. Lee actually posted a stellar .982 OPS as a Pirate, but suffered a broken wrist that ultimately ended his career. Part of the Pirates’ playoff push in 2013 included a trade for former AL MVP Justin Morneau, who served as the team’s cleanup hitter and homered zero times in the process.
While this recollection of past underachievers serves as an adequate reminder of the Pirates’ shortcomings, there are further statistics that support this. The Pirates accumulated 20.4 WAR from the first base position from 2000-2019. That figure plants them comfortably in last place among all 30 MLB clubs. For comparison’s sake, the Cardinals, thanks in large part to Albert Pujols, received the most production from their first basemen by a wide margin, clocking in at 105 WAR. It’s no coincidence that the Pirates last finished ahead of the Cardinals in the NL Central in 1999.
Is there reason to believe that Josh Bell will break the trend? Maybe. He had stretches last season where he was among the very best hitters in baseball. His entire first half, one that earned him starting DH duties in the All-Star Game, was reminiscent of Willie Stargell when it comes to first base production in Pittsburgh. During that time he slashed .302/.376/.648 and trailed only Mike Trout, Cody Bellinger, Christian Yelich, and Pete Alonso with a 180 wRC+. He also made history – he finished the first half with 30 doubles, 3 triples, and 27 home runs. While none of those numbers sticks out individually, his cumulative total of 60 first-half extra-base hits set a National League record and is tied for the 4th-highest total in MLB history. He made a name for himself by showcasing his tremendous power on numerous occasions, including home runs over PNC Park’s batter’s eye and into the Allegheny River. Although he faded in the second half, he still finished the season with 37 homers, a .936 OPS, and a 135 wRC+.
2020 has been more of a struggle for Bell, as has been the case for most of the Pirates. He is currently hitting just .200/.241/.300 (46 wRC+) with 2 home runs, and has seen a large spike in strikeout rate (19.2% in 2019 to 33.3% in 2020) and chase percentage (27.5% to 33.5%) as well as dips in walk rate (12.1% to 4.6%), barrel percentage (12% to 5.7%), and exit velocity (92.4 MPH to 91.5 MPH). His 39.7% whiff rate (also a large increase from 2019) is in the 2nd percentile among Major Leaguers, and he has nearly doubled his whiff rate on both fastballs and breaking balls this season. Aside from exit velocity (he is still making decent contact whenever he does manage to make contact), all of those would be career-worsts by a pretty significant margin.
He may also be trying to work through some mechanical flaws. He naturally has a long, jerky swing that, when everything is clicking for him, allows him to maximize his ability to hit with massive power to all fields. When he’s slumping, though, it appears that all of the movement in his swing may be messing with his timing, which would help explain the increase in strikeouts. This pitch from Tuesday night, a center-cut, 93-MPH fastball, very well could have resulted in a 460-foot homer last year. Bell, however, despite having very quick bat speed, was late and ended up striking out:
But perhaps Bell’s biggest adjustment needs to come against breaking balls. He’s seeing more breaking balls than he ever has (25.7%), and that’s no accident. He crushed breaking balls to the tune of a .309 xBA and a .639 xSLG in 2019, but his swing-happy approach has not helped him at all thus far this season. He has managed just three singles off of breaking balls to this point and his xBA and xSLG have plummeted to .083 and .123, respectively. He’s looked helpless with two strikes, as evidenced by an alarming 39.3 PutAway% resulting in swings looking like this:
Bell has appeared in every game so far this year for the Bucs, playing primarily first base and making a handful of starts as the DH. He may benefit from sitting for a series to try to get back into the proper state of mind. If he can manage his way out of this slump and turn things around, he can prove to be a very valuable asset for the Pirates moving forward. He is still arbitration-eligible and is under team control through the 2022 season. However, he is a client of the notorious Scott Boras, all but guaranteeing that an extension to keep Bell in Pittsburgh would have to far-surpass any contract ever offered by the team’s notoriously stingy front office ($60 million to Jason Kendall). Because of this, it is critical that the Pirates take advantage of the opportunity to build around a young, talented first baseman such as Bell, but a shortened 2020 season in a highly competitive division has done them no favors thus far. Pirates fans can only hope that they once again catch lightning in a bottle and pull off another string of playoff appearances, this time with a young, homegrown slugger manning first base.
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