As the 2019 Major League Baseball season reached its halfway point and all eyes shifted to Cleveland for All-Star week, Pirates’ first baseman Josh Bell was one of the main breakout players of the first half. Bell entered the break ranking top 5 in the majors in home runs (27) OPS (1.024) and wRC+ (154). At age 26, Bell had established himself as one of the premier power hitters in baseball, earning himself a spot in the Home Run Derby. However, Bell lost some of that power in the second half.
Bell went back down to Earth from July 11th on, slashing .233/.351/.429/.780 for a 101 wRC+. His exit velocity went down from 93.4 mph to 90.6 mph. Subsequently, his launch angle went from 11° to 16°. He was hitting a lot more balls in the air, but not hitting them hard enough to fly into the seats, and thus were resulting in fly-outs. In Bell’s first half of that season, only 9.2% of his batted balls were flyballs or pop-ups that failed to reach the “hard-hit” threshold of 95 mph. That was tied for the 14th lowest rate among the 292 hitters with at least 100 batted balls in that time. In the second half, Bell nearly doubled that rate, with it shooting up to 17.6%, a dramatic increase from the first half.
Bell went into the eventual extended offseason needing to cut down on the amount of time the ball spent in the air off his bat, and that’s where the major changes to his batted ball tendencies began.
In 2020, Bell turned into a different hitter in the shortened season. Of the 176 qualifiers between the 2019 and 2020 seasons, he turned in the 4th lowest drop in average launch angle, (13.0° to 5.9°) the 6th largest rise in groundball percent, (44.0% to 56.4%), and the 8th lowest drop in flyball percent. (26.9% to 15.7%) These changes proved to impact Bell’s on-field statistics, as his 77 wRC+ was the worst of his career, and tied for the 11th lowest among Major League qualified hitters. Following the down year, the Pirates shipped their former top prospect first baseman to the Washington Nationals for a couple of pitching prospects.
After arriving in D.C., the Nationals coaching staff made some noticeable changes to Bell’s batting stance, perhaps to correct the groundball problem he had recently developed.
The bat on the shoulder, the bent knees, Josh Bell had adopted a new look at the plate with his new team in 2021. During that season, he set career highs in exit velocity (92.5 mph) and hard-hit percent (52.0%). However, his launch angle went down a degree and shrunk to 4.9°. Bell has predominantly been a groundball hitter for two seasons now, with his 54.1% groundball rate since 2020 being the 6th highest of the 114 qualified hitters. For a 6’4, 255 lb first baseman with generational power and 33rd percentile sprint speed, this isn’t ideal. No matter how hard you hit the ball, a groundball, if a hit, will almost always be a single. This applies especially to Josh Bell, who has hit 296 ground balls over the last two seasons and only has two extra-base hits to show for it.
Bell has made a habit of hitting the ball hard and on the ground. According to Statcast, 130 of Bell’s 540 batted balls over the last two seasons were hard-hit groundballs. That 24.1% clip ranks 4th highest among the 163 hitters with at least 400 batted balls in that time. He is also one of eight qualified hitters with a GB/FB ratio above 2 since the start of 2020. This means that he and seven other hitters had at least double the number of groundballs compared to flyballs. However, every other one of those seven other hitters had a BABIP of at least .300 over the last two seasons, while Bell’s was stuck at .275. Some might say this is a sign Bell is getting unlucky, but six of the seven other hitters were in the top 30 percentile of sprint speed in 2021, making it easier for them to convert groundballs to hits. The one exception in that list was DJ LeMahieu, who won the Major League batting title in 2020.
Infield hit percentage (IFH%) is a stat that calculates the percentage of groundballs that result in hits. Seven of the eight players with double the amount of groundballs compared to flyballs since 2020 have an IFH% of at least 5%, with two of them (Tim Anderson and Starling Marte) clearing 11%. Bell’s, however, was down at 3.4%. This was tied for the 5th lowest in baseball. This perfectly quantifies how much Bell is harmed by hitting a high amount of ground balls with his power.
Although he hits grounders at double the rate, Josh Bell does hit flyballs, and good things happen when he does. Since 2020, Bell’s had a 24.6% HR/FB ratio, tying him for 11th of the 114 qualifiers. One of every four flyballs he hits leaves the ballpark. Watching Josh Bell’s towering home runs makes it clear he benefits from hitting the ball in the air more than most others would. However, his 26.3% flyball rate since 2020 is the ninth-lowest in baseball.
In the context of leaguewide tendencies, it is eye-opening to see just how much better Bell is when he hits flyballs. In 2021, the leaguewide batting average on ground balls was .236. On flyballs, it was .237. Hitters had a near-identical chance of a ball being a hit if on the ground or high in the air. Bell did not keep a balance like this in his debut season with the Nationals.
Bell hit .187 on groundballs in 2021. This was tied for the 8th lowest average among the 164 hitters with at least 125 groundballs hit throughout the season. According to Fangraphs, Bell finished the season with 214 groundballs and was one of 55 hitters with at least 175 groundballs. Of those 55, Bell ranked tied for dead last in average, and he was the only hitter with a negative wRC+ on grounders. (-3)
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Bell hit .343 on flyballs during the season. This ranks 12th of the 179 hitters with at least 100 flyballs hit during the regular season. That’s a 156 point difference in Bell’s average when he hits flyballs or groundballs. He is one of the league’s best hitters on flyballs and one of the league’s worst hitters on groundballs, and he hits groundballs twice as much.
Some of Bell’s more fascinating numbers come when facing sinkers. Pitchers throw sinkers with one goal in mind, induce groundballs. In 2021, sinkers had a 55.8% groundball rate and an average launch angle of 4°. Given what we already know about Josh Bell, his batted ball numbers against sinker do not disappoint.
This is a graph showing every hitter with a 60% hard-hit rate or higher against any pitch in 2021 with at least 50 plate appearances. The circle with a box around it towards the bottom is Bell against sinkers. A 63.4% hard-hit rate and -4° launch angle, poetry in motion. Although it’s not as far down as Christian Yelich vs sinkers, it’s exactly what one should expect. Since 2020, Bell has had a 65.2% hard-hit rate against sinkers, leading the 258 hitters with at least 50 batted balls against sinkers since then. Despite this, Bell has only produced a Run Value of 3.0 on these hard-hit sinkers, meaning the batted ball results produced over time only expect three runs to score, which is a low value given that kind of exit velocity. The reason for this is that Bell has had an average launch angle of 3° on these hard-hit sinkers over the last two seasons.
Also over those two seasons, 26 of the 66 batted balls Bell has had against sinkers resulted in hard-hit ground balls. That 39.4% rate ranked 3rd highest in the majors, behind two of Bell’s former Pirates teammates Ke’Bryan Hayes and Phillip Evans. Bell hit .269 on these 26 hard-hit groundballs. Although that seems much better than his .187 AVG on all groundballs, it is far below the league average on hard-hit groundballs against sinkers since 2020, which sits at .344.
It’s clear that Bell isn’t reaching his full potential with these batted ball tendencies, but he’s not the only player with that kind of explosive power to experience groundball troubles in the recent past.
Around this time last year, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was coming off an abbreviated 2020 season in a similar situation to the one Bell currently sees. Many of the numbers between Bell’s 2021 and Guerrero Jr’s 2020 are very similar and even identical. In 2021, Guerrero Jr. increased his launch angle by 4.8° and decreased his groundball rate by 9%. The result of these changes was arguably the best offensive season in baseball this year. 48 home runs and a 1.002 OPS, each leading the American League. Bell finished the 2021 season with 27 home runs, the same amount he ended the first half of the 2019 season with, in which he had an 11° launch angle.
Bell can learn from the changes made by Guerrero Jr. in the 2021 season. He has the potential to put up similar numbers if he can lift the ball more and keep it off the ground as much as he has in the last two seasons. Bell will be entering his sophomore season in D.C. in 2022 if he isn’t traded after the lockout. If there is one thing he can improve on to have a second breakout season, it would be a change in batted ball tendencies.
Featured photo via @Nationals Instagram