Why Josh Bell And The Pirates Have Fallen Off The Ship

Heading into the All-Star Break, the Pittsburgh Pirates were just one game below the .500 mark and 2.5 games back of the first-place Chicago Cubs, their record sitting at a respectable 44-45 and their playoff odds exceeding 10 percent (per FanGraphs).

Since returning from the break, the Pirates have lost 21 of their last 25 games (4-21 = .160 W-L%) — which is the worst winning percentage in baseball during that time. Now they sulk 18 games below .500 (48-66), and they’re anchored dead last in the NL Central; their playoff chances have sunk to the utmost bottom of the sea (0.0 percent per FanGraphs).

The Pirates’ pitching staff has gotten drastically worse as the season has gone on. Their team ERA prior to the ASB was 4.91 (T-22nd lowest). Their problematic 5.45 second half earned run average is the second highest in the National League (only the Rockies are worse [6.88 ERA]).

The same story can be told about Pittsburgh’s offense, or lack thereof…

Pre-ASBMLB RankPost-ASBMLB Rank
AVG.2713rd.24224th
OBP.32711th.30324th
SLG.437T-15th.38429th
wRC+9813th80T-28th

One of the depressing storylines in the second half for the Pirates has been Josh Bell’s tumultuous drop-off in performance. It’s been over a month since the last time Josh Bell hit a home run (July 5th). His numbers post-ASB don’t paint a pretty picture…

  • PA: 87
  • AVG: .176
  • OBP: .299
  • SLG: .230
  • HR: 0
  • RBI: 5
  • wRC+: 48

Prior to the All-Star Break, Josh Bell was hitting .302/.376/.648. His wRC+ was 155. He had hit 27 home runs and driven in 84 runs in just 388 plate appearances. Bell was an integral piece of the Pirates’ offense. Now he’s hurting his team more than he is helping them, producing at well below replacement level (-0.6 fWAR from July 12th onwards).

In the first half, Josh Bell crushed the three pitches that he saw most frequently. In the second half, he’s being fooled by those same pitches, which he is still seeing regularly…

Pitch values (runs per 100 pitches) according to FGwFB/CPercentile (min. 80 PA)wSL/CPercentile (min. 80 PA)wCH/CPercentile (min. 80 PA)
Pre-ASB2.3094.93.6997.70.5065.6
Post-ASB-1.2313.1-6.880.000.1454.9

It’s mind baffling that Bell went from from 3.69 runs above average against sliders to 6.88 runs below average — the lowest mark in the majors.

Let’s take a look at what Bell is doing differently when a slider comes his way…

Photos: Baseball Savant (top – May; bottom – July
  • In the first photo, Bell’s bat is angled upwards, whereas it is tilted towards the ground in the second picture
  • His arms are less extended at the plate during the second half
  • Bell’s front foot is further away from his back foot
  • His body is turned away from the plate and pitcher more so now than in the past
  • When Bell’s front foot first rests on the ground, his back foot is raised less than in the beginning of the year
  • He knees are less bent now
  • Starting his swing later

Bell has also struggled mightily on fastballs.

May HR off of a FF:

July flare single on a FF:

The issue for Josh Bell has been that he is dropping his front foot way too late (that’s why he popped the ball up). As a result, his swing is rushed, which produces weaker results. Since the All-Star Break, 15 percent of the fly balls he has hit have gone for popups. In the first half, his IFFB percentage was only 2.1 percent.

Josh Bell demonstrated in the first few months of the season that he’s totally capable of leading an offense. With that being said, it’s imperative that he reacquaints himself with his home run stroke in the coming weeks. My biggest suggestions for Bell would be to angle the bat more upwards from the start, turn more open/towards the plate, and drop the front foot way earlier.

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